"I think poets have become the conscience of our culture," Sam Hamill, who is a famous poet from Port Townsend, Washington, said recently. Well, until now not so terribly famous, actually. But he is enjoying a lovely little cuddle-up with the bitch goddess these days, owing to his conscientious decision to respond to an invitation to join other poets in a White House chat with Laura Bush by calling on his fellow pacifists of the pentameter to deluge the White House with anti-war poems, which led Mrs. Bush to postpone the event, which led to quite a few stories in the press placing the previously unmarked-for-greatness Hamill in the company of Aristophanes, Walt Whitman, W. H. Auden, Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, and Robert Lowell. It is hard, if rewarding, work being a Conscience of Our Culture. "I'm putting in eighteen-hour days. I'm sixty, and I'm tired, but it's pretty wonderful," Hamill said, gamely.
Hard and dangerous, noted the theater director, actor, and Conscience of Our Culture André Gregory, who with Wallace Shawn, his collaborator in the 1981 movie My Dinner With André, recently produced a piece of political theater in Manhattan called An Evening of Conscience, featuring the permanent celebrity consciences Edward Asner, Tony Kushner, Eve Ensler, Danny Glover, and Pete Seeger. "I don't think it's an accident that in totalitarian societies they always arrest the artists first," said the as-yet-thank-God-not-arrested Gregory. But "the responsibility of the artist, each of us in our way, is to tell the truth," he declared. "And the truth generally involves a great deal of ambiguity, and in times of war, ambiguity and paradox are the first things to go. People want simple black-and-white answers." This is true, judging from the approving reception accorded to An Evening of Conscience.
Hard and dangerous and damned courageous. "It's a very uncomfortable thing to question the honesty and motives of your leaders," the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently said. "I'm saying that the men who are controlling our destiny are lying. Not many journalists or many people want to confront them." But Krugman is willing, twice weekly, and he has paid a price: fame and influence as a columnist for the most important newspaper in the world.
Hard and dangerous and damned courageous and self-sacrificing. "If you're an actor who is pro-war, you're a hero," the actress and comic Janeane Garofalo explained in The Washington Post. "If you're an actor against the war, you're suspect." Garofalo is a leading suspect in the anti-war group Win Without War, and she says she has been "marginalized." But she doesn't flinch: "I refuse to allow my government and the mainstream media to bully me into accepting a war that is immoral and illegal. If it means people make fun of me or think I'm a jerk, or I lose a job here and there, that means nothing to me."
Hard and dangerous and damned courageous and self-sacrificing and so very lonely, to be one of the thinking handful in a nation of dumb, deluded philistines. "Never before have so many put up with so much from so few," lamented James Wolcott, the voice of conscience at a magazine that in a recent issue published twenty-five pages of "Young Scandinavians in Their Skivvies for No Particular Reason" (sorry, twenty-two: the last three pages were a Dolce & Gabbana ad).
Despite corporate robbery, a trampling of civil liberties that makes the Red scare look like a dress rehearsal, a rapist urge to ram a paved road or oil pipeline through every nature preserve, a Tony Soprano foreign policy that fingers which dirtbag country we're going to whack next, an unaccountable vice president who pops out of his groundhog hole only to raise money for the Republican Party, or play bad cop on Meet the Press, and the corny spectacle of the president himself imploring us to visit a shut-in and say "I love you" (and they accused Clinton of being Empath in Chief!), despite all this, the huddled, befuddled masses have been as quiet as church mice. Those in power can't be accused of thwarting the will of the people, because the people seem to have lost their will, or traded it in for Powerball tickets.
Hard and dangerous and damned courageous and self-sacrificing and so very lonely and really scary. "I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers," the novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. said in an interview in In These Times. Vonnegut, who used to be the Conscience of Our Culture when Norman Mailer was hung over and Gore Vidal was in Ravello, went on,
It has been taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup d'etat imaginable. And those now in charge of the federal government are upper-crust C students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka "Christians," and plus, most frightening, psychopathic personalities, or "PP's."
Hard and dangerous and damned courageous and self-sacrificing and so very lonely and really scary and rather repetitious, especially for the global Conscience of Our Culture. "War is always the worst of solutions," declared French President Jacques Chirac in late January, asserting once again a philosophical stance toward tyranny that French governments have applied with admirable consistency since the days when the wind blew from Vichy. "We have adopted a strategy of using inspectors," Chirac said, in the days before Colin Powell was to make the case for war before the United Nations Security Council. And we have still got a strategy and it is still inspections, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin declared, after Powell had conclusively demonstrated that Iraq was continuing to defy and cheat the inspection regime, in what was clearly defined as a "material breach" of Security Council Resolution 1441, sufficient as a cause for the immediate use of force. "Why go to war if there still exists some unused space in Resolution 1441?" said the admirably consistent De Villepin, whose con-sistency was helped by the fact that his statement responding to the pre-sentation of evidence that France had demanded was in fact written before the evidence was presented. "Consistent with the logic of this resolution, we must move on to a new stage and further strengthen the inspections." Also, we must surrender.
Hard and dangerous and very lonely and so frequently misunderstood. "Every fair-minded person knows that when Iraqi officials say something, they are trustworthy," said Saddam Hussein, President for Life and Conscience of the Culture of Iraq, not to mention of the Internal Security Forces of Iraq, recognizing his responsibility as an artist (he is the author of two romantic novels, Zabibah and the King and The Fortified Castle, both acclaimed by leading Iraqi critics) to tell the truth, in his own way. "Every fair-minded person knows that as far as Resolution 1441 is concerned, the Iraqis have been fulfilling their obligations under the resolution. So when Iraq objects to the conduct of the inspection teams or others, that doesn't mean that Iraq is interested in putting obstacles before them ... It is in our interest to facilitate their mission to find the truth."
It can be hard to find the truth, but we are blessed with many who will let their consciences be our guides.