27 March 2010

Raking Dead Leaves as a Political Act

Though cool, the sun was out and my back yard was dry and full of the debris of winter. Feeling the need to do something and not just sit there, with apologies to my Quaker and Jewish selves this sabbath, I went out with my rake to pull the dead leaves and sticks from the tangle of undergrowth.

Then I grabbed a pear of clippers and cut back the dead stalks of ornamental grass and the spindly remains of the butterfly bushes. Finally, I swept the bits of roadway that the city snowplow had heaped onto my curbside since December. Pebbles, stones, chips of asphalt, and trash of all sorts. Altogether about 2-3 hours work and very satisfying.

As I stood there, dragging leaves with my rake, I recalled that the leaves were on the trees just a few months ago. More would be coming soon, and they too would eventually fall. The dormant hosta and peony on which these leaves had fallen would have their day and then also wilt. It was enough to make a fellow remember ancient words, "vanity, vanity, all is vanity."

My fellow citizens are feeling this right now, about their government. Nothing really changes. What good can ever come of this. Cynicism has crept into the garden of our culture as surely as blossom rot. To care about the country, to believe in its future, makes about as much sense of raking dead leaves. It won't help. There will only be more dead leaves next year.

But I did it, despite knowing it will never end. I raked the leaves because it is my job as much as it is the trees job to makes leaves and the flowers to blossom and the spring to come.

Giving up is not allowed. Sure, I will not save the world, nor will it be perfected in my lifetime. But that does not excuse from trying, any more than knowing I will not likely get rich allows me to stop working. Personal reward is immaterial. Citizenship is inalienable because it is part of what being human is.

We all have to rake leaves - pay taxes, vote, obey the law, shovel our walks, take turns - because that is what life requires of us. There is no reward for this, because being alive itself makes debtors of us all. The price seems quite low here in America, considering the alternatives.

Sorry to preach at you. But it's Saturday, when I practice. I suppose that I should give you the other part as well, to make up for it.

Blessings be yours!

Now go rake the leaves.

23 March 2010

While I'm On The Subject

Not health care reform, but the nature of government, it seems a good time to do a little mock campaigning about real values. (see my post from Feb 13)

In all the hoopla about the role of government, one question that never gets asked is what do representatives represent? Ours is a representative democracy, which means we select people to deliberate on our behalf, all the way from town council to US Congress.

Direct democracy is actually rather rare. For a few years in young adulthood I lived in New England, where smaller towns still have 'town meeting' where any citizen can attend and decide the budget and other matters. But that is the exception, and even they elect selectmen and other officers to manage the town between general meetings.

Now, in those smaller towns and cities, a representative may well know the local folk, and bring their perspective to bear on parks and roads and public safety. But as the catchment gets larger, the idea that the representative can literally know the people gets harder and harder.

In the US, a Congressional district contains about 600,000. For Montana and Vermont that means the whole state. No one person can know them all. What's more they will have such a diverse array of needs and ideas that there is no single point of view that comprises them all. So when they elect a representative what does that person represent?

Integrity and honesty. We like to believe that we should elect a good soul. This is what the founders had in mid, a sort of moral aristocracy who would deliberate the needs of the nation as a whole not the agenda of sub groups like farmers or merchants. I commend professor Sean Willentz' book, The Rise of American Democracy, to explain why that didn't work out.

And yet, cut to the bone, that's still what we want. Thus I conclude that a representative exists to represent America, not the district. We should send a representative American, whose job is as much to tell those in the fly-over regions and elsewhere why this or that law is good for the nation and therefore good for us as well.

A real representative brings the country to the district more than the district to the country, is a teacher of national interests and national virtues and national dreams.

Perhaps we would be better off if we drafted them, plucked 435 people by lottery, and brought them to Washington DC to talk, listen, and find out what divides us and what unites us how to overcome the former and strengthen the latter.

