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Artistry, Principle and the Paradox of Self-Governance



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Renowned singer and songwriter John Prine succumbed to complications arising from Covid-19 on April 7. Like all great artists perhaps, Prine’s work was difficult to capture with a single label. Often called a folk or folk-country singer, or an Americana artist, those descriptions never communicated his artistry adequately. He was an acute, sensitive and insightful observer of the human condition and his songs were full of wry humor, poignancy and pathos. He often depicted the ugliest and the noblest elements of humanity in his songs. He was at once a serious thinker who also was willing to poke fun at himself and others for taking it all too seriously. Partly as a result of this penchant, many of his songs were simultaneously gut-wrenchingly honest and surpassingly kind.

The headline for Prine’s obituary in The New York Times paid apt tribute to his talent: “John Prine, Who Chronicled the Human Condition in Song, Dies at 73.”[1] Obituary writer William Grimes quoted Nobel Prize-winning songwriter Bob Dylan in that remembrance of Prine. Dylan, a native of Minnesota, described Prine, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, as one of his favorite song writers in 2009, “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene.”[2] Grimes likewise reminded readers that Kristofferson, another legendary musician, had been responsible for “discovering” Prine’s great talent. He introduced Prine to a New York night club audience in this way in 1970, some weeks after first meeting him and seeing him perform in Chicago: “No way somebody this young can be writing so heavy,” he said. “John Prine is so good, we may have to break his thumbs.”[3]

Prine’s first album, replete with a number of now classic songs, was produced in 1971 and he proved a popular concert artist whose records sold steadily, if modestly, for the remainder of his life.[4] In addition to many other honors across his career, he received a Grammy award for Lifetime Achievement in early 2020.[5] Like his contemporary, the Canadian poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen, whom he much admired, Prine did not release new material every year. In consequence, when he did so, it was something of an event among critics and fans alike.

I have listened to Prine’s music since 1971 and one of my many favorite songs by this deeply empathetic man was released in 2005 and entitled, “Some Humans Ain’t Human.” Here is a sample of that remarkable work:

Some humans ain’t human
Some people ain't kind
You open up their hearts
And here's what you'll find

A few frozen pizzas
Some ice cubes with hair
A broken popsicle
You don't wanna go there

Some humans ain't human
Though they walk like we do
They live and they breathe
Just to turn your old screw

They screw you when you're sleeping
They try to screw you blind
Some humans ain't human
Some people ain't kind
You might go to church
You sit down in a pew
Those humans who ain't human
Could be sittin' right next to you

They talk about your family
They talk about your clothes
When they don’t know their own ass

From their own elbows

Jealousy and stupidity
Don't equal harmony
Jealousy and stupidity
Don't equal harmony[6]

I find myself reflecting on Prine and his work in the wake of his death precisely because he so often spoke to the full range of human goodness, joy, foibles, depravity and cruelty. His artistry reminds anyone who listens that people are a curious lot, capable of unspeakable extremes in their daily lives. Moreover, these need not require especially difficult or unusual straits to reveal themselves; they are, in fact, endemic to humanity. I find myself pondering Prine’s rich oeuvre and what his death means to me and to our culture, as our nation addresses the present pandemic and deals with a chief executive and his political party who view the tragedy as another opportunity to divide, polarize and consolidate power. So, we have President Donald Trump calling the novel coronavirus the “Chinese virus” and whipping up hate and animosity against tens of thousands of Chinese Americans in so doing. He has also peddled a non-existent cure for Covid-19 on a “hunch” predicated on his self-declared genius and has cast aspersions on all who might question any of his administration’s persistently inept actions in response to the crisis.[7]

Meanwhile, Trump and the GOP have been busy seeking to limit access to the ballot for millions of Americans and continuing to press the complete fabrication that Ukraine and not Russia, interfered in the nation’s 2016 presidential election.[8] Trump and his allies and supporters seek consistently to appeal to the worst in human kind: the willingness to other, to cheat and lie, to hate, to scapegoat and to bully and blame. Trump also works persistently to encourage jealousy and fearfulness and to exploit them. In so doing, he degrades both his targets and those who embrace his hate-filled rhetoric. In short, amidst the genuine crisis of a pandemic, we have an administration willing to exploit it, directly and indirectly, to divide the nation’s population to preserve and enhance its power.

Against this sad reality, as I write, the world’s Jews are commemorating Passover and their belief in the enduring power of God in their lives, despite the unspeakable horrors they have experienced in their long history as a people. And Christians are celebrating their Triduum, the holiest week of their liturgical year, which also celebrates their belief in the power of God in their lives, while calling on believers to emulate Christ’s sacrifice. The Torah, Talmud and the Christian New Testament alike call on the better angels of humankind and indeed, demand the same of their adherents in their daily behavior if they are fully to realize their credos.

These faith traditions call on human beings to discipline their worst potentials in the name of justice and community or divine communion. These religions define justice and virtue as other-regardingness and acceptance of heterogeneity as well as providing assistance to the most vulnerable. They embrace the paradox that what our own culture so often declaims as weakness, in fact constitutes the highest form of human strength and possibility, even as it provides the only sure route to justice. Vulnerability, these faiths suggest, connotes strength. Goodness, according to these traditions, so often a frail reed in the human constitution, yields justice, which will prevail in the long run.

