In this letter, Craig observes how the political landscape of the country feels like we’re all going through marriage counseling right now and how we’ll all have to make the decision to move passed personal shortcomings and failings as families often must. Craig later touches on politicians, propaganda, altruism, and Pride with a capital ‘P’ as it relates to the pursuit of Power. He tells some old political stories from American history that include the President’s Adams, Jefferson, Van Buren, Harrison, Jackson, Cleveland, Buchanan, Johnson, and Lincoln. He touches on President Lincoln’s correspondence with the old Chicago Tribune. Later still, he visits the chicken or the egg paradox, Winston Churchill, the unwritten rules of “the game,” gods and demigods, E Pluribus Unum and survival of the fittest, Napoleon and his march on Paris and failed invasion of Russia, a Jorge Luis Borges quote, utopianism, perfectionism, forgiveness, and more.
Three years gone and We the People still wonder why our final choice in the 2016 Presidential Election came down to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. I still hear the replies, “Well, I wasn’t exactly happy with who I had to choose but…” The open-ended questions, “How could those two have been the candidates that best represent us? They were the best we have?” The retorts, “Maybe if the other side weren’t so awful…”
We the People sit on porches and patios and promenades and at parties and $XX,XXX per plate dinners and pontificate and put down and, in rare sometimes and every so oftens, we pause and ponder how it must have felt to put pen to paper filled with the potential and possibility and prospect our Preambles provide and we wonder, “This is We? We the People?” A good thing, to be sure. For it’s those rare sometimes and every so oftens that lead us a little further down Intellectual Road to ask We the People if this is the more perfect Union we hoped for and endeavor to leave our children.
Are We the People continuing to establish Justice? Are We the People insuring our domestic Tranquility? Do We properly provide for the common defense? Promote the general Welfare? Are We securing the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity?
We the People can argue until our faces flush and the ire in our hearts, our hearth, purifies the iron in our blood until liquid steel born from fury runs through our veins to where it finally cools and plants us firmly in our positions and beliefs where nothing and no one can move us from our stance, or we can use these strange days as an opportunity to learn from each other and reflect on who We the People are, what We the People have done in both our failures and our accomplishments, and refocus our efforts on where We the People are going.
Could We the People ever admit, just for one second and perhaps for the first time, even if it’s only to find something, anything, that can possibly be agreed upon to try and start to form some sort of base on which to build again, that those two candidates were two individuals in whom all sides of all aisles could agree to put our differences aside and acknowledge that neither were the best to represent this nation morally, culturally, or philosophically? Could We the People ever admit that all the rhetorical swill spewed these last few years could maybe be boiled down and distilled into the simple idea that maybe we’re just…a little disappointed in one another?
Picture it. Humor me for a moment and imagine representatives across from each other on both sides of a leather couch in a therapist’s office. The therapist, perhaps someone who’s had too much granola and psychedelics in their life, asks in their most baby protective and half condescending tone, “Representative ‘A’, do you think maybe you can admit that maybe you can kind of understand why Representative ‘B’ did not like your chosen candidate? And can you, Representative ‘B’, admit that maybe you can kinda sorta see why Representative ‘A’ did not like your candidate?” And the two representatives, squirming in their seats, take deep breaths and turn to face each other on the couch…
Don’t worry, I’m not holding my breath either.
In my last letter, I mentioned Doug Larson, the long-time journalist from Door County, Wisconsin, who said, “Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days.” And, as previously discussed, that’s true of our own personal histories just as it is with recollections of our past as a collective community. And that nostalgia we all succumb to as individuals and small communities, is just as true in the collective history and collective conscious as it would relate to any large nation’s history. It’s human nature.
But the idea that there used to be a time in this nation or any other where Politics was not a borderline shameful practice brimful of exaggeration, deceit, and cruelty is noteworthy and, mostly, propaganda. Propaganda mixed with a sort of willful delusion and necessary forgetfulness.
Don’t misunderstand that as an indictment on all politicians and propaganda. Well, at least, not the propaganda. There can be an honest and genuine usefulness to both, but what deserves to be dispelled and scoffed at is the implication that political aspiration can be, in any way, a wholly altruistic pursuit.
At least, not if you want to win.
