Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Genius, The Moron, And The Pigeon

The Genius, The Moron, And The Pigeon

There is a wonderful story about Albert Einstein’s adventures with shaving.  For years, he complained about how hard it was, how rough it was on his face.  Until it became clear that he used just water and a blade.  A friend purchased him a tube of shaving cream, and each day he emerged, face beaming, with the deep satisfaction of a comfortable shave.  Until the tube ran out, and then he returned to plain water.  He apparently did not comprehend that one could acquire a replacement tube.

I don’t know if this story is true or just part of urban legend, but this is the same man who never carried money (what would he spend it on?) or learned to drive.  So, apocryphal or not, it certainly has some credibility, and adds to his already formidable wooly-haired uniquely egg-headed charm.

I mention this because I wrote most of this sitting in my “vintage” car on a slow moving line in order to purchase a few drops of gas.  This should distinguish me from Einstein in at least two ways.  I have a MacBook Air, and he didn’t.  And I know how to drive. 

So, we have firmly established that I am no Einstein. I would add that I do buy and use shaving cream.  But, am I a moron? 

In deference to my ego, we aren’t going to explore that right now.  My friend Cynical Cynic presented me with what amounted to a hypothetical, and I posted it on line in a reader’s forum on the Washington Post.  Let’s take an educated, middle to upper middle class voter ("Hank") who might benefit from Romney’s tax/economic policies but was reluctant to vote for him because of the GOP’s social agenda.  

Hank was scorned by several of the Romney supporters, and one in particular seemed exceptionally offended.   He said Hank was a “Moron”.  So, in a series of replies afterwards,  I began to fill in the blanks about Hank: happily married, two teenaged daughters, professionally successful, active in his community, as was his wife and children.  Each new detail brought out an additional “Moron”.  At one point he doubled down and said if Hank really cared so much about having his daughters get abortions on demand, didn’t he realize that neither the GOP or Mitt had any intention of in any way touching reproductive rights? Furthest things from their minds.  Needless to say, several people followed immediately with direct quotes from Mitt and the Platform which said the exact opposite.  By the time I was finished, Hank could have been Mitt himself (without the stupendous wallet.)  It did not help.  Through at least six rounds of call and response, he remained a “Moron”.  When one conservative commenter gently suggested that perhaps “Moron” wasn’t the way to win hearts and minds, the aggrieved accuser switched to “imbecile.”

Our angry Romneyite isn’t alone.  There are a lot of people who detach themselves from reality and indulge themselves in rage.  As the campaign drags to a conclusion, the spin is overwhelming, and it’s hard to realize that at the end of day, there will be a President and a Congress and most people will have to go back to their day jobs.  Here’s an ugly little truth.  For all the build-up and the shiny packaging, neither Romney or Obama is truly a transformational figure.  Neither is ready to break from the dogma of their respective parties for a new path.  Both embody their own peculiar paternalism.  Neither the candidates, nor their parties, trust the people.  Romney and Obama are top-down statists. They don’t ask us to be better.

That’s wrong, because the success of a large enterprise doesn’t just rely on the contributions of one person.  Yes, you need leadership, but you also need individual effort, initiative, and experimentation.  Our own history shows that.  The Greatest Generation fought and won WWII through both collective effort and individual accomplishment.  Those men and women intuitively understood that while not everyone was going to be an Eisenhower or Audie Murphy, you had to do your bit. There would be failure along with success,  but everyone could do something.  There was pride in contributing, and shame in shirking. 

Which brings me to the individual efforts of military carrier pigeon 40TW194, a brave little Brit who last flapped his wings over the chimney of a 17th Century home in Sussex. The owner of the house, David Martin, had thought to renovate the chimney and went for a peek, whereupon which he was rewarded with a shower of bird bones.  One desiccated drumstick had a red capsule in it, and inside the capsule was a coded message.

England is a place where things tend to take time (decades, centuries, millennia) so, while 40TW194 was discovered in 1982, it’s only recently that the code drew the attention from those spooks and solons who occupy the grey halls of power. 

Now they have, because coded messages carried by pigeons were somewhat unusual, and it turns out that Mr. Martin’s home is between Bletchley, the legendary place of code breakers and Enigma, and the pre-D-Day headquarters of Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery.

What secrets were in the scarlet tube?  We don’t know yet, but, what we do know is that the Brits, even now,  understand something we seem to have forgotten: individual effort, even by the smallest contributors, must be honored.  They have awarded the Dickin Medal, Britain’s highest decoration for animal valor, 64 times--half of them to pigeons.  There is something to be learned from this.

40TW194 perished while trying to do his part, in his own way, through his own efforts. The pigeon-keeper who sent him on his way didn’t tell him how to flap.

So, as you go into vote, I leave you with two quotes from Einstein.   “I think and think for months and years. Ninety-nine times, the conclusion is false. The hundredth time I am right.”

And, “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again.”