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Big Ideas

ISSUE:  Summer 1999

I read the papers and think about hatred:
and the way ideas, especially big ideas,
look more and more like excuses for hatred.
Once hatred sets you free
you can turn to it when you need it,
but after a while, if you have a knife
or a gun, more guys on your side,
you don’t need it, and you destroy the village
because you can, because it’s in your way.
Every morning: more reports of suffering.
It’s terrible, we say, it’s awful.
But we can hear how brittle
and abstract that sounds. It’s terrible
to know about it. Where is the idealism
of my youth? Where was it
even then? All around us
the war we were trying to avoid kept pressing in,
and kids like me were getting stoned and listening
to Jimi Hendrix and The Doors and then
walking off into the jungle and dying.
I don’t feel guilty for refusing to fight.
I don’t feel good about it either.
And I think even then I knew too many
different things to learn to hate so purely
it could have swept me cleanly and completely
out of myself. Perhaps that’s what
civilization means, knowing too much
to be able to feel only one way.
But who hasn’t imagined
committing some unforgivable act?
What does it prove that most of us don’t?
We watch the news, we read the papers,
afraid, sometimes, of what we understand.


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