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Brief Observations At the Still Point 


Many of us experience what David James Duncan experiences in his essay, No Great Things. He evokes the splendid example of nature which does not care for the bs of political manipulation and, in fact, is an antidote to it.

The strain of Thoreausim is very strong in parts of the United States. What real man would choose to live in a political culture over living in and among nature? I suppose nature and politics commingle at one central point: We wish to possess the secret to both and yet they fly onward, their own secret, showing us always our state of powerlessness.

Rosseau contended that the criminal fleeing the cops is better off than trying to survive by himself in nature. Once in a great while you read about a criminal who lives in the mountains, escaping the FBI and local police but most criminals usually hide in the bad section of cities and are caught and put in jail. The normal person always feels great in nature because he knows he will return to human society. After all, when men or women are lost in nature large teams of rescuer's are sent out to bring them back. They don't belong there. They will perish there against the powers of nature. Some of the more brilliant suicides occur when men or women walk into the woods until they are devoured.

And the question is never "either politics or nature," but what can we learn from nature to apply to our political culture. One could even assert that politics is nature without the beauty and texture. That politics is the war between tribes of ants who must war or be annihilated. Every instinct in them tells them so. "If my tribe does not build defenses it will be devoured, run over, by this tribe over there." And, obviously, the other tribe says the same thing and so the great clash happens. It happens in nature, in history, and in the present day. Nothing in nature redeems us except beauty. There is no behavior that can help us. There is no law in nature that will fulfill our promise as free people.

That's not to say we can or should destroy nature. We do so at the risk of our physical existence and our souls. Nature teaches us balance among other things. It teaches a great sense of communion. We grew out of nature, not to conquer her, but to be what-we-were-destined-to-become.

Politics looks, often, like the fight between birds in trees I have known. It is fierce and all-involving. Who finally wins? The mere observer can't know. But he knows that the fight was utterly ferocious with dive bombs into the bird nest and wild screeching from different limbs or the arching trees. There was no peace during the war of the birds.


In good societies politics is war without bullets. And later on the soldiers realize that while they have pride in their battles they were merely the manipulated ones. And they see their putative enemy as, too, a cog and so can enjoy a beer together at the local tavern. Why not?

The brilliance of the founders accepted politics as war; a war from which the majority benefited since there is no such thing as "absolute politics." In our day the conservatives protect the organizing principles and the liberals offer up reasons to sacrifice for the future. They both need each other. Whereas in many part of the world the war is deadly. The bombs go off. The hatred is profound and long-lasting. Europe sank in the 20th century because it was caught between communism and fascism. America, thankfully, escaped both those scourges and created a liberal democracy that, on the one hand, recognizes that every person must fight for what they know and believe and yet, understand the necessity for the enemy as well.

The question is as old as Adam. We were thrown out of nature. The disgust or adrenaline of such a thought determines a great deal about what a person may be up to. It is a war that slides up and through time leaving behind either good laws or terrible lessons. When change is a necessity it becomes an instinct that is driven deep into the spirit of the political animal. Some of the animals rally to the instinct and others try to fight it. It is rarely fabricated and in our time so much fabrication occurs, so much of the fake and manipulative that politics is a war most people choose not to listen to. And what are warriors and generals if no one pays attention to their wars? They are nothing but sad human beings.

March 28, 2006

There are times when America seems so perfect we can hardly bring ourselves to point out problems. Perfect inasmuch as a huge nation-state can be perfect. I may believe democracy won't work in Iraq because none of the habits are in place for that to happen but in America those habits are well-worn in the grain of things. Checks and balances, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, equality under the law, accountability are all parts of the great core habits in America.

The greatest failing in America is ignorance. This is the great blind spot of America and it damages the great potential that exists here. The central reason why ignorance is so damaging is that a democracy demands people know as much as those who rule them. When the equation is skewered there is manipulation, control, and rage as people discover the gap they are falling through. Ignorance can be enforced by a family, community, church, corporation, government agency; anything with authority. The results are appalling. The effect, itself, can be a toxic ceiling imposing the will to ignorance on everyone.