I’d further ask, if ignorance of the law is no excuse why is ignorance of traditional human behavior? At a fundamental level, the mere thought that a person can properly run or control or guide a society better than another person requires a conscious or unconscious dismission of humility. On a theoretical physics metaphor level, it requires a person to fill themselves with a Big Bang’s energy equivalent worth of Pride. Not the type of Pride that allows a man to boast to his coworkers about his son’s most recent performance in the big game or the type of Pride that convinces the son to walk across the room and ask a pretty girl to dance. It requires the type of Pride seen in legend and myth. The type of Pride that would make a Greek tragedian loosen his tunic and an Elizabethan dramatist drool. The type of Pride which countless theologians and philosophers have reminded us, is the deadliest of sins. That decision requires a person to prepare themselves for any and all nastiness to come their way.
At least, if they truly want to win.
A Long Lineage
Before we continue, in case there are any out there who don’t believe that Politics has always been this way, let’s take a brief look at some examples from our illustrious days of yore. Those halcyon days of peace and harmony.
To keep it as relatively brief as we’re able, we’ll stick strictly to American politics for our references even if there are countless more if we broadened our search wide beyond the borders and deeper into the depths of history to any and all civilizations we wanted to review.
- In 1787, Rachel Donelson, the 20-year-old daughter of the co-founder of the city of Nashville, married Captain Lewis Robards of Harrodsburg, Kentucky. She was unhappy and separated from Captain Robards several times over the course of about 3 years, until she finally moved back home to Nashville, where she met a 23-year-old man who was boarding at her mother’s property. The two quickly fell in love and, since Lewis Robards had already filed for divorce and not seeing any reason there would be any complications, Rachel Donelson eloped with her new partner. Unfortunately, there were complications. During the divorce proceedings, Kentucky became a state instead of a territory of Virginia, and North Carolina turned over management of the territory including Tennessee to the Federal Government. Further complicating matters, Rachel and her new husband were Protestants and married in the Spanish-controlled Natchez, Mississippi, where only Catholic marriages were recognized as legal unions. Regardless, the situation was settled and square by 1794 when the pair were 27, and they were finally legally married in a quiet ceremony at Rachel’s parent’s home. The issue was not brought up again…until the 1828 Presidential election against John Quincy Adams and Rachel Donelson’s second husband, Andrew Jackson. Adams’s supporters called Rachel a bigamist and her husband an adulterer who stole another man’s wife. Jackson won the election but Rachel died before his inauguration, and Jackson always blamed her death on his political enemies.
- It may seem like our modern era has a unique obsession and relationship with “celebrity” and that the celebrity endorsement is now not just reality but necessity. And it may feel as if the celebrities of today hold more sway with the general public. It’s easy to understand why it seems so. With free social media allowing for millions upon millions of followers to have near direct access and name recognition through countless channels and outlets provided by television and other internet sources. But, just as people lament a celebrity endorsement today, the same was said long back into history. During the 1836 presidential election, the Whig Party of the United States solicited an endorsement from the “King of the Wild Frontier,” Davy Crockett. The main candidates were Martin Van Buren and William Henry Harrison. The Whig Party strategy was to portray Van Buren as effeminate and elitist using a description given by the recently deceased Davy Crockett, now a hero of the Alamo. He described Van Buren as “laced up in corsets such as a woman in town where…it would be difficult to say from his personal appearance whether he was a man or woman but for the large red-and-gray whiskers.” That strategy proved unsuccessful for that election, but the Whigs continued with the same tactic in the next election (this time successfully) when Charles Ogle claimed that Van Buren “slept on fine French linens and ate from silver plates with forks of gold.”
- Some say the best of the best, the king of defamation, the sultan of slander, and the lord of libel, was President Lyndon B. Johnson. President Johnson is responsible for quite a bit of stories that could be told, but arguably the most famous example is his behavior occurred during the 1964 presidential election, in which he had a special group of White House insiders informally known as the “5 O’Clock Club” whose main goal was finding new ways of smearing Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. Their main tactic was to portray Goldwater as a dangerous radical willing to start a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. They coined him Dr. Strangewater and organized a very unscientific but effective study where over 1,000 psychiatrists deemed Goldwater psychologically unfit to be President (which would later lead to the Goldwater Rule, the informal name given to Section 7 in the American Psychiatric Association’s Principles of Medical Ethics). Their most successful tactic was the “Daisy” ad, an infamous political commercial that only ran once yet still remains one of the most influential political ads of all-time. It showed a little girl counting flower petals. But when the count reached nine, the voice changed to that of a man counting down. The ad ended with a mushroom cloud reflected in the girl’s eyes when the counter reached zero.
