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Friday, October 6, 2006

None of the Above

Last month we got a letter from an organization that calls itself "People to People International." They were writing to invite our daughter to attend, at our expense, be sure, an educational experience in Australia. The letter assured us that "Caroline has been named for this honor by a teacher, former Student Ambassador or national academic listing."

Their website provides similarly deceptive statements intended to suggest that the organization is not a vast moneymaking enterprise disguised as a selective academic organization. As best I can tell, Caroline, who has been dead since 1999, lingers on a couple of mailing lists because for a short while she received the "American Girl" doll magazine.

The lesson, for those of you with children who have begun to receive such solicitations, is to investigate before writing a check. There are a host of organizations (and I could name a couple of well-known ones in Washington, D.C.) that advertise themselves as selective academic opportunities, when in reality they are either glorified and overpriced touring agencies, or cheap labor mills for organizations like the Republican and Democratic National Committees.

And speaking of lying liars, around the same time I got a survey from Howard Dean, addressed to "Dear Fellow Democrat." His letter explains that I have been asked to complete the survey because I am "an active and engaged member of our Party" in my community. I'm pretty sure this comes from my subscription to The Atlantic Monthly. The only way I'll likely ever be an "active and engaged" leader in my community is if they try to ban Krispy Kreme.

It's standard practice now for both parties to send out such breathless literature, claiming that it is a selective effort to solicit the opinions of key leaders. In reality, of course, it's a funding solicitation. It's a lie nonetheless, and both parties ought to be ashamed.

As if the leadership of either organization were capable of such a thing as shame. We've sunk awfully far, it seems, when leaders of the self-styled liberty and decency party can make the likes of Charlie Rangel and Nancy Pelosi look like they may be worth a shot.

I've recently received invitations from decent and kind people in my church, asking me to attend fundraisers for local political candidates. My tactic is to ignore the invitation if possible, for fear of offending them. They mean well, they really do. But the truth of it is that I don't ever intend to give money to another politician, because it occurs to me that doing so only encourages them. Maybe if we stop paying them to sing and dance for us they'll get real jobs and leave everyone alone.

The state of Arizona used to have a rule that required a state office to go unstaffed and unfunded if a majority of voters wrote in "None of the Above" on their ballots. Perhaps it would lead to disaster, but I'm willing to give it a try. I had a wise professor in graduate school who liked to note that while critics fault American government for being unresponsive to the interests of the people, the reality is that it's too responsive. It tries to give everyone everything by pretending that there are no tradeoffs. In short, we tend to get the government we deserve. Or, as H.L. Mencken wrote: "Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

Imagine someone who speaks the truth as he sees it, who gives direct and clear answers to questions, and who is honest about his own failings and sins and fears. Imagine someone who refuses to compromise his principles for the sake of a key donation, or in order to insure that his party maintains a majority, or even to insure his own re-election. Do you think he would have a shot on November 7th? Of course not. What's worse, our opinion of him would be that he's a nut, or hopelessly damaged. We can't even tolerate an honest sinner in the pulpit of our church, let alone as our Senator or President.

So we enable the charade, hoping for the one completely righteous and wise man to ride out of the desert and set all things straight. (And when he does show up, he won't be running for office, you can be sure.) I think our mistake is that we yearn for leaders who are better than us, and subject them to a process of constant campaigning and fundraising that insures the opposite, that morally and spiritually they are very likely to be far worse than the average American. What kind of person, after all, can spend his entire life trying to secure votes? Not someone you'd trust with your daughters or your wallet.

We want wise kings, and there are none, and so it seems to me the only logical solution is to give them as little authority as possible, watch them like hawks, and send them back to the real world at the first sign that they're starting to enjoy themselves. And if somebody can figure out how to word that as a Constitutional Amendment, we'll all be indebted to you.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

The Cost of Things Foregone

I had to work in DC last weekend, so I took the wife with me. At the airport she had to throw away fifty dollars worth of make-up, due to my misunderstanding about TSA's latest rules. Interestingly, while two TSA agents were all over her quarter-full bottle of body lotion, they and the rest of the lot entirely missed the fact that the ticket she received at the check-in desk had someone else's name on it. Thus we confront once again the reality of tradeoffs, that by choosing to focus our attention on one thing, we human beings necessarily devote less attention to another.

It's in our nature to overlook opportunity costs. We track the observable costs of our ventures as well as the gains, we mercilessly regiment our schedules, we cram the days full of activity, and all of this drowns out the question: what might I have done if not for . . .?

In my own experience, and based on what I have gleaned from those close to the end of their lives, regret is often less about what we have done than what we have not done. I never started that bookstore. I was too afraid to tell him that I love him. I always wanted to learn piano, but never took the time. I wish I had read more poems to my little ones.

And then the time is taken from us, and we are done, and in the last days our thoughts turn not so painfully to the foolish actions as to the disastrous inactions. We grieve over our sins, but even worse, we grieve over lives not fully lived. All that time at our disposal, and this was how we spent it, on this worthless thing, and this one, and this one, and all the while what we are truly heartbroken over is not the worthless things themselves, but over what they displaced from our lives.

In "The Hungering Dark," Frederick Buechner writes:

"I suspect that the truth of it is simply that we are alive when, instead of killing time, we take time. When in the midst of our tearing around in our busy-ness trying to do something, we stop once in a while and just let ourselves be something, be who we are. When by unclenching our fists, we give life a chance to do something with us. When we take the little piece of time that we have in this world and pay attention to what it is telling us, not just to what it is telling us about the beauty of the sun as it sets, God knows, but to what it is telling us about all the wildness and strangeness and pain of things, the tears of things . . . as well as the joy of things."

