Sunday, August 29, 2010

How to Restore Honor

There is a relatively new trend in the U.S. to call for a "return to traditional values." I say "relatively" new because we've only been hearing it since the early 1600s, and on a geologic scale, that's pretty recent. Since the early colonies in Massachusetts and Plymouth were started by Protestant outcasts seeking a place where they could bring about a society built on values that they thought were lost on a decadent contemporary society Americans have been on a quest for that elusive Tradition of... something.

Considering that Traditional has different meanings for different people, it is worth asking those who demand a return to Tradition what, exactly, they think they are asking for. Some are vague, longing for a nostalgic period from their childhood that didn't really exist; others are adamant and focused on a particular set of rules or behaviors... which they hesitate to admit to because they know admitting to those rules won't go over well with those who will have to live with them.

No two individuals you ask will be able to agree on what Traditional Values are. Try me on that one - find two people who you think are in agreement, and they will find something to fight over. But there are two fairly consistent "trump cards" that those who want to stump for Tradition will play: The U.S. Constitution, and The Bible.

I find this to be frustrating, because in almost every case, those who insist on "returning" to the system of values and behavior enshrined in those documents have read neither. Thus, the links.

Sure, they've skimmed - we all have. Human animals are social creatures with a long history of oral communication, and we have traditionally ruled ourselves through rumor and word of mouth. How many times since toddling onto your first playground have you heard or used the "you can't make me, it's a free country" defense? I've had the First Amendment on the tip of my tongue as a response to anyone told me to shut up since First Grade (along with the Seventh Commandment).

The problem with ruling by Oral Tradition is that a lot of error creeps in. We are ephemeral beings, only here on Earth, if we are very careful, and very lucky, for about 100 years. (And only being here mentally for less than half of that time.) Some clever blokes in Sumeria about 4,000 BCE figured out how to etch their thoughts into lumps of the hardy clay found in local marshes (a practice which became known as "bogging"), and noticed that it was a good way to pass down exactly what they said so that later generations wouldn't screw up their pithy quotes. So, while writing is also relatively new in the geological sense, I think it's safe to call it a "Traditional Value".

The Bible is a difficult document to live by, at best. Historically, it is (if you believe what people say) as old as writing itself. In its way, it is rather like Wikipedia; a collaborative effort of hundreds of writers and editors which is sometimes really useful, but needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It's hard to tell which Traditional Values in it are useful, but most Traditionalists seem bent on emphasizing those Ten Commandments; which is odd considering how few of them make good, enforceable laws. Even if you accept the "this is a Christian nation" tradition, how does that make sense? If we are supposed to be Christians, shouldn't we include something that Christ actually said? How about the Beatitudes?

But The Bible is a controversial thing to base American traditions upon. Nevermind the fact that for the approximately 6,000 years of its traditionally accepted existence, no two groups have ever agreed on what it means or how to apply its tenets. And never mind that the polls showing the majority of Americans are Christians count people who would not be considered "real Christians" at all, if proving a political point weren't on the line.

That is why the Founding Fathers though it better to trade that tradition of strife and disagreement and non-inclusion for a simpler, modern document focused on secular laws. Better to create some basic boundaries between religion and government, and create a safe "arena" within which we can quibble and fight. And we can call those rules and boundaries: The Constitution.

Of course, for its youth, the Constitution is just as difficult for people to understand. It's full of words, clauses, and concepts that... well, the confusing part is that it's full of words, clauses, and concepts. Fortunately, it includes instructions on how to pick people to read it and interpret it FOR us! Unfortunately, that means that we still rule ourselves by rumor, and that people who want to return to a strict reading of it usually haven't.

Don't take my word for it. Traditionalists are just as lost and confused about what the Document means as the rest of us. That's why there are Traditionalists who protest the U.S. Census, even though the 4th paragraph of Article 2 Section 1 clearly spells out how and when it should work. There are Traditionalists who rail against the "immoral" practice of taxation - though Article 1 Sect. 2, Sect. 8, Sect. 9, and Amendment 16 all clearly spell out how and when THAT should work. Traditionally, these things are managed by Congress - the direct representatives of the population.

Traditionally, the Congress hasn't been very good at representing the general populace. It's hard to do, what with all of the ignorant masses yelling out their ideas and throwing things at you when you're trying to figure out the best way to divide your time between getting into bed with lobbyists AND getting into bed with anyone impressed by your awesome elected power. Most people - traditionalists and non-traditionalists alike - rightly view the Congress as a congregation of whores, only out to satisfy the next John carrying a fat roll of money. The problem with this view is not that it is inaccurate, but that We the People are the "John" and we keep coming back for more. (Talk about maintaining a market!)

The solution to corruption has always been the same: remove money from the equation. Even if you think I'm overstating the level of corruption, it takes absurd amounts of the stuff to run an election these days. Recent Presidential campaigns have run into the billions - with a B - and some high profile Senate races run into the double-digit millions. There's really no getting around how ridiculous this is.

We're doing it now, too; complaining about government spending while wasting obscene amounts of money to watch our pet whores trash each other in TV attack ads. Remember the big flap over President Bush not signing off on $35 million dollars funding health insurance for poor children? The Minnesota Senate race cited above would have almost paid for that bill, and chances are, we STILL would have been treated to the spectacle of the race, courtesy of the media whores desperate to cash in on Al Franken's controversial celebrity.

I know it doesn't sound "traditional", but how about we try something new? We've already seen how easy it can be to get a message out to people using free platforms. I could shoot a campaign video with my $100 iPod, and with a bit of savvy social networking, get it to go viral. I could use a Public library computer to photoshop a compelling campaign poster, sell it as a bumper sticker, and fund my registration fees. Why don't I? Because I like my current job, and am forbidden to run.

Of course, there's nothing stopping any of you from trying this. There's a lot of drivel about "grass roots" campaigns out there, but the truth is, no one has had the cojones to abandon their two-party system, turn their backs on their pimps, and vote for the "unknown". Never mind that it's easier than ever to get to know the "unknown" - I'd link you to examples, but for the Hatch Act; you have Google. Never mind that it's easy to find out how "write in" candidates work in your precinct; what's stopping you from picking someone you think would represent you well and campaigning FOR them? That's traditional, at least.

George Washington didn't even run for President; he was elected, and then agreed to take the job. He is also the only President who never chose a party, explaining on many occasions that he thought partisan politics would ruin the Republic. It seems we have ample proof that he was right about that.

So, even though the practice seems decidedly "non-traditional", I would argue that starting a new Tradition is the most traditionally American activity of them all. What's to stop us Restoring our Honor by demanding that money - corporate or otherwise - be removed from our electoral system? Only the 330 million of you, my friends, and your willingness to wait for the Congress to reform itself for you, out of a sense of honor that none of you believe exists.


Hammer said...

Hey, I'd vote for you. (Darn Hatch Act!)

Thaurismunths said...

I've been astonished by the increasingly large sums of money being spent on elections, but hadn't considered the practical side of it: How many projects could be funded if candidates only spent half their money on themselves?


cognoramus said...

I think the solution would be to make all candidates write-in candidates, with all misspelled entries automatically disqualified.

Yes, it may sound like the old literacy tests, but it would (a) open the playing field up to more candidates and (b) ensure that only people who had actually bothered to check out a candidate would have their voices heard.


Tad said...

Getting money OUT of the equation and getting thinking back IN? If we can make if fair, legal, and enforceable, why not?