During the 1884 US Presidential election, Republican candidate James Blaine faced backlash from accusations of trading political favors for cash. Fortunately for him, the Republican party had dirt on his opponent, Grover Cleveland. Ten years earlier, Ol’ ‘Stache Grover had a relationship with a woman named Maria Halpin which may have resulted in an illegitimate child. Cleveland had claimed Halpin had relations with several men at the time of her pregnancy and was unsure that the baby was his. Despite being unmarried, Cleveland took it upon himself to look after little Oscar Cleveland. Halpin then further claimed that Cleveland had forced himself upon her and, after Oscar was born, locked her up in a mental institution. Cleveland’s supporters claimed that Halpin was just looking for a quick cash grab. Republicans portrayed Grover Cleveland as a “common libertine,” taunting him with the chant “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” In the end, Cleveland won the election and his supporters added a line to the chant, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!”
William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson’s three terms as Mayor of Chicago during the era of Al Capone places him in a high rank among the most corrupt politicians in US history. Thompson served his first two terms back-to-back between 1915 and 1923, took four years off due to a few pesky allegations of corruption, and returned for the 1927 election backed by Capone. To the public, Thompson declared himself the enemy of criminals, reformers, and even King George V, while behind closed doors Capone gave him $250,000 in campaign funding. That figure is in 1927 dollars, by the way, which would be the equivalent of about $3.6 million today (For reference, that’d be more than 1/3rd of Rahm Emanuel’s fundraising total in today’s dollars coming from one donor). But since this is more about mudslinging than it is about corruption, Thompson’s most bizarre moment came when he debated two live rats, Dill and Fred, that symbolized his opponents. This proved popular with the crowd, so Big Bill continued to carry the rats on the election trail.
We can go all the way back to some of the Founding Fathers of this country. Men who fought together during the Revolutionary War quickly becoming political enemies after the foundation had been laid and the house that could be called this country began to take shape. Thomas Jefferson’s people accused President John Adams of having a “hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” President Adams’ men retaliated and called Vice President Jefferson “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Adams was further labeled a fool, a hypocrite, a criminal, and a tyrant, while Jefferson was branded a weakling, an atheist, a libertine, and a coward. The Federalists went so far as to attack Jefferson as a godless Jacobin who would unleash the forces of bloody terror upon the land. With Jefferson as President, warned one newspaper, “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.”
Another particular nasty one involved James Buchanan, who had a congenital condition that caused his head to tilt to the left, and he was subsequently accused of having unsuccessfully tried to hang himself.
A first reaction to the examples listed above may be one of general amusement. Some may elicit a muted chuckle. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone. After all, some of our most barbaric barbs and ignorant intonations and wicked words have inspired some of our finest reactions and counters and compliments and colloquialisms to the American consciousness.
Even the arguable best of us, Abraham Lincoln, was no stranger to partisan rancor. In a letter to then Chicago Tribune Editor-in-Chief, Charles H. Ray, on June 6, 1858, he finishes with, “…I wrote this chiefly, however, to express my regret that articles like the enclosed should appear in our own Republican papers, planting poisonous thorns to rankle in the bosoms of our own best men.” On June 25, 1858, he writes to Joseph Medill, referencing a recent article appearing in the Chicago Times, which was then a Democrat rival paper to the Republican Tribune, “…In its blind rage to assail me, it has seized on a vague recollection of Henry’s vote, and appropriated it to me. I scarcely think any one is quite vile enough to make such a charge in such terms, without some slight belief in the truth of it.” Less than two days later, on June 27, 1858, he pens another letter to Charles H. Ray of the Tribune, saying the following:
My Dear Sir, How, in God’s name, do you let such paragraphs into the Tribune, as the enclosed cut from that paper of yesterday? Does Sheahan write them? How can you have failed to perceive that in that short paragraph you have completely answered all your own well put complaints of Greely and Sister Burlingham? What right have you to interfere in Indiana, more than they in Illinois? And what possible argument can be made why all Republicans shall stand out of Hon. John G. Davis’ way, in his district in Indiana, that can not be made why all Republicans in Illinois shall stand out of Hon. S. A. Douglas’ way? The part in larger type is purely editorial, and your editorial at that, as you do not credit it to any other paper. I confess it astonishes me.Yours truly, A. Lincoln, June 25, 1858
As noted by Charles J. Johnson of today’s Chicago Tribune, it was seemingly well-known that Lincoln would burn personal correspondence and often instructed recipients of his letters to do the same. As Johnson further notes, “For all we know, the most vitriol-laced or embarrassing notes might have gone up the flue long more than a century ago.”
We’ll stop because there’s more. Many more. I’m sure you get the idea. What I’m most trying to point out is, does any of the above sound familiar? Does any of that sound like it could be cut and pasted from the history books directly into stories and news headlines today? Lifted from the endless social media feeds and timelines of 10 seconds ago?
