The Horrible and the Miserable
There is a dusty box somewhere, perhaps in my storage room, or perhaps, somehow, thankfully, “inadvertently” discarded, and in it is a copy of my Junior High School yearbook, circa the Nixon Administration. Along with the usual clichés and gruesome pictures likely to send my kids into paroxysms of laughter is a “Most Likely To Become…” page.
I was not voted most likely to be a CEO, or a corporate tycoon, or a doctor, or a car mechanic. Nor a rock star or a movie idol or quarterback. I didn’t even get something cerebral-but-drab like accountant or actuary. Instead I was picked most likely to become a politician. I wouldn’t have remembered this at all if it weren’t for the little caricatures that went with each job. Cool ones for the cool guys with guitars, and actors with Dudley Do-Right smiles, and athletes in helmets. As for the politician, there was a gnome-like man, balding, a bit overweight, in a rumpled suit, with his mouth open and his finger pointed towards the sky, ready to speechify.
I’m not sure this was considered praise, nor why I was selected for this particular “honor” but nevertheless, there I was, future politician. The bad news is that the caricature turned out to be remarkable prescient (except for chubby part.)
The truth was that I was a politics and history junkie even then. I thought the two best jobs in the world would either to be a doctor like Joseph Bell (Conan Doyle’s model for Sherlock Holmes) or a Senator. Either the acutely observant, or the acutely loquacious.
History tends to be defined by great men and women, but American history is not just the story of the four up on Mount Rushmore, it’s something really quite unique. In less than 250 years, we freed ourselves from a great empire, conquered a continent, won two World Wars, built an economic and industrial powerhouse with an expanding middle class, became the indispensible country, and did it all while working with a real democracy from the very onset. This last part is what makes us different. Other nations have risen to great power guided by monarchies, aristocracies, or dictatorships—central organizing forces. We did it while being wholly self-governed, through a combination of individually directed and collective efforts.
There is a peculiar genius in this. In effect, we created a gyroscope of competing economic and political interests that often tilts in one direction or another, but keeps spinning. We make a great many mistakes; some acts of omission, some deliberate, more than a few of which brought us no honor. We have wasted stupendous amounts of treasure and lives. We have an unnerving propensity for occasional violence. In a very short period of time, with limited effort, I could list 50 things we completely screwed up.
And yet, like the gyroscope, we keep spinning and moving, and accomplishing, all the while moaning and groaning about how hard our lives are, how horrible the rest of the world is to us, and how miserable our kids future will be. Of course, there’s more than just self-pity here—we need to blame people for the awfulness of our day-to-day existence. And there’s always someone out there who’s fault it is. The guy who is richer than us, or the one who is poorer. The moral scolds who want to tell us what to do or the libertine dopers. The gun-lovers or the gun-haters. The “program for every problem” and the “government is the only problem” crowds. The list, and the opprobrium, is endless
And still, we keep moving, often with that great creativity that flourishes best in an atmosphere of political and economic freedom when matched with comparative stability. But we aren’t a perfect machine, and there are times when our problems seem almost insuperable and our leadership inadequate to meet the challenge. There is a terrific, understated moment in “Children of a Lesser God” where the hearing and speaking Leeds (William Hurt in the film) is so emotionally overloaded by the tension of communicating in sign language with Sarah (Marlee Matlan), his deaf lover, that he literally has to turn the noise off—by flinging himself down on the couch and turning on (quite loud) classical music.
That’s very much where were are right now. Too much noise. The world is filled with invasions, lunatic murderers, virulent diseases, and intractable poverty. And our leadership seems, well, just awful, from Mr. Obama’s apparent isolation and passivity, to the opportunistic and self-aggrandizing behavior of his opponents. Our peculiar genius seems, at this moment, more attuned to pointing fingers and barking at each other.
Every week, we seem to have a new challenge, and a new demonstration of our incapacity to govern well. Today, the crisis in the Middle East and the rise of ISIL dominated the Sunday talk shows. Each featured one Republican after another denouncing the enemy—Obama. They all want more manly muscularity—each one reads from the playbook, spouting off platitudes as if they were self-evident truths. Paul Ryan says “Obama must act decisively” and Kelly Ayotte says containing ISIL “won’t cut it” and Mike Rogers claims, “ISIL is one plane ticket away from the US,” Deep thinkers, all. My favorite is Senator’s McCain’s “ISIL could have been prevented.”
Sure, if only an American President had been willing to go to war in the Middle East with massive force, there would be no terrorists. None. The entire region would be a happy, peaceful land of freedom-loving capitalists.
We have to break away from this. We have to acknowledge that the enemy is at the gate, and there’s no time for petty squabbling. Tom Friedman of the New York Times nails it in this Sunday’s New York Times. “We’ve got to stop messing around at home as if this moment is just the same-old, same-old — and our real and tacit allies had better wake up, too. Preserving and expanding the world of sustainable order is the leadership challenge of our time.”
Can a democracy, where the constant struggle for power often obscures the greater good, accomplish this? I still think so.
Tony Blair, upon the occasion of his last “Question Time” as his ten years as Prime Minister drew to a close, said something remarkable, and oddly antique. “Some may belittle politics but we know, who are engaged in it that it is where people stand tall. And although I know it has its many harsh contentions it is still the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster. And if it is on occasions the place of low skullduggery it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes, and I wish everyone, friend or foe well, and that is that, the end.”
Not so horrible, and not so miserable? Blair might have made a good Senator. Of course, we split with those chaps a while back.
August 24, 2014
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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