February 17, 2020

Politics is really simple, after all

Not so long ago, following major political campaigns on television and in the other media, I often actually yelled at the screen where politicians were dispensing half-truths, quarter-truths, even downright lies, with apparent sincerity. Now I don’t yell, because I’ve figured out the why of such behavior. They just can’t help themselves; they were born that way.

This applies as well to most of our columnists and commentators. They are not running for office, so, presumably, could be far more objective but just aren’t. After 40 years of university teaching, I have also come to realize that education and intelligence have little, if anythng, to do with the case. So today, watching television and reading in the other media, I may mutter under my breath, shrug, or even laugh out loud, but I no longer yell. For an old guy, it’s a waste of energy.

Inspired from two very different sources, I have developed my personal theory of politics. In the libretto for “Iolanthe” (1882), a musical satire on the politics of his day, W.S. Gilbert has an ordinary soldier on sentry duty outside the Houses of Parliament remark in song how “comical” it is that “Nature does contrive that every boy and every gal that’s born into this world alive is either a little liberal or else a little conservative.”

The major political parties then were the Conservative (once Tories) led by Disraeli and the Liberals (once Whigs) led by Gladstone. The audiences at the Savoy Theater were vastly amused, which was what Gilbert intended, nothing more. The singer also implied that these babes were born in equal proportions, no doubt because the current parties were almost even in members.

More than 20 years earlier, both religious and most other folk were definitely not amused on reading Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species” (1859), and even less so with the follow-up, “The Descent of Man” (1875). As we are now well aware, Darwin’s theory of the evolution of animal species, including the species Homo, is coming closer and closer to elevation to the status of fact, expecially among scientists, that is, those who know (Latin scio means “I know”). The other species have moved along, millennia after millennia, in pretty much the same old grooves, sometimes modified in form, sometimes even destroyed by climatic or catastrophic changes in our common home, the planet Earth. Some species may have been obliterated. Others have left shreds of evidence that they once existed (e.g. the dinosaurs). Which suggests that eventually our own Homo species may also disappear, not perhaps through a natural catastrophy but through our own activities in polluting the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil we cultivate, or even through over-population and thus depletion of the resources on which we exist.

Now consider our unrecorded recent past. For uncounted centuries our early European ancestors lived precisely as the other species did, by hunting and eating other species and otherwise foraging for food. Then, by some miracle our species alone received or acquired the dangerous hapit of conscious thought and the language in which to express it, and of course what follows from it in action. But we still retain many of the ways of the other species. This may be why we sometimes act like beasts rather than like the new homo. And we also realize that may of our instincts are very like those of other species.

Then it happened. A certain Homo, probably young, entertained a new thought, a new idea. Why not “domesticate” some of the species they hunted or merely obvserved? Thus his tribe could have meat and drink close at hand, and would not need to expend som much energy in hunting. Of course the older tribal members shook their heads dubiously at such a departure from ancient ways. But the young man attracted disciples, perhaps also young. In the course of time the new way largely displaced the old way, though the spirit of the hunt might live on indefinately. Then, in time, came the deliberate growing of crops to feed their herds and themselves. If I may risk a pun, the first to grow root crops were the original radicals. And the conservatism of farmers and rural people today may date from those early “revolutionary” ideas that eventually became the normal way and later still the “old” way.

It thus becomes clear that all of what we like to call “progress” began, not with the great mass or majority but with individuals at various time in various places. It is why the major religions stem from individual founders or inspirers. Thus offshoots, or sects, likewise hark back to individuals dissenting in some way from the mass, the great majority. One may even go so far as to say that conservatism in our species is a residual of what we began to call “instinct” in the other species. The status quo, for some reason, meets up with an “emergency,” someone may lead in finding ways to counter it. It is never solved by a conference of the whole tribe or nation, simply because most tend to accept the status quo and merely hope for the best. Also, what was once an “idea” may become so respected and dominant in one area that it is “exported” to other different areas, as Christianity was in the 19th century and democracy in the 20th century.

My theory explains why liberals, that is, those who may seek to “free” us from certain of our old ways, do not get elected to leadership but write the status quo in relatively satisfactory ways. It happens only when much of the public is temporarily shocked out of its complacency by situation that adversely affects a large proportion of the mass. Also, in the United States as in no other country, politics, for historical reasons, is for all practical purposes the same as economics. It is the state of the economy that, lacking other causes, decides the issue in national elections. Hence that summary, “It’s the economy, stupid!”

Cecil Reynolds lives in Old Town.

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