There has always been a significant element of moral grandstanding and pearl clutching by the American electorate, on both sides, so forgive me when I scoff at the laughable idea that We the People were once better. Spare me the pearl clutching and the handwringing and the hysteria that all of our ‘Dear Leaders’ were paragons of virtue. Spare me the idea that our distinguished officeholders were more than simply people who intensely and desperately wanted to win. Spare me the idea that these were not people who would do, try, and say anything they could to not only have their names etched in the history books but to cement those names in legacy to carry as many of their generations as possible.
Reading the above examples, imagine the reaction felt in your gut if those famous names were replaced by the name of THAT friend you have whose posts make you roll your eyes while scrolling through your social media feed in the modern day. We all have THAT friend. and we’ve all read similar comments on other forums and blogs through the entire visible internet, heard the callers on talk radio stations, and read the letters to the editors of newspapers and magazines, some with names attached and some anonymous.
And yet we have the audacity to preach that today’s politics “just ain’t like they used to be.” Even more, we get so fed up we remove ourselves from the arguments altogether and ask, “Why can’t those people just keep their politics to themselves?” And “Why can’t we all just get along?”
Deep down, we really mean, “Why can’t we all just agree with me?”
Based on all the historical evidence observed, Politics were, are, and will always be ruthless and it is only those out on the fringes that deliver any type of understanding or explanation or reasonable answers for posterity. The path to power is a gauntlet. A crucible. The path to power is stained with blood, sweat, and tears. Ideally, that of your enemies.
The Chicken or the Egg?
Why are politics so vile? Or rather, why does it bring out the worst in the best of us? In my above examples, I didn’t even come close to mentioning something as absurd as a sitting Vice President and the former Secretary of the Treasury dueling to the death as conclusion to the Burr-Hamilton feud. Imagine the news today if Vice President Mike Pence met someone like Tim Geithner in the early morning hours in a park in Weehawken, New Jersey because he had enough of the criticism of his evangelical past or to finally get to the bottom of this Obama birth certificate nonsense?
Why are some among us willing to go to such lengths for power and why are those among us willing to go to any contemptible lengths so often gifted positions of power? It begs the question, which came first, the politician or the politics?
A religious man might tell you the latter and a relativist might tell you the former. An evolutionary neurobiologist may argue that the vileness is not our fault and that it lies in the roots of our brain systems as a deep-seated fear reaction we carry with us from our earliest forms as new vertebrae animals. A fear that causes anxiety and insecurity which leads to a feeling of inadequacy and a drop in self-esteem. A place where we don’t know what to do and we feel as a rat backed into a corner and we lash out in defense of and with the last weapon we all know best, ourselves. An economist may argue it’s a similar rationality of a free-market that causes negotiating parties to do all they can to maximize their utility and once the “good” inner resources have seemingly been used to their full potential the untapped “bad” inner resources must be exploited and it’s yet another nudge from that unseen hand that guides us toward a deal where both are satisfied. I’m not going to pretend I’m qualified to judge one way or another but the more I think about it the more I find myself leaning toward an Occam’s Razor type of ultimate conclusion.
The Unwritten Rule
It doesn’t matter. There is no correct interpretation or reasonable explanation for chickens, eggs, or politicians. At least, none we’ll know in this life. And, if I’m wrong, I’m not sure I’d be anymore wrong than Aristotle was wrong about spontaneous generation for millenia nor am I sure that Aristotle gives a damn anymore he was wrong or if he gave any particular damns if he was wrong on the subject in his time.
But if we are to follow the insistence of many modern cultural researchers and believe that there is no such thing as objective perception and the only thing that truly matters is the subjective while, at the same time, making a halfhearted attempt to listen to the wisdom of someone like that ol’ lovable lush, Winston Churchill, who reminds us, history is written by the victors, then winning is all that matters. And if it is indeed true that winning is all that matters, then no amount of moral imperative, no degree of arbitrary mandate, no measure of commandment, decree, or order, should stand in the way of victory. History is at stake. Man’s memory itself is at stake.
Logically, that would force us to follow down a path and be led to a place where the unwritten rule is there are no rules. It would expose us to the pressures of nature and the unconscious necessities of survival. A place of anarchy and chaos where order is no more than a dream. At least, to us and our wishes or will for order. A place some poets and prophets would argue looks eerily similar to our world and this existence. A place where we are not in charge.