At that moment people are cut-away from the animating principles that drive the whole ship forward. Tolerance, for instance.

The Principle of Rapid Turnover

The framers of the Constitution pulled down King rule by limiting and staggering the terms of the representatives. Every two, four, and six years those in power must account for themselves. We may bash the ways and means those in power account for themselves but we are glad the process is in place.

What would things have been like had, for instance, John Kennedy become king in 1960, escaped assassination, and was, now in 2006, in his last days of rule? Certainly, his advisers would have wrangled among themselves to take over from the feeble king. It is a book that should be written: The rule of one man through the 60's, 70's, 80's, 90's, and first few years of the 21st century.

For one thing, whatever his liberal leanings were in youth, he would have become much more conservative when older as usually happens to people. Failing health would be accompanied by failing memory and mental abilities leaving him open to a paralysis of ideas and manipulation by the inner circle. He may have initiated any number of eccentric policies that would, in the long-term, prove disastrous. It's all interesting speculation because we know that during that time we had JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush Jr. And eighteen different sessions of Congress. And several Chief Justices and a bevy of new Associate Justices. This rapid turnover creates vitality and is supposed to mitigate against corruption and paralysis but let's not judge to quickly.

The People Are Ignorant of the Power They Have

Here is the interesting point. While there is a rapid turnover in the political class there is a slow and evolving shift in the collective mind that determines so much in any given era. In my time I've seen two dominant shifts. One occurred from the Kennedy election in 1960 to the Reagan election in 1980. This era was dominated by a populace giddy for the new wealth created after the World War II period, giddy for being the powerful entity it had become, optimistic about the use of government to solve problems and do the extraordinary like land on the moon. It was an era of huge issues and demanding thought since everything seemed up in the air, especially as the war in Vietnam became more controversial. In the final five or six years of that period, after Watergate, there was an enormous deflation in every sense of the word. Cynicism came to dominate. Escapism replaced commitment. The era just died into the good Earth. It was an exuberant time, with new ideas leaping out of every box imaginable. The young had their swords out cutting the legs off everything that was inauthentic to them.

The shift occurred with the election of Reagan in 1980. It took several years to kick in but by 1983 the shift was palpable. There was a reversal of good feeling about the previous era, it was denounced, government was vilified, the activist marginalized, the entrepreneur at the center. Looking back over those two decades many exciting things happened. For one the computer revolution and Internet came into being. For another, the cold war came to a whimpering end. The good habits of the previous era were not buried but integrated into the era: environmental husbandry, equal rights for women and minorities, among others. The counter-culture was replaced by personal faith and family. Collective thinking was replaced by individual action. The liberals floundered and the conservatives pranced.

In both eras it didn't matter who was running but how they stacked up against the prevailing zeitgeist. When you think about it only Nixon could have become president in this new era and only Clinton could have been president in the 60-80 period of time. And it's interesting to note they were very flawed people; Nixon had a mental illness of some sort but, ironically, would be effective in this time because of his abilities in foreign affairs. And Clinton was a pure political animal changing spots when he understood the environment around him.

"Well," the man asks, "is the twenty years up for this present era?" There is one fundamental difference between the two era's. In the first one from Kennedy to Reagan the country and, in fact, world experienced an adrenaline hit the like of which it hasn't had before or after. And it appears that these fits of adrenaline are necessary for huge nation states to make necessary changes. They occur once or twice in a century and if you go through it you survive (America) and if you don't you perish (Soviet Union).

So, what's up ahead? Certainly another shift will occur, another hit of adrenaline but it won't come until new ideas are applied to old problems. The habitual ways of thinking among the left simply dries it up. The conservatives can beat the drum of fear and caution for quite awhile.

February 27, 2006

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Post-election 2004

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The Progressive Era

What is a perfect President?

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Affirmative Action

Liberals and Nuders

The Trent Lott Affair

Why the Democrats are in Trouble

The Uncertain Decade

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