So what is life speaking to you? I don't know about you, but when I listen -- truly listen -- what I hear is frightening and exhilarating, and when I don't just resume my shuffle along the sidewalk, pretending I didn't hear a thing, all the world is changed. Listening, and knowing what we give up when we choose this job and that pleasure, is a terrifying venture. What I'm learning, though, is that the alternative is far worse. So stop waiting for something, because what we all wait for is the grave, and immediately before and after it, an accounting for the time we were given.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)

Monday, October 2, 2006

On Willful Ignorance

I'm 30,000 feet above vast stretches of empty American land, thinking about how our legislators want to protect us from Mexicans willing to do the work we're too fat and lazy to do for ourselves, and I'm wishing we could make a swap: one Mexican family for every elected U.S. official. Only then might I get enthusiastic about building a 700-mile fence along the southern border of the land of freedom and opportunity. Then it occurs to me that such a swap would be an awfully un-Christian thing to do to the Mexicans, who already have enough corrupt and bloated public officials without adding our snake's nest of panderers and preeners.

I just finished the co-authored autobiography of Haing Ngor, who some of you may recognize as the Cambodian refugee who won an Oscar for playing fellow refugee Dith Pran in The Killing Fields. I think that in the back of my mind, while I've always found Marxist intellectuals repugnant in the same sense that I find any deluded and sloppy thinker repugnant -- allowing me, for example, to hold Ann Coulter and Michael Moore in near-equal esteem -- I always thought them quaint. I've done a mental housecleaning in the past couple of years, as you can tell from other posts, and with it has come a growing and harsh disdain for the willfully ignorant. After I put down this heartbreaking book I realized that anyone who continues to insist, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that forced communism with its attendant delusions (atheism, nihilism, etc.) does not lead inevitably to enormous tragedy can only persist in this lie through a considerable act of self-deception.

We are all ignorant of many things, and if one has a scrap of wisdom and humility, one must forgive honest ignorance just as each of us hopes his own is forgiven. But there is a different brand of ignorance, worn with near-pride by some, that can only be sustained if nurtured and protected, like a fragile but poisonous plant. In simplest form it's the studious ignorance of scores of U.S. legislators who refuse to understand fundamental economics. In its most venomous form it is the ignorance that produces wholesale slaughter of people deemed the wrong skin color or religion or economic class.

Ngor endured the latter, in 1970's Cambodia, where the brutal Marxist Khmer Rouge briefly seized power and murdered a quarter of the population. As I read it, I found myself wondering how far we are from such tragedy. How long does it take for institutionalized ignorance and abandonment of truth to descend from relatively mild corruption and inefficiency to full-scale slaughter? How deeply do nihilism and anti-intellectualism have to penetrate a nation before the soil is ripe for the ultimate fruition of these seeds sewn in willful ignorance?

I also wondered how many deaths can be traced to the professors of French and American universities who had such a strong hand in educating the likes of Mao Tse-Tung and Pol Pot. And further, how many deaths would be enough for deluded intellectual thugs like Noam Chomsky and Eric Hobsbawm to renounce their comfortable positions and live the remainder of their dreadful existences in seclusion. I suspect more blood than exists would sway neither, nor their less intelligent compatriots, because in the face of willful ignorance, evidence has no import. War is Peace. Ignorance is Strength.

Ngor survived multiple torture sessions at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, who wanted him to confess to being a doctor. In that world, everything Western or intellectual had to be purged. This was the ironic conclusion reached by the dictators educated at the feet of Western intellectuals -- that enlightenment itself was the enemy. Their armies were the thousands of uneducated peasants who envied the wealth of city-dwellers, and who took great pleasure in tormenting their new slaves.

Pseudo-intellectuals skilled in the rhetoric of envy, leading hordes of the ill-educated taught that they have a grievance against the producers of wealth -- no, that could never happen here.

Ngor met an end that was tragic and shameful. Though he lost nearly all his family to the Khmer Rouge, he survived, made it to America, and not only became an actor but an important figure in Cambodian relief efforts. And for years he wore around his neck a gold locket with the only picture of his dead wife inside. One evening in 1995, three thugs in a Los Angeles alley mugged him, and when he refused to give them this last reminder of his beloved, they shot him in the chest, took the locket, and left him to die. Ironically, all three were Asians, imitators of the homegrown thug culture celebrated by rappers and idiot suburban teenagers.

No, it could never happen here.

For decades American historians have debated whether the United States has an "exceptional" culture that effectively immunizes it against the philosophical nonsense that has wafted up from Europe since the 19th century, or whether suppression of radicals has been all that restrains the forces of utopianism from having their sway here as they have elsewhere. I'd like to think that we are exceptional, but I suppose Haing Ngor once thought so as well. I suspect every human being living in peace and comfort has told himself the same thing, that it could never happen here. And yet it continues to happen: war and oppression and profound human misery, and we in the West tell ourselves such things only happen in other places.

I've typed three concluding paragraphs, but each only leads to more paragraphs. Apparently I have a lot more to say about this and related topics. It seems terribly unkind to inflict a diatribe of this length on you after such a long absence, however, so I'll opt for an abrupt ending. And I promise to write more frequently, now that my summer sabbatical has ended.

posted by Woodlief | link | (0)