Citizenship in the long twilight

The outcome of this election doesn’t change who/what I am, and regardless of the outcome, the election remains but part of the “long twilight struggle”:
“Oddly, the man of detachment, of cool wit and ironic view, preached the ‘long twilight struggle’ in which the most certain thing was that there would be ‘neither victory nor defeat.’

“Yet, the man of commitment, of action, rejected with robustious Teddy the ‘cold and timid’ souls who had no blood and dust upon their faces. And another quotation he liked to throw at university audiences was the rhetorical question of George Curtis of Massachusetts: ‘Would you have counted him a friend of ancient Greece who quietly discussed the theory of patriotism on that hot summer day through whose hopeless and immortal hours Leonidas and the three hundred stood at Thermopylae for liberty? Was John Milton to conjugate Greek verbs in his library when the liberty of Englishmen was imperiled?’

To the students of George Washington University, Kennedy gave his own answer:

“No, quite obviously, the duty of the educated man or woman, the duty of the scholar, is to give his objective sense, his sense of liberty to the maintenance of our society at the critical time.”

– Tom Wickers, #KennedyWithoutTears, ESQUIRE, 1964



Worth revisiting:

“There are currents in history and you have to figure out how to move them in one direction or another,” Rhodes said. “You can’t necessarily determine the final destination. . . . The President subscribes less to a great-man theory of history and more to a great-movement theory of history—that change happens when people force it or circumstances do.” (Later, Obama told me, “I’m not sure Ben is right about that. I believe in both.”)

“I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past,” he said. “But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have.” The long view again. “But I think our decisions matter,” he went on. “And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

A little while later, as we were leaving the Oval Office and walking under the colonnade, Obama said, “I just wanted to add one thing to that business about the great-man theory of history. The President of the United States cannot remake our society, and that’s probably a good thing.” He paused yet again, always self-editing. “Not ‘probably,’ ” he said. “It’s definitely a good thing.” 

David Remnick, Going the Distance, The New Yorker, 17 January 2014




“There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is, but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days.”

Albert Camus, The Myth if Sisyphus


“A proper understanding of the world view in the Meditations must include not only a sense of the predominant intransigence of human affairs but of their possibilities as well.

“In life, particularly public life, we are not to go ‘expecting Plato’s Republic,’ but to work, he advises, ‘in a principled way, with diligence, energy and patience … If you can embrace this [work] without fear or expectation – can find fulfillment in what you’re doing now … – then your life will be happy.”



#Obama2008 to #IAloneCanFixIt

Voting for change v. Being that change

Eight years ago, I worked on a presidential campaign. Maybe that explains why, while excited about the possibilities of the 2008 presidential election, my enthusiasm is much more restrained.

The 2000 presidential election in Taiwan was historical in its own right. I remember standing on stage at Chung-Shan soccer stadium in Taipei City the eve of the election, experiencing the palpable wave of energy rise from the thousands and thousands of supporters when our nominee, and later president-elect, took the stage. It almost made me cry. But I also remember going home that night with a sense of both excitement and anxiety – the latter, not over what would transpire on election day (is our guy going to win?), but what would happen the hundreds of days thereafter (what are we actually going to do if he wins?)

Taiwanese people voted for change in 2000. They did again, earlier this year. The eight years in between, I think, most would agree, did not go so well.

I also learned that campaign promises are not always (if not rarely) realistic. This is especially true of promises, or at least their insinuations, designed to “rally” the ideological bases, rather than appeal to moderates. A JFK biography noted his favorite book was Herbert Agar’s “The Price of Union.” Agar recounts the particularly acrimonious presidential election of 1896:

“In 1896 … a man who stood for ‘No Compromise’ stampeded a Convention…. ‘We beg no more,’ said Bryan in his ‘cross-of-gold’ speech, ‘we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!’ So did Goldwater defy them. But this was no way to hold together a continent-wide federation of varied interest, occupations, climates and habits of life. Bryan, who was at least a politician, tried to broaden his agrarian base and to capture the factoriy worker for his cause. He failed, and thus lost every northern state east of the Mississippi.

Goldwater never explained what his base was, aside from nostalgia and a bitterness against the compromises of life. So he could not broaden what he could not define, and was beaten far more cruelly than Bryan. But they were both beaten for the same reason: they both, in their rash enthusiasm, forgot that a successful American political party must be a non-ideological affair, accommodating many points of view …. Such parties should never allow themselves to feel, and preach, that the opposition is not only mistaken but wicked. Bryan did this. So did Goldwater, with his suggestion that the Democrats were sowing a form of moral decay throughout America.

The Democratic party was long handicapped by the bitterness consequent to 1896 …. Once, unhappily, both parties failed at the same time in their assuaging mission, both offering us ‘a choice instead of an echo.’ The result was the Civil War.”

I suppose that captures my second disappointment – seeing more of the same: a choice only, and not an echo. For example, while presidential elections have repeatedly brought up issues such as abortion rights, which has been defined (if nevertheless subject to interpretation), much less attention is given to practical problem solving, such as reducing teen pregnancy, perhaps because it does not excite and rally the ideological base.

My final disappointment probably took a little longer to develop. I remember thinking of people’s excitement during campaigns and elections, but what happened thereafter? Supporters of the losing candidate perhaps withdrew in a certain amount of bitterness (the assassination attempt was a conspiracy! We were robbed by hanging chads!). Supporters of the victor, on the other hand, behaved as if all was well or would be well – after all, didn’t the President-elect promise all these fantastic sounding things HE would do? – well, sit back and let him do it for four years. No leader since JFK called on the people to ask what they could do for their country, and it seemed that the people did not ask, and did not do.

I suppose all this led me to think about what “change,” means, and what is required to bring about change, spurred on by fantasy baseball (true), and gaffing off law school, I wrote:

“I used to think that the athletic company Nike’s slogan ‘Just Do It’ was a hackneyed phrase. ‘Just Do It’ – like, c’mon . . . duh. Only recently has it begun to take on an almost mythic quality – a profound declaration of an aspiration rather than a cheap slogan merely stating the obvious. Perhaps, as a matter of fact, most people don’t just do it.

Many of us also like to say that we want to “make a difference.” But what is “difference,” but another way of saying “change”? I believe that there are a great many self-proclaimed “liberals” who, when it comes to action, are quite conservation if not outright prudish. I scratch my head. And here I ask, how are we to make a difference in this world, if privately, we as individuals are so frightened by the unfamiliar, so uncomfortable when out of our “zone”, so adverse to risk, so resistant to change? Furthermore, how do you go about changing resistance to change? Will everything amount to nothing more than a tautological exercise?”

I certainly did not think that any one person, or the political process alone, would be able to address our existing and future challenges. I figured that, insofar as our everyday lives, it ought to start with the little things – with a consistent dedication on the individual level to our immediate communities.

I would say that, it was eerie to hear Obama echo bits of those sentiments, and even JFK’s call to service and for shared sacrifice, during his campaign. That change ought begin from bottom up, e.g., that with respect to education – it ought start with parents at home working with their kids, etc., etc.

So I do, in fact, share in the excitement over possibilities of what may be, at the end of this day. The enthusiasm, perhaps, will return, should election euphoria translate into greater and sustained civic participation and service by Americans, and whether we are offered an echo, and not just a choice.


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