unions, moose, and statesmanship



One of the joys of parenting is watching with wonder the developing personalities of the children placed in your charge.  My nine year old daughter’s uncanny ability to notice the smallest of nuances inspires me to routinely ask myself if I am wandering through life in a mechanical fog.  All too often, I find that I am.

I traveled to Washington DC recently.  There is something magical about the place, the diversity of those living and working there, and the tangible yet ephemeral mist of the many incredible characters who have colored our democratic experiment.  After a meeting with labor union representatives and management, I took notice when one of the lawyers lamented the waning influence of unions.  After all, their offices had for many years been on Connecticut Avenue, he observed.  Now, they’d been relegated to the lowly situs of the Washington suburbs.

Finding myself only minutes from the Jefferson Memorial, it would be my sole tourist stop before squeaking onto my return flight.  I’ve read quite a number of Jefferson’s letters over the years, having scooped up a collection of them at a Fairhope antique shop one lazy Saturday.  His opinions on just about everything are remarkably wide ranging, and sometimes overly confident.  One of my favorite exchanges is between Jefferson and Frenchman, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon.  It is a veritable mine is bigger than yours discourse, centered on a discussion as to which continent had more impressive animal specimens.  To make his point, Jefferson literally mailed a moose to Buffon.  Yet Jefferson’s thinking, even in his private correspondence, undeniably displays a stately dedication to ideals that have served as timeless pillars in our nation’s political evolution. 

The Memorial to Jefferson is itself remarkable.  The 10,000 pound bronze statue of Jefferson is flanked by four pieces of his writing, as if to quietly and cautiously (and perhaps most importantly) point beyond the tangible statue to the ideas behind the man.  Largely ignored signs leading into the space urge quiet reverence, and tourists from near and far efficiently circulate in and out of the Memorial area.  I was struck with the observation that, at least while I was there, the most important task of those visiting seemed to be the desire to get a picture taken in front of the statue with the subject striking the same pose as Jefferson.  There is, of course, nothing wrong with this.  But the picture taking rarely seemed to be followed (or preceded) by a study of Jefferson’s writing on the walls.  It is possible that visitors had been saturated with Jefferson’s thinking prior to their arrival, but it seems unlikely. 

Precise quotes aside, there is little dispute that Jefferson viewed an informed electorate as essential to good governance.  The following words are inscribed in a frieze below the Memorial’s dome, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  And one wonders if we face an evolving tyranny which is more difficult to name.  A malaise and indifference of a dangerous sort. 

The high rhetoric of the current political environment, despite all appearances to the contrary, is nothing new.  And frankly, not in and of itself to be feared.  Yet we cannot expect the elevation of the political process without an elevation of the electorate’s studied engagement in the history of this great nation.  One needn’t ascribe to an idea of American exceptionalism to find the American experience to be truly extraordinary and in need of great care by those wrapped in its embrace.  Present day American political activism is all too often intellectually and historically malnourished.

I was recently in Ireland, and as is often my practice, I tried to listen.  As I made the last leg of a drive along the southwest coast of that beautiful country, I found myself seated at a table in a small restaurant overlooking a still harbor.  And I overheard two women rattling off their thoughts on the spectacle of American politics.  It was clear, at least as far as those two women were concerned, that the American body politic had ceased to take itself seriously. Sometimes we are too close to something to see it for what it is. Flash back to the observational prowess of my young daughter, whereas I’m all too often lost on what may be much more practical in that moment – but broadly inconsequential.  We stop noticing the obvious. 

It seemed to me that Jefferson himself stood in that Memorial quietly attempting to draw the attention of visitors to the powerful ideology that anchors the American experience.  Ideology which is greater than Jefferson or any singular political character.  An inclusive ideology, with a core faith in the ability and necessity of free and educated people to govern themselves, and of the duty to do well so that we can collectively do good.  These are ideas which require more than passing recognition, but demand the sometimes uncomfortable task of action and activism for the good of all people.  The issues facing our country are considerable and not easily reckoned.  They never have been.  These larger than life figures of the American story beg us to study our storied political heritage and to then strive mightily for our best.  This is a powerful first step in demanding a return to statesmanship both by the elected, and those who consent to be governed.

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