We the People like to think there are rules to things like politics, of course. It helps us sleep better at night and it makes us feel better. It gives us an easy excuse to justify our procrastination and works as cover and blame for our failures. “Rules” make games “fair.”
See, the above examples and the daily headlines become these little nagging and nasty reminders that are ever present and all around us near every day. Little reminders of the game. The filthy game. The nasty game. They become quiet nods and whispered tsks and subtle shushes, all meant to say, “This ain’t for you, bub. You want to get in the ring? You better be prepared to lose, not just the debate, but you better be prepared to lose…everything.” And the wise, those who probably should be in charge of some of our biggest decisions and those who should be the faces of a nation, see these little humble reminders of insanity and inanity and tell themselves, “Um…no, thanks. I think I’ll pass…”
I don’t blame them. Why play such an ugly game? Why would anyone want to do that to themselves? Why would anyone want to put their family through…that?
To those who would vie for power and control, it’s that discouragement that is intentional and encouraged. Played with and preyed upon. To keep “you” out. A check. An unspecified prerequisite. A message telling you no, this game is not for you. This game is only for people so desperate for power they can be bought or so self-absorbed they can be distracted or so unreflective they can be sacrificed or so naive and gregarious they can be prod as simply as the shepherd taps the sheep. All the better if they can be convinced they’re the shepherd.
The game itself is the great deterrant. A way to say, “Stay away. This is an ugly game and your soul may not survive.” A part of the esoteric and sacred mysteries revealed only to true believers. A sly way to tell us silly fools that not all are meant for Glory. It’s only those willing to give it all up that are allowed even the opportunity to do battle and be pushed into the ring to face the other side as representative of the collective behind them and be cheered.
In the old days, the priestly caste and those who attained power fashioned themselves as Gods or Demigods and claimed Divine Right. In a certain sense, I almost don’t blame them either. After all, they “won” the game and made it to the top and received the perceptive just rewards and all the ugliness required for them to make it there could be almost superhuman and, to the normal person, almost beyond comprehension. Over the course of the last millenia, though the old monarchs and priests were successfully usurped, they were merely replaced by a different kind of gatekeeper.
Brave New World
In the experiment that is America the individuals at the top, the rulers and the monarchs and the ancient priests and all who would vie for the just rewards of power and control, were replaced by an idea or ideas. And, though the faces that held these new positions could and would change frequently, the metaphorical concept of We the People as a collective and the law itself reigned supreme. At the same time we note and should be humbled by our collective influence as We the People, we have a profound focus and commitment to individual freedom and personal responsibility and we each are to play our part in order to make the collective greater. Out of many, one. E Pluribus Unum.
We continue to wrestle with the concept because, unfortunately, the way for the best ideas to reach the top and remain there is the same as Men. And Men still must be willing to fight for those ideas and plant them at the top of the mountain and turn back and face those who would dare to dethrone them. And they are coming. They are coming.
If this country is a monument to anything it’s a monument to the eternal competition. A reflection of Nature itself, who we all know likes her champions to be the most fit. A place where all Man is free to test himself. Against other individuals. Against the masses. Against the elements. Test himself against himself.
In truth, We the People, despite our noble intentions, are hardly better than those who once slept high on the hills and masqueraded as Gods. After all, they, too, were mere humans playing upon the stage only costumed and dressed as Deities.
Still, America endures. It endures because of respect for the institutions that have been left for us, the sacrifices made to protect them, and the commitment of the individuals to be the best they can be. America endures.
But there is something different about our modern era. This “new” form of political gatekeeping, under the lens of incredible new technologies is a challenging new battleground. It now seems as if it is only the lucky who do not have their whole background and entire life, exposed. Only the lucky who do not have the sum of all their parts and experiences that has made them the person they are, laid bare. Every word and utterance, relitigated. Every deed and every action, revisited. The argument is we now live in global city-state with an infinite new town square where the general population is not afraid to keep quiet about the Emperor’s new clothes but rather the population shouts for, insists upon, and demands the Emperor not be allowed to wear any clothes at all.
Is that the price? Is that the standard we’re supposed to quietly agree on even if we privately reject this new feigned norm and get lost in the explanation of unknown mores that are just to be accepted as new type of Gospel? Is this nudity truly a better system than those that paraded in makeup and costume play acting as Gods? If only we had a child to save us, point out the lunacy, and allow us to cower behind their innocence.
