Both Sides Now

The Judy Collins Songbook cost $4.95 back in 1969.  It includes 55 songs by such as Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Leonard Cohen and Pete Seeger, whom I will love all my life.  A few, along with her Reminiscences, are by Judy Collins herself. The one that I was looking for in the collection yesterday – “Both Sides Now” — is by Joni Mitchell.  I last sang the song decades ago and the pages of the 50 year old songbook crackled at their seam.

Ironically, it was Donald Trump’s bombast that triggered my search for this sweet song.  I, like millions of others, was horrified by the President’s deference to “both sides” of the conflict in Charlottesville.  That he did not, and likely could not, perceive the moral difference between those shouting “Jews will not replace us” and those protesting Nazism and racism was shocking.  But it also led me to consider how to differentiate between an issue that has “both sides” open to debate, and a world view that permits no “other-sidedness.”  It may be that the world of the First Amendment disallows any such distinction.  The Constitution, after all, doesn’t evaluate content; it asserts the freedom to espouse it.  But in a moral world, there is a need to recognize that there are philosophies so pernicious that they exist on one plane only.

  Joni Mitchell’s lyrics offer a metaphorical guide to this terrain.  She looked at clouds “from both sides now, from up and down, and still somehow, it’s clouds illusions I recall, I really don’t know clouds at all.” Mitchell’s insight is that clouds themselves, depending on one’s mood, can be fanciful or weighty.  As deeply as we look into clouds, from various angles and mindsets, we may never capture their intrinsic nature.  But whatever this suggests about the study of clouds, it is clear that they are not defined by something else.

   Sunshine, for example, is not perceived as the “other side” of clouds.  Sunshine is its own phenomenon: cleansing, brilliant, brutal and deadly.  And so too, darkness is not the “other side” of the sun.  One is not simply the absence of the other.

    Several writers of music and memoirs have referred to “the other side of darkness.” Their focus is not on the duality of darkness itself, but rather the emergence from a debilitating emotional state of mind. It is, however, a misleading use of the words insofar as it suggests that darkness itself has another side.  True, it can be experienced in a variety of ways: somber, peaceful, frightening.  It may reveal stars and invite dreams or nightmares.  And it may be, as used by these writers, a metaphor for a state of mind.  But leaving behind confusion, depression or anger is not to find another “side” of darkness.  It is rather to discover something totally different: light, love, and all things that flourish when darkness is dispelled.  Each has its own attributes, and it would be simplistic to construe this shorthand to mean that one is the “other side” of something altogether different.

Which takes me back to Charlottesville.  There are some (few) like the President and David Duke who insist that the fascist marchers and the protesters were “both sides” of – what? An issue? A debate? A controversy? This desultory analysis ends in what has been described as a false “moral equivalency.”

  If neo-Nazism is “controversial,” it is not because this nation accords to its agenda any philosophical or political stature worthy of debate.  The controversial aspect concerns only whether and to what extent the First Amendment requires us to tolerate the expression of its vile nature, antithetical to the First Amendment itself.  Protesting neo-Nazism is not “the other side” of this evil; it is not one of “both sides” of a reasoned conversation. To declare that the Charlottesville demonstrators and protestors represented “both sides” of an issue is tantamount to pretending that there was a basis for a legitimate difference of opinion between the Warsaw ghetto Jews who rose up against the Nazis and their oppressors.  There was not.

So, too, in Charlottesville, there were purveyors of Nazi hate and there were their antagonists, defending the essential moral and political character of our nation.  They were not representing or expressing “both sides” of a debatable issue like taxes.  They represented and advocated wholly antithetical world views, one of which our country has rejected, fought against and defeated. By casting it otherwise, Donald Trump has again revealed both his feeble-minded ignorance and his depravity.


     “Decadent” was a new word to my ten-year-old grandson.  It was splashed across the poster for a production of the musical Cabaret that we were attending at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. An odd choice for a fifth grader and his grandmother?  Perhaps, but Teddy had performed in and seen the other show then on stage – The King and I – more times than he wished, so we opted for Cabaret.  Even so, “decadent”  triggered my uneasy attention as we entered.

     Together, Teddy and I had read the synopsis of the show so that he would be prepared for the adult themes and dark, raunchy humor. But we hadn’t encountered the word “decadent” in this vetting, so I tried now to define it.  “Sleazy” and “raunchy” captured it visually, but missed its essence.  “Dissolute” and “degenerate” were no more familiar to him.  Google might have helped, but I decided that, in this situation, a picture – or a scene – was worth a thousand words. So I let it go. Suffice it to say that, by the end of the show, Teddy “got” decadent.  He also loved the music and worked to master it on my piano.  For my part, I heard words and tunes that had eluded me before and squirmed only once during the bawdy rendition of “Two Ladies.”  My grandson seemed unfazed.

     During his week in DC, Teddy and I also visited memorials to presidents and war veterans.  We spent a day at Mount Vernon, wandered through the National Museum of American History and, more purposefully, walked the corridors of the Newseum and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Much of what we saw reflected on individual leaders, where they went right and wrong.  The FDR Memorial, with its stirring quotations inscribed on the walls, was a big hit – and is my own favorite – but we also saw an exhibit about the internment of Americans of Japanese descent under the same President Roosevelt. We observed that George Washington’s courage underpinned the founding of our country and his humility molded our democracy.  Yet, he was a slaveholder. We were moved by the war veterans’ memorials – the faces of the soldiers in Korea were particularly evocative — and the remnants of the Berlin Wall and 9/11 wreckage.  We rattled off the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment and focused on the rights to assemble and petition our government.  And we watched how, pernicious bit by bit, the erosion of those freedoms by the Nazis created the context for the unchallenged murder of millions.

     I tried not to lecture, but to observe and to question. Each time I visit these extraordinary sites – and, with 14 grandchildren, it is often – I observe things anew, often through eyes other than my own. Four years ago, I recall a spirited debate between two twelve-year-old grandsons about which more effectively conveyed its meaning: the abstract Vietnam Veterans Memorial or the representational Korean War Veterans Memorial. There is no right answer, of course, but in the competitive passion of the debate, the two boys examined thoroughly how and why they both evoke such powerful feelings.  I have felt those two memorials more deeply ever since.

     Oddly enough, in this particular week, it was Cabaret that cobbled together the lessons of many of these exhibits and memorials and heightened their emotional impact for me.  The show’s montage of raucous and sweet scenes, moments of celebration and heartbreak, collectively aroused in me an uneasy sense of our vulnerability to the personal consequences of leadership gone egregiously bad.  We saw how ordinary people could turn on a dime to become hateful and dangerous. We witnessed beauty morph into hideousness, love into fear, innocence into complicity.

     Cabaret viscerally captures the demise of freedom in Nazi Germany, and the potential anywhere for a descent into a moral and political abyss where the educative tension between right and wrong – as at Mount Vernon — is eviscerated by wholesale evil.  How lucky we are to be able to examine the history of our nation, and speak aloud of its failings as well as its triumphs; to acknowledge the fallibilities of our founders even as we honor them; to illuminate the values and imperfections of our democracy; simply to be alive in this country, in this time, when we are energized to appreciate and deploy our freedoms.

And how lucky I am that my grandson gave me the occasion to refresh my appreciation that Washington is my home.