Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Hypothetical Buzzers

Two Buzzers as Leaders' Lifelines

By John Taylor; 2008 Sep 30

Normally I avoid watching American politicians. I literally cannot face them. When I try, my cringe reflex overworks itself. I twitch until my facial muscles become fatigued and my whole countenance aches. However, the hullaballoo over Alaskan vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin's recent interview intrigued me.

I tracked the video down on the Web and watched the eight minute report, which is still featured on an American television network's website. Then, with what she had really said fresh in my mind, I viewed the Saturday Night Live version with Tina Fey playing Sarah Palin. What a tough job the poor comedian has trying to satirize the preposterous personalities in the modern political scene! My heart went out to Tina Fey. Her version of the interview was very close, at times almost word for word. Palin, faced with a question she could not answer requiring detailed knowledge of McCain's record, had famously replied,

"I will have to get back to you on that."

Tina Fey's Palin was more imaginative. Before saying this, she asked for a lifeline, just like on "Who wants to be a Millionaire?" This was pretty funny and I thought satire had done its work until I saw the man-in-the-street interview made soon after the skit had played where a reporter asked the real Palin whether she had seen the Saturday Night Live skit. Palin's answer was, "Yes, I watched it with the volume turned down and it was hilarious." Just like the interviewer in the skit did throughout her interview with Tina Fey's Palin, all one can do is stare incredulously with one's mouth gaping. Satire decisively upstaged by inane reality. Truly, what can you say?

Of course for a Baha'i aspirant like myself the backbiting guilt reflex kicks in hard at this point. OMG. I am mocking a human soul. The fact that I am doing it with millions of others does not make it any better. God is not going to take that as an excuse. In fact, it makes it all the worse. The distain or mockery of many is surely far worse than anything that could happen in a one-on-one confrontation. Then you start to think, could I watch myself being pilloried on national television with the volume turned on? Probably not. Strike that. Definitely not. Then you start to admire the poor woman for saying pluckily that she had found it hilarious. I would not be surprised if there were not tears mixed in with her laughter at that silent screen. Then you think, no wonder there have been so few women aspiring to be leaders this level of American politics. They have to worry not about only knocking their heads on glass ceilings and the distain of men, but also cutting mockery from the likes of Tina Fey. Truly, in an election the one being chosen is not a handful of leaders but a mass of worthy voters, a people made capable by the act of voting of backing up these leaders in a way worthy of an upright citizen.

I like to laugh. Laughter is an effective medicine that alleviates the migraines that sit on my shoulders like malevolent monkeys half the time. I guess I allowed myself to be drawn into this satire by a need for relief from the depressing news of yesterday, the refusal of Congress to bail out their own golden nest egg, the de facto world currency, the dollar, and the subsequent stock market crash. By all accounts the man whom Palin was valiantly defending, Senator John McCain, was partly responsible for the failure of legislators to reach a consensus on the bailout proposal. McCain prides himself in being a maverick, an independent. But for a leader to go his own way in the present delicate climate amounts to flip-flopping and floundering. I was reminded of what John Keats wrote,

"The only means of strengthening one's intellect is to make up one's mind about nothing -- to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts. Not a select party."

Yet everything on the scene pushes leaders to align themselves with a "select party," ready or not. Whether the leader comes over well, whether he shines brilliantly in the glare of the lights of publicity, or whether she is burned, as Palin is burning -- in the end none of it matters, because in any case as long as personalities are in question the spotlights are turned away from the truth. As Heraclitus put it, nature loves to hide. The truth, the whole truth, cannot be exposed before it is good and ready, any more than you can tear open a seed and hope to find the fully grown plant inside.

One thing that Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth, long ago answered to an interviewer who asked him "What would you do if..." has stuck in my mind all these years as eminently wise. He responded, "I do not answer hypothetical questions." Clearly, that is not something that could come out of the mouth of a democratically elected leader. Why? Because everything they say has to be some sort of hypothetical. "If I am elected I will...", "If this happens I would..." But really, if a person of integrity is confronted with any changed situation there is only one thing to do. That is, consult with the parties involved, talk it over with the best advisors available, and then come to a conclusion based on what you learn. All you can say now is that you intend to to do the right thing. Therefore it is impossible before that happens to truthfully say anything about it. It lies in the dim mists of the future. The future is hypothetical by definition.

No, as I say, the really tough questions before an election are not directed at the poor servants we voted for, they should rather be asked of ourselves, by ourselves, in total honesty. In order for that to happen, we will require not the clamour of the hustings but the reverse, silent contemplation. Speech, like the seed in the ground, grows out of the dark deeps of truth, and therefore it must be buried in silent contemplation until it is mature. As Keats put it,

"Silence is deep as Eternity, speech is shallow as Time," and "As the Swiss inscription says: Sprechen ist silbern, