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I was angry with my friend;

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my Foe;

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

 

And I watered it in fears,

Night and morning with my tears:

And I sunned it with smiles, 

And with soft, deceitful wiles.

 

And it grew both day and night,

Till it bore an apple bright.

And my foe beheld it shine,

And he knew that it was mine.

 

And into my garden stole,

When the night had veil’d the pole:

In the morning glad I see

My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: A Poison Tree from Ten Blake Songs | Nicholas Phan, tenor | James Austin Smith, oboe

In the wake of these past few weeks’ Brett Kavanaugh shenanigans, and as we draw nearer and nearer to the upcoming midterm elections, many people are reflecting upon the incredibly divided state of our nation in these times. With senators vowing to campaign against each other, both sides decrying the behavior of their colleagues on the other side of the aisle, and vote after vote going basically along party lines, the Senate has been a striking representation of the cultural and political binary in which we Americans find ourselves right now.

Perhaps this is because I have been watching and reading a lot about the recent Russian interference in our elections, but William Blake’s poem ‘A Poison Tree’ seems eerily like Vladimir Putin’s playbook as of late.  Fed by his resentment and grief over the fall of the USSR and a desire for vengeance upon Hillary Clinton, the Russians have watered us with fears and sunned us with deceitful wiles (fake news), causing us to do possible irreparable harm to ourselves, as well as to the rest of the world. 

Something that concerns me more, though, is that this also strikes me as disturbingly similar to the Republican playbook, as well. Republicans and our president have risen to power by employing and bank-rolling firms like Cambridge Analytica to manipulate the electorate by stoking fears and spreading disinformation. All the while, they continue sun their base with smiles and more deceitful wiles: they promise to take care of the plight of these primarily white, blue-collar workers, yet all the while they pursue economic agendas that will only hurt the lower and middle-classes, all the while cutting taxes for the richest of the rich (which it seems will only result in doubling the national deficit) and doing their best to eradicate the social services that provide affordable care to these very people for whom they are promising to advocate.

The Republican obsession with poisoning the well of facts and reality seems to know no bounds. It even extends to the subject of climate change: our world’s leading scientists in the field have been admonishing us for decades about the dangers posed to humanity (and all life on earth) by human-made climate change. Yet even in the wake of this past week’s terrifying warnings of impending disaster, politicians still seek to sow seeds of doubt and disinformation, despite the fact that the fate of humanity and the world as we know it seem to hang in the balance. Not even the news of our own impending apocalypse can bring people together.

On the Democratic side of things, there is a disturbing sense of the moral high ground, as well. I have conversation after conversation with liberally-minded, progressive Democrat friends, who are equally angry. Their disdain of Trump voters and the level of their anger disturbs me. Rather than try and find some common ground and figure out a way to empathize with the 46.1% of America who voted for Trump, many look down on these fellow Americans as evil, hate-filled, stupid deplorables, all the while preaching tolerance and hash-tagging righteous causes at the drop of a hat. 

This binary trend of two sides shouting at each other and an increasingly divided United States is something that has been steadily developing steadily since the 2008 election, and it is understandable that there is a lot of anger amongst us. The world has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades, at a bewildering pace. And for a variety of reasons, we are facing a cultural and political reckoning of decades upon decades of a gross imbalance of power right now – between the genders, between races, between the rich and the poor, between the straight and LGBTQ communities…the list of downtrodden minorities goes on. It’s also understandable that we feel fear right now: our democratic norms are turned upside-down on their head, and many recently hard-won rights that are vital to the success of our experiment in democracy seem to be legitimately endangered. 

In ‘A Poison Tree’, Blake makes one key distinction that I find so relevant to our times right now: when one is angry with one’s friend, one expresses that feeling so that it can be let go. When anger is stifled and used to stoke fears, it becomes a poison to be used to vanquish an enemy. Underneath all the mess of things about which to be concerned every time a news alert goes off on my phone these days, the thing that bothers me most deeply about the current state of affairs in our divided United States is that we seem to be very confused about who are our foes and who are our friends. Rather than trying to have a conversation about healing this ever-widening rift, we seem to be more concerned about one side vanquishing the other. 

At the end of the day, Democrat or Republican, aren’t we all Americans?  Whether we live in China, Russia, the United Kingdom, South Africa or Brasil, aren’t we all human citizens of the planet Earth? Why is it that we are so eager to consume the poison that the Russians are feeding us? Not only that, why are we poisoning ourselves? We actually now are keenly aware that they are doing this. So why is it that we continue to sip at this poisoned cup?

This Vaughan Williams project is part of a larger recording project that is fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas and was made possible in part by a generous grant from San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music / Intermusic SF.

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