That's why I am not actually on the ballot. (OK, that's a little dishonest. In full disclosure mode, it is that but also not having people to go out and get all those blessed signatures, and not being willing to play the political game of trading promises for votes and all that.)

Still, wouldn't it be great if our overnment was not dependent on winning elections, paying your supporters for helping you win, and then doing it all over again every two years? Is this representative democracy, or is it just representative politics?

20 March 2010

Forgive Me

but I think we have lost our nerve, as a country I mean.

Sure, we can send boys and girls to fight far away, but when it comes to shouldering our duty as citizens we are wimps.

Yes, I am talking about health coverage reform, and the baldly demagogic language that is breathtakingly hypocritical, all meant to stir a mixture of fear and outrage.

But the real intent is to cultivate an atavistic, atomistic idea of America as a wild west nation where all that matters is me and mine.

It looks all sorts of brave, but is really cowardly as courage in my world is about standing up for principles even when it costs you. Standing up for your rights, even if it hurts others, is not courage at all.

I say, let's show some real nerve in this country, not pretend courage.

- For example, let's have a war tax, one that pays for Iraq and Afghanistan. If we are really committed to do it, let's agree to pay for it with a tax increase. Whenever we enter a war, let's ask the country to pay for it. Send us all a bill, except for those in the armed services. Let's send them and their families a check.

- Let's see who's really pulling the strings, by publishing the tax returns of everyone in Congress and the State Legislatures. You want the public trust, trust us by showing us your stake. And that goes for all those vague organizations that run political commercials. Let me see names, real names, and companies. If you're that powerful why hide?

- And let's admit that health care works best when it is more like water departments and sewer departments and fire departments than it is like Walmart or Kmart or Costco. Man up America!

13 March 2010

Back To Normal

After a week of sunny warm days, we are back to wet and cloudy, which is more normal for West Michigan this time of year. Not that I was complaining, of course, but it was odd to see so much sun at the end of winter. Our mountain of snow is all but gone now, finished off by the rains yesterday and today.

Human beings can live anywhere, and as Milton observed, "make a heaven of hell," if memory serves. We thrive in deserts and jungles, perched on precipices and sprawled on beaches. This may be why we are so dominant, and why we are so dangerous to the planet. But that's another post.

I am simply noting how almost anything can become normal, meaning expected and even comforting. Consistency is powerful, even when what is consistent is difficult or even painful. Consider how many people stay in bad marriages, endure dreary jobs, accept cruel governments, just because the thought of change is even harder. We may be adaptable, but once we adapt we like things to stay put.

Alexander Pope was so smart,

...Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest,
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer,
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself abus'd, or disabus'd;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless error hurl'd:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

07 March 2010

The Unlived Life?

Was it Tristram Shandy who discovered that that recording his life in a diary took more time than doing the stuff he recorded? I am not sure, but it feels right. A week passed without a post because the stuff of life crowded out the time to reflect on it.

Overall, this is better than the opposite, having more time to reflect than stuff to reflect upon. As some wag years ago observed, "If the unexamined life is not worth living (Socrates) then the unlived life is not worth examining."

Maybe Aristotle was right about moderation, by which he meant a balance of elements. (Was he perhaps an unconscious Taoist?) Anyway, the good life, meaning a life worth living, needs to be active and reflective, moral and aesthetic, personal and social, religious and secular, and so on. How much of each depends on the moment in time. Asleep is not a good time for exercise, to be obvious.

This past week, for example, has been long on the active and short on the reflective, more moral than aesthetic, more social than personal. Hence no post for seven days.

My question is how to decide when to be what? Outside forces push us toward one side or the other, but we are decisive creatures who respond to outside forces by choice not by instinct. That's the part that makes us human. That also means we may be more right or more wrong about that choice and seldom completely sure when the choice is required.

Chores are beckoning again, and who knows when I shall have time to write next. I shall have to be content with troubling you with the conundrum of choices and balances and the twin tensile tasks of action and reflection.

Content with troubling? There's another balance!