To continue with this analogy, is this the only way to get to the bottom of what needs to be done? The only way to find out who or which idea is better? Battle naked with nothing hidden? Nothing to hide any outside factors and variables that would affect the outcome? Maybe. In a like society, all things considered, sure I could see myself listening to the argument with an open mind and even agreeing. But, if we are to truly forge on into this new paradigm under these new norms, what other rules will slowly need to be enforced? No hair pulling? No biting? Eye gouging? Groin punching? Finger bending?
These added rules all sound well and good until our society is confronted with an outside enemy who doesn’t play by our rules. It all sounds well and good until you have to do battle with an enemy with entirely different value systems and ideas of fairness. What does your society do when your best prizefighter only knows your “fair” fight? What is your society going to do when the only fighter’s ring anyone has prepared for is their own? Do we choose to not rally behind our best warrior poets if we don’t like their behavior at the dinner table?
And how far does it go before our best fighters refuse to stand? When the enemy is at the gates, come to sack your kingdom and take the spoils for their own, do you refuse to do battle unless met under certain conditions?
Sometimes, action is what matters and we often can’t get beyond the intimidation of the paradox. The more I think about it, in the rotation of 5 W’s, it’s possible the “Why?” is only there to stop us from reaching the 6th addition, the “How?” I’m beginning to wonder if the “Why?” is The Great Filter itself.
I understand the hesitation. Ignore that which you can’t answer? Just…act? Fight for something even if we don’t necessarily agree with the entire sum of all the arguments?
It’s the dwelling too much, that is to be criticized. The lingering. The revisiting and revising into paralysis.
To the person or the People who suffers from it, in a way, it feels disheartening. Especially when we hesitate and think too long about our character and if we ourselves are truly good enough. Who are we to declare ourselves up to the task? Who are we to fight for something? Does that not make us nothing more than the shameful, pride consumed politicians decried earlier? The questions go on and on and it can lead a person down an ever-deepening and ever-quickening spiral.
I suspect there is not one of us who, in their heart of hearts, can say they’ve never regret or misstep. I suspect that there is not one of us who has not wished they could wash a stain from their past away and continue as if it never happened at all. To follow Oscar Wilde, “Experience is merely the name men gave to their mistakes.”
It can be demoralizing. Discouraging. We desperately want to believe that there is a cause for an effect and that there is a deeper root for any and all anxiety we have over our life’s chess moves. That there always is or always has to be some sort of just, righteous, or entirely virtuous explanation for our behavior. That there is some reason…why? It’s irrational to believe otherwise.
When I was younger, I tended to dwell on my decisions more than I do now. Perhaps that’s just consequence of no longer being able to remember them all or the finer details that made me go pushed me one way or another but I don’t think so. As I’ve grown, the old joke, “I’ve forgotten more than you know,” has started to take on a whole new meaning. As I’ve grown I’ve begun to believe that sometimes a mistake may not necessarily be a mistake at all and how much circumstance, perception, perspective, and other unknowns can be unaccounted for. There’s much more grey area than I once believed. Sometimes there is no straight answer. Sometimes it’s just a simple twist of fate and whisper of luck, and I advise you to consult a songwriter for a more succinct explanation.
Though there’s much debate on if he actually said the following, in response to criticism for winning battles simply because he was lucky, Napoleon is often credited with the famous retort, “I’d rather have lucky generals than good ones.” I suppose it doesn’t matter to me one way or another if he did or did not say it, the implication of the quote is poignant. God knows, I’m not one to lecture anyone on procrastination, but if any mortal is qualified it’s The Man of Destiny himself and I think it’s a nice lesson from one of history’s giants.
Move. Act. Improvise. Don’t think too much. Those who spend too much time analyzing the question lose valuable time in creatively working toward the solution. Too much overthought and you run the risk of missing opportunity.
Since I brought up Napoleon, a quick aside that always makes me laugh when I think about the modern media environment in relation to history’s media environment. In 1815, the French newspapers were subject to censor and were, essentially, state-owned media. The following headlines are from The Moniteur, regarding Napoleon and announcing his departure from exile in Elba, his progress through France, and his entry into Paris. These are actual headlines:
- 9th March 1815: The Anthropophagus (can be translated as “Monster” or “Cannibal”) has quitted his den
- 10th: The Corsican Ogre has landed at Cape Juan
- 11th: The Tiger has arrived at Gap
- 12th: The Monster slept at Grenoble
- 13th: The Tyrant has passed through Lyons
- 14th: The Usurper is directing his steps towards Dijon, but the brave and loyal Burgundians have risen en masse and surrounded him on all sides
- 18th: Bonaparte is only sixty leagues from the capital; he has been fortunate enough to escape the hands of his pursuers
- 19th: Bonaparte is advancing with rapid steps, but he will never enter Paris
- 20th: Napoleon will, tomorrow, be under our ramparts
- 21st: The Emperor is at Fontainbleau
- 22nd: His Imperial and Royal Majesty, yesterday evening, arrived at the Tuileries, amidst the joyful acclamations of his devoted and faithful subjects.
