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The State We’re In

     If everything and everyplace in the world can be categorized as either German or French (as Ned Rorem argues), what is Massachusetts?   Or if (as the late Isaiah Berlin had it) all the world is to be divided between foxes and hedgehogs, what is this old Bay State? 

     Robert David Sullivan has offered Democratic convention-goers a passel of fresh numbers, ideas and questions on the matter of the host state’s identity in Commonwealth magazine.  So, here’s my take:

     “Foxy Massachusetts” strikes the right complex chord for this state that knows, and teaches, and does, so many different things.  And (in the famous Isaiah Berlin pairing)  it makes the right contrast with the one-note hedgehog states of the South or the Oil Patch, for example.  Yes, we like to think of ourselves in Massachusetts as multifarious, quirky, entrepreneurial, mercurial–quick like a fox, wily and above all smart. 

    And then there are other parlor-game polarities to consider. 

    Yiddish or Goyish?  Massachusetts falls into my Yiddish column–it must be the asssociation with tradition, professionalism, learning, and the image of Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), the original Jewish Brahmin: the all-time model Massachusetts citizen and first Jew on the United States Supreme Court. 

    Catholic or Protestant?  Massachusetts has always felt to me like a Protestant place, probably because the dominant Catholics here of the Irish persuasion have so much Calvinist Puritanism bred into them (us!).  It’s another instance where the best statistics tell you very little.

    From Mars or from Venus?  We’re more Martian at least than our McGovernite reputation–so indeed was the WW2 bomber pilot George McGovern.  Patriots in battle are the stuff of Massachusetts history, starting with Paul Revere.  Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., on the Supreme Court with Brandeis, had left Harvard College at age 17 to fight in the Civil War. Ted Williams sacrificed his best baseball years to World War 2.  Our temples of learning, too, honor Mars and are funded in turn.  We understood in childhood that MIT was doing the science that would defeat the Nazis.

     Apollonian or Dionysian? This is the key distinction.  The Massachusetts state of mind is modeled on Apollo, the sun god and far-darting bowman, as in Shelley’s Hymn of Apollo:

I am the eye with which the Universe
Beholds itself and knows itself divine;
All harmony of instrument or verse,
All prophecy, all medicine is mine…

    Ted Williams, more like a god than a man, was Apollo in a Red Sox uniform.  Bill Russell of the immortal Celtics drew an uncrossable Apollonian line against Wilt Chamberlain and the Lakers.  John F. Kennedy was bewitchingly cool Apollonian rationality and restraint in a Massachusetts politician.  Barney Frank and the late Tip O’Neill (in the “Sodom and Begorrah” Congressional delegation) are Dionysian exceptions that prove the Apollonian rule.  Dionysus was the “jolly god,” the god of earth and wine and animal spirits, promoter of civilization and lover of peace.  But the distinctive heroes of Massachusetts mythology, from Emily Dickinson to Pedro Martinez, reenact the Apollonian drama of the mind in triumph over nature. 

    If the nation were more like Massachusetts–and if Massachusetts lived up to its own dream of itself–we would be a much crankier, more expressive, more democratic place than we are.  We would be contending more with the spirit of Henry David Thoreau, who wrote (Michael Moore-ishly) in Civil Disobedience, in 1849:  “How does it become a man to behave toward this American government today?  I answered that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.”

    Or we might be digging still deeper for the serenity of Thoreau’s compatriot in Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson:  “Although knaves win in every political struggle, although society seems to be delivered over from the hands of one set of criminals into the hands of another set of criminals, as fast as the government is changed, and the march of civilization is a train of felonies, yet, general ends are somehow answered. We see, now, events forced on which seem to retard or retrograde the civility of ages. But the world-spirit is a good swimmer, and storms and waves cannot drown him. He snaps his finger at laws: and so, throughout history, heaven seems to affect low and poor means. Through the years and the centuries, through evil agents, through toys and atoms, a great and beneficent tendency irresistibly streams.”

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