Friday, November 20, 2020

"The secret weapon of democracy"

     As we wait for the next two eternal months—from today—to see if Donald Trump is able to subvert our democracy through backroom legal maneuvering, or will leave office to lead his 73 million dupe army in a furious rear-guard war against their own country, sentient America holds our breath, raises our voices, huffs on the spark of hope, prays, despairs, worries, laughs, and yearns for, if not a better future, then at least an end to the Trump ordeal.
     Searching for a hard bottom to our descent through this mire, I keep returning to those facts that Trump and his followers so blithely ignore. Facts matter, not out of some airy moral calculus, but because they're there, being facts, and will bite you in the ass. The brick wall will not be passed through, no matter how ghostly you feel. COVID-19 is a real virus that has killed a quarter of a million Americans and will kill a quarter million more before that vaccine gets in our hands. You can pronounce it a hoax, cast off your mask, hold a big, packed, sweaty pig roast for yourself and your friends. But it's still there, and your actions might put you in that second quarter million. 
     Being able to face unpleasant facts, to recognize and act on them, has to put a thumb on the scales for our side, long term. It has to. Maybe not on any given day. But eventually. 
     Or such is the hope. Every game worth playing requires a strategy, and that is mine. Though I worry, at the lowest moments, that faith reality, dedication to honesty, belief in truth, the idea that right prevails—all of it—they're just another delusion, like all the others. Its not the axle the world spins on either. Obviously.
     We'll see.
Reading history, I stumbled upon some words of Adlai Stevenson, spoken in Chicago while accepting the 1952 Democratic nomination for president. History doesn't carve out much space for Stevenson. I imagine that most Illinoisans remember him, if they remember him at all, as the former governor who ran against Dwight D. Eisenhower twice and lost both times.
     Stevenson was a very smart man (though the term "egghead," while popularized in the 1952 election, tied to Stevenson's bald dome, was not coined for him; Ben Hecht used it in the Daily News in 1919) . When I was a student, Northwestern printed in its calendars an inspiring quote from Stevenson, "And don't forget, when you leave, why you came." The implication was he said it at NU, but he didn't. Rather, at a Harvard's commencement.*
     At the 1952 convention, Adlai Stevenson said in his opening remarks, "Where we have erred, let there be no denial; and where we have wronged the public trust, let there be no excuses. Self-criticism is the secret weapon of democracy, and candor and confession are good for the political soul."
     Or at least they were. Now of course, we see in Trump, the triumph of deceit and denial, of willful blindness in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. You can completely botch the battle against a deadly illness and plunge your arms up to the elbows in the blood of 250,000 Americans, and 73 million of the Americans who you haven't killed will still vote for you and passionately support you as you pervert and undercut the basic notions of democracy.
     I don't know how Democrats can fight that. But I do know, if we ape it, we've already lost. Then there are two parties blind to reality, and we've already got one too many as it is. The idea is to defeat them, not double them. Stevenson's words reflect a battle plan, the strength of character that we must cling to, even if it hobbles us, short term. I think they are not only the right thing to do, but a winning strategy, eventually. We'll see, won't we?
     That's my plan to anyway. You of course are free to do what you like. It's a free country. Or was.

     *The full quote is quite beautiful: "Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs. And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place, touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven. You will go away with old, good friends. And don't forget when you leave why you came."


  1. Self criticism, candor, and confession are good for all souls. Not always fun but always allows for growth.

  2. Replies
    1. "Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs. And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place, touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven. You will go away with old, good friends. And don't forget when you leave why you came."

      What a wonderful and thought-provoking gift Stevenson gave to those graduates. Could have been anywhere...Northwestern, Harvard, or any campus at all. It's called commencement for a good reason...the great adventure called life is about to begin.

      But something beautiful is ending, too.The final spring of one's college career is bittersweet. The sand in the hourglass is running down. One sees the campus in all its spring finery for one last time. The trees and the lawns and the buildings never look better, because one knows they will soon be left behind. As will all those friendships.