Don’t misunderstand that I’m advocating for anyone to behave foolishly. Analysis and planning next steps and correcting for course is always a good idea. Just as the aforementioned Napoleon himself could have taken that advice and, had he planned out his invasion of Russia a little better and accounted for those little Russian winters, history might have gone another way. Nobody’s perfect.
Imagine as future historians will imagine of you.
Do you want them to see a person who was a bit wishy-washy, just kind of an always go-with-the-flow type, and the sort who never really took sides or stood for anything? Or do you want them to see a person who with principle? A person who absolute in their resolve? A person of courage, who stood up for themselves and those who could not or did not know how? A person who does not just accept what they are told but rather adds his own ideas and at least attempts to climb the mountain?
Imagine them looking back from afar, across space and time, looking back at a people who do go gentle into that good night. Imagine them looking back to see no one there to draw sword in defense and do what needs to be done to end a madness. Imagine looking back to see no fighter willing to step into the ring. Where there is no hero to turn toward the gauntlet rather than away from it. A people with no conviction and no principle. Is it better to stand for a principle or better to have no principle to stand for?
I ask again, which came first, the politician or the politics?
If anything, imagine how boring a life without it all would be. We might as well return to the muck.
“Así que uno planta su propio jardín y decora su propia alma, en lugar de esperar a que alguien le traiga flores.”
As I’ve stated before, it is only those in the time long hereafter, after generations of argument and dialectic and debate, that any true judgment of a society’s character qualities can take place and a categorization of that society’s decisions as rights and wrongs can be made. Even then, centuries later, as rules change or switch back or swing around, additional unknown judgments will also be cast. I’m certain the Romans, the Greeks, the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Mayans, the Sumerians, and whatever other civilizations you want to examine thought of themselves quite different than how we view them from such great distance.
Does that mean we should not strive in the present toward any higher future ideal? Should our hands be thrown up in surrender? Do we do any and all we can and care zero for consequences and repercussions? Of course not. Let’s not be silly.
Of course we should all do our best to strive for a higher ideal and theoretical physicists should continue to try and figure out chickens and eggs even if we doubt there’s an answer we’ll ever know. Of course we give ourselves rules because we don’t want others to treat us as if there are none. Of course we should do our part in a unified effort to create the proverbial city on a hill, especially as this great global city-state begins to take shape. Of course we all want to endeavor toward the fictionalized realms of Plato and Thomas More, work toward the Schlaraffenland and the Land of Cockaigne, abandon the search for Shangri-La and realize we carried it with us in our hearts all along, sail upstream together until we reach the Peach Blossom Spring, and take the second star to the right and fly straight on ’til morning.
In theory, we all want utopia but what do any of those Utopias actually look like? Sure, we all hope to achieve our own personal Eden but do all of our gardens look the same? If I’m being entirely honest, a utopia, even my own little personal conception of one, sounds a little boring. I mean, if we didn’t have some of the nastiness and vileness and the ugly, would we understand what this supposed utopia would even look like? If there were no struggle, personal or otherwise, would we even have the concept at all? Can we dream of Heaven without the fear of Hell?
As such, should we continue to demand from and expect our representatives to embody and possess the type of legendary ethos that can only be achieved after centuries and millenia of poets and storytellers and mythologians have worked their magic until we’re not sure if such a noble character ever existed at all? The type of legend that can only be achieved after the stories have tumbled through history’s washing machine rinsed with nostalgia, each cycle representing a couple generations? Especially when we force ourselves to acknowledge our representatives and those who would challenge them are just as flawed and human as we are?
You can answer, yes. There’s an argument to be made for that. And I’d agree as long as we had an understanding that a concept and an ideal are not actuality otherwise they wouldn’t be an ideal. They’re not true to life. It’s not reality.
I, too, prefer to forget all the ugliness and wish I could ignore the incessant day to day. But if we are so unsatisfied with the other side, if we are so disgusted by those selected to represent us and those who would challenge us, the only answer and the only fix where We the People become We the Better People happens within. It can not happen by demanding the other change themselves first. The change in the other cannot materialize in the collective until it first comes from within us as individuals. And the sacrificial lamb that theoretically would stand up and wax poetic on the benefit of introspection and attempt any sort of group-actualization to try to realize our full potential as a coherent species would be labeled a fool so quixotic it would make Cervantes laugh and almost certainly make them a target for crucifixion.
