Commentary

The poison in our standing water | Essay

November 30, 2021 7:22 am

Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images.

In some bohemian coffee shop you might find a lively argument about who is more unusual, the poet or the artist. But poets and artists might agree that few were stranger than the British poet-artist William Blake. He had prophetic visions, greeted guests to his home in the nude, and believed that he had daily conversations with the dead. Even sexual deviants of his time agreed that Blake was a bit much.

And yet his work was groundbreaking and otherworldly. Anyone who believes in the spiritual realm could see that Blake was tapped into it.

In a complex poem about the struggle between God and the Devil, Blake once wrote, “Expect poison from the standing water.” Now, this is literal truth for anyone who studies hydrology. But Blake actually meant standing water of the human mind. We grow stubborn in our opinions. And this invariably poisons us.

Flashing forward some 200 years, we find stagnant opinions to be the chief commodity of our modern political discourse. Blake knew all about America. Even in England, he supported the American revolution. However, he grew weary of the new nation when he realized the institution of slavery and the financial interests of rich men would become two of its early priorities.

Blake would not live long enough to see the United States grow and change, as all nations do. But his sentiment of poison in the standing water has occurred to many over the years, even in the remote small towns of northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.

For instance, this editorial published Sept. 11, 1923 in R.W. Hitchcock’s Hibbing Daily Tribune:

“The most important reason why governmental functions are not better performed, why a democracy is so sluggish, why so many needed improvements lag, is that citizens do not take the trouble to keep themselves informed as to what is going on.

“They read a headline or two, have a bit of superficial argument with a neighbor, and are merely confirmed in their established prejudices, without clearly finding out out the facts in any given case.”

You could probably find a similar sentiment published during Blake’s time and another shared on Facebook this morning. The point is that people spouting self-centered political opinions untethered from logic or reality is hardly new. In fact, it’s an American tradition. Maybe even a human one.

If anything is different, it is the way the phenomenon becomes supercharged by the way we share information. Social media, in particular, now directly ties to reduction of health and wellness and an increase in misinformation and political instability around the world. And that’s just what we read in Facebook’s internal documents. The reality might be worse.

People are noticing. A November 2021 poll by CNN showed that a huge majority of Americans agree that Facebook makes society worse, not better. And while there seems to be agreement about this, there remains persistent division in so many aspects of American life — disagreement based as much on cultural and psychological perspective as simple politics.

We live in an Age of Stagnation. We are unwilling, perhaps unable to learn new things or change our minds so long as these conditions persist. Powerful forces achieve their objectives by maintaining a constant sense of unease in the population, such that we continue to buy things but distrust the government too much to demand change.

Yet a troubling message remains embedded in this dull thrum. Such stagnation empowers a dangerous prophecy. Perhaps if our streets were patrolled by authoritarian forces or local warlords, our government run by a tyrant (“our” tyrant, of course), then things would be better.

This might seem a soothing departure from the constant confusion and change of the world. But really, it is only our technology that allows us to feel that the confusion and change are worse than before. Each of us carries the Library of Alexandria on our phone, and then use it to play Candy Crush. Every age has its challenges.

William Blake kept a tortured relationship with religion. He grew to despise the church, but love the teachings of Jesus. In fact, his later poems could be described as the work of someone who believed himself a prophet in the Biblical sense.

Blake ultimately adopted the perspective that the sum goal of human existence was to forgive and understand.

If Blake were here today, he might not be wearing pants, but he would have thoughts about what we see happening in our society.

Forgive people you don’t agree with for having opinions that are different. Understand that they feel as strongly as you about some of the same things. Put away the guns in our mind, the ones we imagine firing at our perceived enemies. Tear down the imagined prisons where we expect to lock up all those who displease us. Because those guns are actually pointed at ourselves. Those prisons are for us. And it is time to walk away from them, free at last.

It’s highly unlikely you need to post poison on social media today. It’s not necessary tomorrow, either. In fact, it’s even less likely that you need to see it. Not so long as the sun is rising and air passes through our lungs. The facts of the matter are knowable, and best revealed by looking at the object from all angles. If you’re mired in standing water, the least you can do is avoid drinking it.

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Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author, community college instructor and radio producer from Northern Minnesota’s Iron Range.

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