      Every graduate has a different reason for remembering why he came, on the day he departs. It was quite a jolt, one day last June, when I suddenly realized that it had been fifty years since my commencement. It all went by so fast.

  3. An excellent, bracing, though ultimately depressing post, to me. I agree that facing reality is the only effective way forward. I'm not at all sure that it's a winning strategy in this benighted nation. It certainly wasn't for Stevenson in 1952 or 1956, and things have only gotten worse -- much worse when it comes to our current Maximum Leader -- since then.

    From trickle-down economics to blaming Iraq for 9/11 to "a corporation is a person" to "money is speech" to "I alone can fix it" to "I won this election, by a lot," it's been quite a descent since blue-collar folks were persuaded to hail Ronald Reagan as a saint.

    For 73 million, facts take a back seat to Fox. If 250,000 people dying from what their messengers have told them is a hoax hasn't brought them around, I don't know what will.

  4. Stevenson was a fine man who never got his due politically. I think he was a victim of the anti-intellectualism that often retards progress, or throws it back, in this country.

    1. The "anti-intellectualism" you mention is simply idiotic. Would you hire your permanently out-of-work buddy from high school to wire your house, a daily-pay dropout to fix your plumbing, a mechanic to perform your heart surgery? Insisting on qualifications isn't elitism in my book; it's common sense. Of course, voting for Eisenhower wasn't necessarily anti-intellectual. After all, he had demonstrated administrative ability during the War and was intellectual enough himself to get a job as a college president, but certainly Stevenson would have done much better had the electorate valued intellect a bit more and without a doubt Mr. Trump would have done much worse.


    2. Columbia University didn't care about Eisenhower's intellectual ability. They wanted a war hero & got him & I assume they figured that they would get more students & more donations because of him.

    3. tate - I didn't mean to imply that everyone who voted for Eisenhower was dumb or anti-intellectual or anything like that. I just meant that the image of Stevenson, the whole "egghead" thing, didn't fit with the macho politics (in both parties) of the time. He was seen in many quarters as smart but weak or feckless, and I think anti-intellectualism played a big part in that.

    4. Bitter: I didn't mean to say that your implication was "idiotic," but that anti-intellectualism was and is. I quit arguing with my FaceBook "friends" when they stated that all experts were wrong about everything. They also ramped up the nasty demeaning language that has been hallmark of the Trump Era. Unfortunately, there's more than a bit of that species of rhetoric infecting the anti-Trumpers. Not a good way to go, I think you would agree, Mr. Scribe.


    5. tate - Oh, I know very well what you were calling idiotic. I was just basically agreeing with your statement that "voting for Eisenhower wasn't necessarily anti-intellectual."

      FWIW, Eisenhower wasn't a bad president IMO. He got us out of Korea, which was actually easier for him as a Republican, since the other Republicans couldn't fuss and scream about an armistice that basically left the war as a tie. ("I would have been crucified for that armistice," Harry Truman said afterward.) After that, he got lucky in that he didn't face any really major tests or crises.

      So he was pretty OK as a president, but Stevenson would have been better IMO. But as I said before, he was handicapped by anti-intellectualism.

  5. Great analysis, but the problem is that they don’t care about facts, it’s all about “feelings” and “that’s my opinion, its a free country.” No idea how 70 million people buy into this, but its scary for our future.

  6. Gun owners think that Clinton and Obama were after their guns. Farmers and downstate small town folk assume we laugh at the rubes, but ignore their own scorn for big city intellectuals. Truth has taken a back seat to Denial for quite some time. I was 3 months shy of my seventh birthday when Stevenson lost in '56, my first political awareness was my Mother and Grandmother crying for Adlai. Arguments about Adlai's potential worth versus Ike aside, I'd settle for an election with 2 equally qualified and truly patriotic candidates next time.


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