A more perfect Union…
There’s a healthy argument to be made that there are times that require a necessary forgetfulness, and that this is one of those times. A forgiveness. Where one should not merely let bygones be bygones but where one needs bygones be bygones. In the same way loved ones or family members must sometimes ignore each other’s most glaring faults in order to move on and stick together because it’s the best families that circle the wagons and do on the long journey of Manifest Destiny.
Yes, that forgiveness is a conscious acceptance that it’s time to move on, and that can feel like an acceptance of failure. Forgiveness can be one of our most difficult and profound acts we humans may ever face. Especially when we need to forgive ourselves. But, sometimes, the letting go is merely a reality that needs to be admitted if anything ever wants to get done. An acceptance that, yes, there are things that need to be fixed, but the other parts of the greater whole can’t be allowed disrepair. For a cheap metaphor, just because a vehicle needs an oil change doesn’t mean a flat tire can be ignored.
Just as in a family or a relationship, free individuals must take personal responsibility for ourselves by acknowledging the flaws in our own character, and make ourselves better to help make the collective We the People better. Admittedly, some can take longer than others. That’s okay. When this happens, naturally, the family or the relationship or the collective We the People will follow suit and grow stronger.
The founders of this country were deliberate and specific. I believe the foundational stone of the United States of America comes from the beginning of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. Countless words have been written on those words and I could dedicate at least another letter to them, so I won’t waste more of your time dissecting them here. At least, not right now.
My focus for now is on what I believe to be the second stone of the country which, of course, comes from the first sentence of the United States Constitution. I’ve played around with the first 3 words throughout this letter, but the words “more perfect” are of co-equal importance. None of us are perfect and, as such, We the People as a body politic will never be perfect. But, as we grow and change, the idea is we continue to refine ourselves and do all we are able to be better. It’s our responsibility to try. No matter how good we get, there is always and will always be room to improve.
That’s why the idea that we were once something approaching perfect and it is only now that we have degenerated is so dangerous. The admission that we’re not better now and the admission that there wasn’t better before, that this is who we are, may sound pessimistic. I know, I know, I’ve heard it all before, but I disagree. I disagree with emphasis. When we reach a stalemate against one another or we fall into a “rut” in our own personal lives, where we find ourselves solidifying and calcifying and refusing to acknowledge imperfections in our character and only demand that the “other” is the one that needs to change and not “us”, that we’re so near perfect we can do no wrong, does the real danger arise and the fractures and the very real separations begin to form. And, sometimes, though we can’t predict the outcome, we need to act. Move. Improvise. And let both history and the above be our Judge.
This is not to say that it is our ideas that necessarily require change but rather may require we adjust our arguments and how we fight for them. It is upon us to review and reflect and adapt. And it is only during a strict confrontation and admission to the self by the individual and the interior body politic, can the acknowledgement of flaws begin and both can then look ahead to the brighter, more optimistic future together.
If we ignore this “other” aspect of ourselves, refuse to admit that such even exists, we have no one to blame for continued disagreement and internal turmoil except ourselves. In refusing to confront our own challenges or even admit that our ideas have challengers, we would be lying to ourselves. We would be letting ourselves off the hook and using our Nature as an excuse when it’s Nature that demands we do all we can to find our best fit. We would be allowing ourselves to fall victim and get lost in that haze of false nostalgia talked about in the last letter, the make believe where, once upon a time, politics was an entirely noble pursuit, a virtuous calling, an honorable profession because it resembled some sort of era where they used to “just agree with me.” It would be the same grand delusion we often hold for ourselves individually and within. Homeric self-deception. Mythomania.
At this point, I’ve rambled far too long and I can’t figure out how to stop rambling and close.
Politics are a low down dirty fight and that will never change. But sometimes it’s in the low down and the dirty fights where we find our greatest champions and heroes. It is often those who travel through the deepest pits of despair and have the will and the courage to continue who emerge and shine brightest on the other side. To bring ol’ Winston back around, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
There is no one better than you just as there are no People better than us but, sometimes, we need a reminder that We, too, are not better than any other. And it is up to us to do all we can to help another understand where we are coming from, even if that means for us to adapt within, and to change the way we fight and express ourselves without being intimidated by the fight or removing ourselves from the fight altogether. We the People are no better and no worse than those who came before, but as long as We the People continue to try to be better, we’ll be all right.
Be comforted, be comforted.