Thursday, August 20, 2009

Having Pushed the Knob to Eleven...

There has been a lot of impassioned disagreement these past few weeks about the issue of health insurance in this country. People from all parts of the political spectrum - most of them well-intentioned but not all of them - have spent considerable amounts of time during August's dog days making their voices heard on the issue.

At one level, all of the hue and cry is something that I find very appealing. You see I have always considered unsustainable the hypothesis of "What if everyone agreed" regardless of whatever the issue is then and there commanding the front page, bold type, above the fold headlines. America is a republic. It is a republic that was formed in significant part by folks who could not abide by whatever the prevailing wisdom was in the nation(s) of their birth on issues of religion, politics, ethics and society. People who rather than stay, capitulate and suffer in silence (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), hopped on Google Earth to locate the Williams-Sonoma store (is there a more hair-hurting, pretentious retail establishment on the planet) most conveniently juxtaposed to their location in order to pick up their monogrammed, tartan plaid kit bag and made the great migration West - some even smiling all the while. Americans are a disagreeable lot by nature. Even when a thing is the "next big thing" not all of us take a number and line up to get a glimpse of it and to touch it. Ask the 46% of the 122 million voters who did not purchase a ticket to board the Obama Express in last November's Presidential election. Even the brightest, shiniest, most exciting next big thing to ever come down the pike did not feel the love of more than 56 million voters.

Yet, the object of the exercise is not simply to yell the loudest and the longest. A war of attrition if you will - to defeat your opposition not by using your gray matter but - instead - your vocal chords. We have seen all over this country recently real live, technicolor demonstrations of the fine line that separates spirited political discourse from the walk-out bout on a WWE Monday Night Raw card. And sometimes, perhaps due to the law of inevitably, whether we want to or not and whether we intend to or not, we get caught on the wrong side of that line.

Again, tripping over the line of demarcation that separates irony from coincidence I know not whether it is the former or the latter that controls the fact that the more technology we possess and the more information we have access to, the more ignorant we have become of our own history. Being a person who tends to think visual, I find it useful to have a framed photo on the wall of my office, which I can look at while I work on my computer (and which probably explains the occasional typo), of the western entrance to Norlin Library at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Etched into the stone is President George Norlin's charge to a graduating class. Paraphrasing Cicero, President Norlin exhorted his school's graduates that, "WHO KNOWS ONLY HIS OWN GENERATION REMAINS ALWAYS A CHILD". We have developed a tendency in this nation to react to every disagreement, every political argument, every problem that pops its head above the tree line as if it is the greatest, most complicated, most daunting task that we the people have ever faced - and have ever been called upon to marshal our resources to address.

Setting aside the seemingly insurmountable task that faced our forefathers (and mothers, sisters and brothers) at the moment of national conception (you might recall that small matter of picking a fight with the baddest dude on the block and declaring our independence six or seven years before we had actually secured it), it bears remembering that this nation has been faced with rather gynormous problems throughout our history. And it also bears remembering the hard lessons we have learned from the failure to solve them through democratic (small "D" - no party affiliation, just a conceptual framework) means as opposed to a less pleasant alternative.

I am presently reading "An American Lion", which is John Meacham's Pulitzer Prize winning work examining Andrew Jackson in the White House. Jackson was elected to the White House in 1828 when the deep-seated discord between those in the North and those in the South had already started to boil. It was during Jackson's first term - in the winter of 1830 - that the United States Senate bore witness to the Webster-Hayne debate, an unplanned series of speeches in the Senate, during which Robert Hayne of South Carolina interpreted the Constitution as little more than a treaty between sovereign states, and Daniel Webster expressed the concept of the United States as one nation.

In Meacham's book, he pays particular attention to the speech of a senator from Louisiana, which was made on the floor of the Senate in early March 1830. Edward Livingston reminded his brethren in the Senate that while discourse was healthy, partisanship for the sake of partisanship was not merely unproductive, it was potentially dangerous. Livingston said, "I am no censor of the conduct of others: it is sufficient for me to watch over my own. The wisdom of gentlemen must be their guide in the sentiments they entertain and their discretion in the language in which they utter them. No doubt they think the occasion calls for the warmth they have shown; but of this the people must judge."

What was true almost one hundred and seventy years ago remains true today. We the people must judge what actions shall be taken ultimately by the men and women we have elected to represent us, whether we voted for a particular candidate or not. The duty placed in us is one to be exercised vigorously. But we can never mistake volume for vigor. The two are not interchangeable concepts.

We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. And we cannot solve them simply by attempting to scream our way to victory. Much can be learned by taking a step back and listening as opposed to perpetually moving forward and posturing.

Of this the people must judge. And it will not only be we the people who are here now doing the judging. It shall be those who come after us. Not our generation, but the next. And the ones to come thereafter.


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