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August 5, 2012 / glencoyote

Irreverence and Enlightenment

“Irreverence is the champion of liberty and it’s only sure defense.” – Mark Twain

Enlightenment “has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them. . . . a patient labor giving form to our impatience for liberty.” – Michel Foucault

Back in June NPR asked us what our American dream sounds like. What is the American dream if not the celebration of irreverence? To make space for the new – the immigrant, youth, the underclass – requires sharp elbows. The newcomer must be irreverent to throw off the dread of inadequacy, to penetrate the present requires irreverence toward the bearers of the past. To be bold in a stratified society, to be a rebel, is to be irreverent in the pursuit of enlightenment, to be impatient for liberty that stretches the limits of what the world says is possible.

My American dream is captured by Leonard Cohen’s, Hallelujah. Democracy and liberty manifest in the free pursuit of the biggest questions. Mixing the sacred and the profane – demanding that the human receive an audience with the eternal. And measuring our success not by the final product or some transitory definition of success, but by the integrity of the process, by the expression of freedom, by the imaginative scale of the venture.

Hallelujah is a favorite sing along song of my wife and I. Much of the joy is in mimicking Cohen’s phrasing on lines like “but if I did, well really what’s it to ya?” What could be more American than puncturing the pretense of those who would judge us in our personal struggle for meaning. I don’t know about you, but I often need someone to put a little grit in my romantic gravy, and Cohen’s voice serves the purpose.

And of course it is also a love song. My American dream embraces the arc of life so the music must express both my love of the journey and for those who have been my sacred companions. God or no, I want to leave rejoicing.

But above all else, America has always been a place where people thunder with words, and out of that brawling comes the human spirit, “a blaze of light in every word.” Whether “the holy or the broken” they capture the intensity of our need to be counted, and to join our voices finally, in a collective hallelujah.

Check out NPR’s “Tell us what your American Dream sounds like.” Might make for a great classroom activity. Check out the mix.

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