An Elegy for Good Men
Posted on August 8, 2013 by Blake Leath
“Those who defend mediocrity get to keep it.” —Author Unknown
As a general rule, I resist complaining about things I cannot solve. Or, at least, would not strive to solve. Or, at the very least, believe I cannot dent.
But today, I'll climb the tallest peak and scream into the wind, "We deserve better." Or, if we do not deserve better—I sure wish we had better.
Perhaps we get and have precisely what we deserve. Maybe that's part of the problem? Maybe too many of the good, worthy people see the growing abomination that is “professional politics” and elect, wisely, to not stick their hands in the gears and risk mangling everything and everyone near and dear to them.
I don’t know.
I’d like to say, “I don’t know anymore,” but I suspect I never knew. I have never understood politics, perhaps because I confuse it with public service, public policy, legislation and law itself. More accurately, I suspect it’s because I mistake it for a brew that illogically combines ethics, morality and denying oneself.
I would like to think, perhaps naively, that our founding fathers were wiser. Were better. Were more noble, selfless, sacrificial than today’s leaders. But the more I read David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss and their ilk, the more inclined I am to relinquish such pollyanna notions. Forever in awe of all our founding fathers accomplished, but also acutely aware that lightning rarely strikes the same target twice, I’m inclined to believe the 18th Century was the perfect libertarian greenhouse—and one that we shall not soon see again. An alchemic period that combined crisis and opportunity, burden and hope, pragmatism and intellectualism with the will to change or die trying. A flash of transcendent alliances that brought France to the aid of ragged and often disjointed colonists, legislators and entrepreneurs and writers and social philosophers to the cause célèbre of freedom, and settlements separated by time and space and culture and ideology together at the eleventh hour to achieve something momentous if not altogether unprecedented.
An assembly of flawed human beings, many of whom were slave owners, or womanizers, or self-serving schemers parading as diplomats to curry favor with the wealthy. In spite of these sins, which range from avarice to arrogance (ailments as old as time), a Committee of Five, comprised most notably of Thomas Jefferson, whipped up the most delicious rhetoric this side of the Renaissance that began with the soaring teaser, “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It’s unquestionably one of the most gorgeous, luminescent, ambitious preambles of all time.
Its piers bore deep, to the bedrock of all human expectation. Its slab runs broadly, invoking freedom and joy. Its spire reaches high, as if brushing the hem of God Almighty and tugging at the warm side of His promises.
Thirteen years shy of one century later, this timeless preamble would be as fresh to Abraham Lincoln as if it had been written days prior when he solemnly opened his Gettysburg Address with the words, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
America’s work—the great democratic experiment—continued to blossom 101 years later with the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act.
The work continues, and I trust it always will.
But my disappointment, perhaps like yours, will ebb and flow over a lifetime. It recedes when we, as a nation, achieve something unique or spectacular, which we sometimes do. And it surges, as it does now, when I believe we can do better.
On a recent flight, the woman next to me saw that I was engrossed in This Town by Mark Leibovich. She remarked, “Is it any good?” to which I replied, “Yeah, it’s great. But disheartening.” “That’s what I’ve heard,” she replied, “I’ve thought about getting it, but I think it’ll just make me mad. I’m so sick of our politicians.”
And particularly the men.
To be reaching the end of This Town (synopsis) while turning on the news at night only to see Anthony Weiner stagger through the public arena like a man who’s been knocked out but doesn’t quite realize it yet (or accept it) brings into sharp focus how far we have fallen, how low our expectations have degraded in recent years. Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, Newt Gingrich, John Edwards, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton, and a longer, deeper list if one bothers to search.
And should one be willing to cast a broader net, the sort that scoops up professional male athletes, today’s baseball is replete with liars, gamblers and shenanigans of all sorts and stripes. As is cycling, football, basketball, seemingly every sport. And I wouldn’t let the winner of this past Sunday’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational anywhere near my child, his depravity runs so deep. He so wantonly objectified women through his perverted appetites that, were I the Mayor of Moralia, his photograph would be in a municipal database warning neighbors of his past offenses and current address. The notion that Nike values money over virtue is emblematic of the problem itself: as long as the cash flows, we care very little about the cesspool from which it springs or the stain it leaves behind.
At a recent dinner during which, of all people, Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson gave the invocation, he spoke passionately about our country, how far afield our leaders have wandered, and the immoral content our children are bombarded with daily via social media like fish in water. “God, help us through these times of depravity we find ourselves unwittingly swimming in.”
Our founding fathers were far from blemish-free, and perhaps today’s are no worse, but I had hoped we would have evolved by now. Martin Luther King optimistically commented, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” I would like to believe this is true, I will choose to believe this is true regardless, though I do seem to become more jaded and skeptical with time. I doubt whether justice is an ore mine-able on earth.
An eternal optimist becoming pessimistic. Say it isn’t so.
Writer and philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But it appears to me that those who do remember the past are simply inclined to see it as a transient news cycle, everyone getting a second, third, fourth act, and yesterday’s criminal is tomorrow’s gavel wielder, trophy hoister, or bedazzling spokesman.
I am comforted by grace and forgiveness, as we all—by any measuring stick—fall so short of our goodness, though I do hope against hope that from among our ranks, in this generation and not the next, an assembly of finer leaders would emerge in this nation. How they might become electable without possessing the pedigree that big money seems to back, yet still represent the common man, I do not know. How they might run the various gauntlets and gates required to win any votes without selling their souls or finding themselves over the proverbial barrel (indebted to this constituency or that while striving to find their own voice and letting the chips fall where they may), I do not know. How we might flush the overwhelming majority of leaders already entrenched within and attached to our nation’s capital and every city of consequence like cancer cells, parasites, barnacles or lichens, I do not know. How they might wind their way up from ‘everyday America’ without first graduating Harvard or creating a multi-billion dollar empire, I do not know. Why anyone capable would, in his or her right mind, willingly enter what Americans now view as the unseemly, seedy world of politics, I do not know.
But what joy it would bring me to see an army of saints overtake Washington. One can pray, and hope, and continue donating time and money to see it happen, but were it to occur, it would defy two out of three laws of motion: (1)First, some substantive force—stronger than the “We Are the 99% Movement”—would have to disrupt the inertia of current political practice, and (2)Second, this force would have to overcome the status quo in perpetuity, tantamount to a knife winning the gunfight, then holding that fort for a generation or two or three.
Highly unlikely, because where there is money, there is temptation. And where there is temptation, there are vices. And where there are vices, there are dealers and dopers and the reverberating echoes of depravity.
In short, Washington would have to become a vacuum, one devoid of money, squatter's rights, and limitless terms in which former legislators 'naturally' mutate into lobbyists and economic hangers-on. Somehow, inconceivably, the poli-sphere writ large would have to be perceived as a sacrificial and service-centric theater of actual contribution, not unlike a tour of duty (accompanied, as it is, by hazards and risks that one cannot endure indefinitely) rather than a mint.
Time, as always, will be the great arbiter.
And He who created time.
Meanwhile, rather than simply waiting for the ocean to boil (which it will, eventually, according to Revelation 19, 20 and 21), may we each commit to doing and being better one-on-one, in our families, in our places of worship, in our communities, in our villages-hamlets-towns-burgs-boroughs-cities-counties-states, and as actors on the national and international stages.
Butterflies flapping our wings and so forth, beachcombers throwing starfish back and all that, should the bedtime stories we heard as children (which reliably documented victorious protagonists and vanquished antagonists) prove true: “And they lived happily ever after. The End.”