Monday, November 3, 2008

Keeping perspective

DSC02794This morning, I caught up on recent blog posts authored by a US-based friend of mine. Although they are a long way from the sights and thoughts found along a later stroll through Amsterdam’s center, they do remind me of the force that Tuesday’s election has back home.

She writes passionately about the upcoming election, feeling their significance and worrying about the potential consequences of an upset. I followed her links to typical Letters to the Editor and agree that it is getting ugly out there (as it is in my home state: the Seattle Times, the Tri-City Herald). It’s easy to get upset at the distortions written and misunderstandings expressed as people try to sway one another’s votes.

At the same time, it’s not something that I can take personally. These voices are out there, and the papers try to reflect that diversity to reflect the national dialog. But in the end, we all get one vote, the country will move on with a popularly elected leader, and we will undertake the serious work of undoing the social, economic, global, and constitutional damage done by the last one.

Truth be told, I’ve actually been encouraged that the press has not focused on the whispered innuendo and biased slogans from either side, and that they have fact-checked statements and contrasted positions to a much greater degree than in the prior decade.

And, in the end, I do trust that centrist people will make a wise choice.

It’s also not so consequential in the long term: the future will turn on larger themes and bigger events than those we are debating today.

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Touring the 16th century canal houses and 18th century villas that dot Amsterdam, I’m always struck by how quaint the technologies, fashions, and perspectives of that time are when viewed from our own. Yet they were the height of progress and sophistication in their time, deadly serious for their people.

The message from the US is real enough, and my friend’s reactions are justified. I have similar feelings of sadness and frustration as I follow the McCain / Palin message and messengers.

But I think that in the heat of this moment we can all see events larger than they really are, and credit dissident voices with more influence than they have. I know that sometimes I do.

And I recognize that we all need to keep the longer perspective.

And so, I’ll share a passage from science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon which I used as a preface to my doctoral thesis and which has always been effective at reminding me of that:

Men of your day, when they look back into the history of their planet, remark not only the length of time but also the bewildering acceleration of life's progress. Almost stationary in the earliest period of the earth's career, in your moment it seems headlong. Mind in you, it is said, not merely stands higher than ever before in respect of percipience, knowledge, insight, delicacy of admiration, and sanity of will, but also it moves upward century by century ever more swiftly. What next? Surely, you think, there will come a time when there will be no further heights to conquer.

This view is mistaken. You underestimate even the foothills that stand in front of you, and never suspect that far above them, hidden by cloud, rise precipices and snow-fields. The mental and spiritual advances which, in your day, mind in the solar system has still to attempt, are overwhelmingly more complex, more precarious and dangerous, than those which have already been achieved. And though in certain humble respects you have attained full development, the loftier potencies of the spirit in you have not yet even begun to put forth buds.

Last And First Men, Olaf Stapledon, 1930

2 comments:

Textual Healer said...

Nice post -nice quote. I remember having the same feeling twelve years ago when Britain stood on the edge of finally elevating itself above 18 years of Tory misrule. My friends and I stayed up all night singing, as the UK acquired its first 'socialist' government since I wa old enough to vote. Four years later we were at war again. Ten years later the divide between the rich and the poor has not changed one iota. Somewhere between I realised how powerless or unconcerned politicians are. Politics? schmolitics. Plus ca change plus la meme chose. I hope Barrack does do something worthwhile if and when he gets into power , but I've already seen him back off on the most important issues that could make the US a country whose civilisation matches its economic and military power (like gun control and universal health insurance). He's going to take over a country faced with a war it can't win and a recesssion that no-one sees a way out of. He's not got a lot of cards to play with. Once the party is over what is he actually going to be able to do?

Dave Hampton said...

It's a really good question, and I really hope that he's thought hard about where to begin once he's finished waving to 70,000 supporters in Grant Park. The Wall Street Journal noted that we've taken a lot on faith, and it may pay off or it may not.

I hope for the best: we simply cannot go on with the same failed policies and divisive ideologies that have paralyzed the country and isolated us from the world.

McCain might have had more promise, but his choice of Gov. Palin as running mate was a terrible sign. She reverted to the old standard of energizing the base by trashing everyone else, politics as usual and at its worst (I still have nightmares about Drill baby Drill). If something happened to him and she became president, she would have been much, much worse than Pres. Bush.

No question that he's going to be very constrained by the huge problems and vanishingly small resources left to him by Pres. Bush. It will require creativity and cooperation to a degree we haven't seen before to make progress on the war, the economy, and energy policy, not even considering health care or social welfare reform.