Interestingly, the Tao, which has served as a well-spring of Chinese thought and culture for more than 2,500 years, offers very similar claims and principles for human community and action to those offered by Judaism and Christianity. I was struck, for example, when rereading the Tao Te Ching in recent days, by this passage:

The sage has no mind of his own.
He is aware of the needs of others.

I am good to people who are good.
I am also good to people who are not good.
Because Virtue is goodness.
I have faith in people who are faithful.
I also have faith in people who are not faithful.
Because Virtue is faithfulness.

The sage is shy and humble—to the world he seems confusing.
Men look to him and listen.
He behaves like a little child.[9]

All of this is of moment to American governance, as one cannot control one’s worst excesses and behaviors if one is not first aware of them. One is unlikely to do so, either, unless guided by premises or principles concerning justice and a fully realized life that encourage one to understand that one’s darker impulses may need such restraint. The arts, and the example provided by Prine’s particular musical genius, can prompt consciousness of that imperative and of its companion need to work actively as individuals and as a democratic community to corral our inclination to hate, to fear and to cast blame, in favor of accepting others, even those, as these traditions all teach, who bear us ill. Human history and the behavior of too many in our nation during our present governance and health crises suggest how easy it is not to honor these injunctions. Nevertheless, these teachings and principles are no less central for that. In fact, their continued existence is testimony to their enduring importance and significance as reminders of humankind’s propensity to darkness or to jealousy and stupidity, as Prine might say.

As I noted in a recent Soundings, philosopher Hannah Arendt argued that truth, decency and goodness will prevail in democratic societies in the long run. But that outcome depends ultimately, in our country’s case, on the capacity of America’s citizens to realize their own propensity, individually and collectively, to smallness and to hate. It is also contingent on the relative power of the principles outlined above, whether adopted as a result of those teachings or of those of Islam, which are very similar, or on other religious or philosophic grounds, to persuade Americans to check their worst impulses, for there is no other rein on the popular sovereign in democratic societies.

With all, and hardly for the first time, I find myself grappling with the in-built paradox implicit in trusting individuals to govern themselves. We appear to be at a crucible moment in our politics: Will this nation’s people accept a continuing politics of smallness, avarice, hate and “stupidity,” or will they collectively act instead, even if imperfectly, with freedom, human rights, the commonweal and community needs in view? I hope that a majority of our population will choose to act in the coming period on the premise embraced by Judaism, Christianity and the Tao that “virtue is goodness.” I will trust, too, that people realize as they do that such choices will define their capacity to realize any true happiness and possibility in their individual lives. Finally, I shall hope that Arendt was right and that John Prine now rests in peace.             


[1] Grimes, William. “John Prine, Who Chronicled the Human Condition in Song, Dies at 73,” The New York Times, April 7, 2020,, Accessed April 7, 2020. 

[2] Grimes, William. “John Prine, Who Chronicled the Human Condition in Song, Dies at 73.”

[3] Sterling, Colin. “Bob Dylan Exclusive Interview: Reveals His Favorite Songwriters: Thoughts On His Own Cult Figure Status,”Huffpost, May 16, 2009, Updated May 25, 2011,, Accessed April 10, 2020. 

[4] Griggs, Brandon. “John Prine, influential singer-songwriter, dies at 73,” CNN, April 8, 2020,, Accessed April 8, 2020.

[5] Rettig, James. “Grammys 2020: Bonnie Raitt Pays Tribute to Lifetime Achievement Award Winner John Prine,” January 26, 2020, StereoGum,, Accesed April 9, 2020.

[6] Prine, John. “Some Humans Ain’t Human,” 2005, Genius., Accessed April 9, 2020.

[7] Chiu, Allyson. “Trump has no Qualms about Calling the Coronavirus the ‘Chinese Virus.’ That’s a Dangerous Attitude, Experts, Say,” The Washington Post, March 20, 2020,, Accessed March 20, 2020;  Benen, Steve. “When Trump Promotes Unproven Drugs, It’s More than Just Annoying,” MSNBC, March 31, 2020,, Accessed April 9, 2020;  Abutaleb, Yameen, Josh Dawsey, Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller. “The U.S. was Beset by Denial and Dysfunction as the Coronavirus Raged,” The Washington Post, April 4, 2020,, Accessed April, 8, 2020. 

[8] Levine, Sam. “Trump Urges Republicans to Fight ‘Very Hard’ Against Voting By Mail,” The Guardian, April 8, 2020,, Accessed April 8, 2020; Staff, “Barr Claims Trump-Russia Investigation was FBI attempt to ‘Sabotage’ the President,” The Guardian, April 10, 2020,, Accessed April 10, 2020. 

[9] Tsu, Lao. Tao Te Ching, Translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, New York: Vintage Books, 1972, Chp. 49.

Publication Date

April 13, 2020