Saturday, April 22, 2017

On Wednesday night, when I was up north, I drove blindly through a dense snow squall. Here in Portland, there's nothing but rain. It fell all day yesterday, and all through the night, and is still falling now . . . mostly as a dense drizzle, but sometimes more urgently, sometimes as a patter of drops.

Out on the deck, my row of arugula seeds has sprouted, and my stalwart pansies and herb seedlings twitch in a small wet wind. Inside, the cat is draped over the radiator. The doll-house smells of coffee and toast.

Yesterday I finished War and Peace for the the thousandth time, and now I have started reading Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad for the first time. I spent some time yesterday copying out Carruth's poetry and scanning through Takin' It to the Streets, an anthology of writings from the 1960s. Among them is a speech titled "The Incredible War," which the president of Students for a Democratic Society delivered at a 1965 anti-war rally in front of the Washington Monument. The president's name was Paul Potter, and he is no relation to me. He just happens to share a name and an era with my uncle.

In his speech, that other Paul Potter said:
The war goes on; the freedom to conduct that war depends on the dehumanization not only of the Vietnamese people but of Americans as well; it depends on the construction of a system of premises and thinking that insulates the President and his advisors thoroughly and completely from the human consequences of the decisions they make. I do not believe that the President or Mr. Rusk or Mr. McNamara or even McGeorge Bundy are particularly evil men. If asked to throw napalm on the back of a ten-year-old child they would shrink in horror--but their decisions have led to mutilation and death of thousands and thousands of people. 
What kind of system is it that allows good men to make those kinds of decisions? What kind of system is it that justifies the United States or any country [in] seizing the destinies of the Vietnamese people and using them callously for its own purpose? What kind of system is it that disenfranchises people in the South, leaves millions upon millions of people throughout the country impoverished and excluded from the mainstream and promise of American society, that creates faceless and terrible bureaucracies and makes those the place where people spend their lives and do their work, that consistently puts material values before human values--and still persists in calling itself free and still persists in finding itself fit to police the world?
Three years later, in a letter to his older brother, written in early 1968, my Paul Potter wrote:
I've been having quite a time over here. I'm in the unit that does all the good stuff that I wanted to get into.
No wonder his older brother still cries when we talk about those days.

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