The Chestnut Tree Cafe

The Chestnut Tree Cafe was a short-lived project of mine to collect pithy quotes about society on an anonymous Blogspot blog. Like many an ill-fated blog project, it was abandoned in the face of more pressing obligations. If I may be humored the point, it became as neglected as its namesake, yet like the purloined cafe not totally abandoned thanks to the idle whim of the solitary searcher. You may recall Orwell’s cafe was

… the haunt of painters and musicians. There was no law, not even an unwritten law, against frequenting the Chestnut Tree Cafe, yet the place was somehow ill-omened. The old, discredited leaders of the Party had been used to gather there before they were finally purged. Goldstein himself, it was said, had sometimes been seen there, decades ago.

The cafe name echos a rhyme from 1984 about a tree where “I sold you and you sold me,” itself according to the Newspeak Dictionary “most likely” a Newspeak translation of Longfellow‘s The Village Blacksmith.

Below lies the complete contents of the Chesnut Tree Cafe, Feb. 2004 – June 2004.

Friday, June 25, 2004

“Americans do not seem to be in immediate danger of losing the formal rights they won in an earlier political epoch. The vestigial organs of citizenship can survive long after their original purposes have evaporated. The Roman Senate, after all, survived long after the death of the Republic that gave it meaning and even after the collapse of the Western Empire that had given it ritualized recognition. Today, the institutions of popular democracy persist and continue to command the obligatory respect of politicians and officials. But they are being displaced by the institutions of personal democracy, and a critical dimension of citizenship is disappearing. To an increasing extent, ordinary citizens deal with government one by one, and forfeit the influence that they once enjoyed as members of a mobilized public.”

— Matthew A. Crenson & Benjamin Ginsberg, Downsizing Democracy: How America Sidelined Its Citizens and Privatized Its Public, p. 46. ¶ 9:46 PM

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

“Historical facts, as we saw, presuppose some measure of interpretation; and historical interpretations always involve moral judgements – or, if you prefer a more neutral-sounding term, value judgements.” — What Is History? P. 102. 12:30 AM

Friday, March 05, 2004

“We have insisted that the development of political democracy represents the convergence of a great number of social movements, no one of which owed either its origin or its impetus to inspiration of democratic ideals or to planning for the eventual outcome. This fact makes irrelevant both paeans and condemnations based upon conceptual interpretations of democracy, which, whether true or false, good or bad, are reflections of facts in thought, not their causal authors. ”

— John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems, pp. 85-86 ¶ 5:53 PM

Monday, March 01, 2004

“MOYERS: Some of my audience is young enough not to know what the book is.

OSSIE DAVIS: Well, the book is THE BIBLE. You know, a lot of us depended on that, Bill.

But there are those of us committed through destiny or biology or whatever to concern ourselves with the moral assignment. We communicators, we storytellers, we poets, we artists.

You know, what is our function really but to remind ourselves that in the human endeavor, our humanity is never complete unless it has a strong moral component. And we cannot afford to be too small in our objectives because what is required even to survive is that we take the larger view of ourselves and our possibilities.

And somebody has got to see that. Somebody’s got to ring that bell. Somebody’s got to write that poem, sing that song, dance that dance that says to us all, rise. You’re larger than that. It’s up to you to define the final meaning of America. We’re not there, but we’re on the way. ”

— From PBS’s NOW ¶ 12:53 PM

Monday, February 23, 2004

“In other words it is necessary that he should have the mentality appropriate to a state of war. It does not matter whether the war is actually happening, and, since no decisive victory is possibe, it does not matter whether the war is going well or badly. All that is needed is that a state of war should exist.”

— George Orwell, 1984, p.158 ¶ 2:54 AM

” … It is absolutely necessary to their structure that there should be no contact with foreigners except, to a limited extent, with war prisoners and colored slaves. Even the official ally of the moment is always regarded with the darkest suspicion. War prisoners apart, the average citizen of Oceania never sets eyes on a citizen of either Eurasia or Eastasia, and he is forbidden the knowledge of foreign languages. If he were allowed contact with foreigners he would discover that they are creatures similar to himself and that most of what he has been told about them is lies. The sealed world in which he lives would be broken, and the fear, hatred, and self-righteousness on which is morale depends might evaporate. … ”

— George Orwell, 1984, p. 164 ¶ 2:53 AM

” … One of the several strange and unanticipated results of this movement has been the transformation of Gramsci’s remark on ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will’ into virtual law of human nature. … But a powerful inhibitor to action was the inability to come up with an alternative to the Thatcherite doctrine that ‘there is no alternative’. The inability to find an ‘optimism of the intellect’ with which to work through alternatives has now become one of the most serious barriers to progressive politics.”

Gramsci penned those famous words while sick and close to death in an Italian prison cell under conditions that were appalling. I think we owe it to him to recognize the contingent nature of the comment. We are not in prison cells. Why, then, might we be willingly choose a metaphor drawn from incarceration as a guiding light for our own thinking? Did not Gramsci also bitterly complain, before his incarceration, at the pessimism which produced then the same political passivity, intellectual torpor and skepticism towards the future as it does now in ours? Do we not also owe it to him, out of respect for the kind of fortitude and political passion he exhibited, to transform that phrase in such a way as to seek an optimism of the intellect that, properly coupled with an optimism of the will, might produce a better future? … ”

— David Harvey in Spaces of Hope, p. 17 ¶ 2:43 AM

” … I should say something about the role of the rebel or dissident in history. To set up the popular picture of the individual in revolt against society is to re-introduce the false antithesis between society and the individual. No society is fully homogeneous. Every society is an arena of social conflicts, and those individuals who range themselves against existing authority are no less products and reflections of the society than those who uphold it. Richard II and Catherine the Great represented powerful social forces in England of the fourteenth century and in Russia of the eighteenth century: but so also did Wat Tyler and Pugachev, the leaders of the great serf rebellions. Monarchs and rebels alike were the product of the specific conditions of their age and country. … ”

— Edward Hallett Carr in What is History?, p. 65 ¶ 2:14 AM

Author: Rob Goodspeed