Wednesday, August 17, 2005

The Half-Glassed Metaphor

I had a recent email exchange with an old buddy who seemed decidedly pessimistic about the political scene in the homeland. He offered an analysis of that tired old cliché about viewing the glass as either half-empty or half-full. He noted that the perspective is quite dependent upon whether one is pouring or drinking.

Here’s a part of the dialogue:

Here's something, though: I hold a very particular concept of America that is set in a context which includes a very scrupulous understanding of values ("ethics", although very people who use the word have a clue to what it's all about) and their origin and function. I am an individualist, Ed. I happen to have concluded that the finest political development in human history was the applied individualism manifest in 1776 -- and 1789 had nothing to do with any of it.

We're on the same sheet of music, metaphorically speaking. A few years ago when, in a mis-guided moment of recovering Catholic "chutzpah", I chose to run for the state legislature in Colorado, I got trashed in the run-up to the primary by my opponent, a darling of the Focus on the Family crowd who dropped out of college after a year, was working as a cold-caller in a telemarketing boiler room, but was staunchly pro-life, hence the good guy. I on the other hand was over-educated, over-experienced, and overly ethical.

The rightwing conservatives of the party totally repudiated me, since someone who thought individuals not governments should make personal decisions and who didn't attend a church and had no children could not be morally upright. (It reminded my wife of a period in her college years when she had a number of ultra-Baptist friends. They asked her once if she would do something bad if she were certain that no one would find out. She replied that no, she would not. Wrong was wrong, even if undiscovered. They were astonished that it didn't take fear of hell to keep someone moral.)

Well, as Paul Harvey might relate, my opponent got elected, rose to Speaker of the House in the Colorado assembly--divorced his wife and abandoned his three children, shacked up with a lobbyist in Denver, got thrown out by her for philandering and was caught by the Denver PD trying to break into her house with a screwdriver--but at least he was still pro-life! Which doesn’t even get to the peeing on the potted plants in the lobby of the Brown Palace Hotel at an official function. (Although the behavior sounds remarkably like something a fighter pilot might engage in, we do have standards—low standards, but standards nevertheless.)

What all this has to do with the assertion that things are getting better is pretty simple: I don't care. The reason is because it's freedom, Ed, which makes life worthwhile, regardless of anything else. And it has never existed in my homeland in my lifetime, which is more than half gone now, and that -- like I said -- has crucial implications for the quality of my life.

This government has had its way with my life in all kinds of ways that should have been none but my own. Now, I'm the one who chose to resist that in every single way I could. I don't complain about the price, but that I should have had to pay it in the first place, and that's a crucial and valid distinction. I was not born for the pleasure of the creeps in Washington -- nor were you or anyone else, but I'm the one who concerns me. And I find no value in the chance, which is all it is, and not a very good one, that this place is going to be America someday after I'm gone. This is the only life I'm ever going to live, and it should have been all mine. That was the value, Ed, and the best part of it is gone, now.

A favorite quote is the one from Ben Franklin regarding "those who would sacrifice liberty for security" deserving neither. The fact is that Rousseau's Social Contract requires precisely that. When we choose to live in a society, we give up some choices--we sacrifice some liberty. The essential question is where the line gets drawn on the spectrum from total freedom (i.e. anarchy) to total security (the ultimate nanny-state--Alcatraz or its modern equivalent.) We've been pretty good in the US about getting the line drawn in a tolerable place although occasionally it drifts excessively from the sweet spot.

A good argument can be made that in my lifetime, I've seen freedom increased dramatically in this country. When I was growing up we had conscription, segregation, censorship, mandated prayer in schools, repressive taxation, prohibited abortion, etc. Now we've got an all-volunteer military, arguable integration, almost unlimited access to some of the most disgusting music, movies, TV and Internet crap that man is capable of, a virtual denial of spirituality in all things public, a tax structure that while still redistribution does much to encourage free enterprise, and medical reproductive services almost without limit.

On the other hand, an equally good argument can be made to the opposite side. We have more governmental intrusion, more victimless crimes, more propagandizing, poorer educational opportunities, more mandated association and affirmative actions, etc. etc. Worst of all we've got the apparently developmentally disabled cadre of the TSA which most recently has been highlighted as prohibiting ten-month-old infants from boarding airplanes because they can't exercise the judgment to determine the baby is not a threat. Over all, I'm still pretty comfortable. And, despite the propaganda to the contrary, I've not been hampered one iota by the Patriot Act.

Like I said: I have my moments. But I can't ignore what I see, and -- for one big-deal thing -- I don't see any hope in the red states. Certainly not in my own lifetime, but not even in the long run.

I think we still have history to make, Ed: this thing is going to end up as badly as it started out good. It's certainly not a law of history that things have to go that way, but we're talking about the difference between a healthy body and one that's obviously diseased, and it's simply not getting the care it needs.

Well, I can agree with part of it, but won't be as pessimistic about the outcome. The body politic has always been harboring disease. Dictatorships and democracies have come and gone on regular cycles. Ours is a little bit longer in the tooth than some, but not as elderly as others. The Brits have done well for a lot longer, but now that they've lost the homogeneity of their population they are suddenly faced with crisis over British society and culture. The various Euro-democracies are all in varying degrees more elitist than the US (which is no slouch in the elitism department) and decidedly more dissipated morally and misguided economically.

Every once in a while the US gets jolted back onto track. 9/11 was such a jolt as was WW II in a much larger sense. Our Civil War was a jolt and the Depression was a jolt. Each time we get nudged back toward a common goal. Sometime the reorientation is enduring and sometimes transitory. But, from my right-of-center perspective, I see the course correction working fairly well in correcting the excesses of the post-Vietnam liberal pacifism, the '80's "me generation" and the smug self-righteousness of the '90s.

Sam Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" seems to me to have been remarkably prescient.

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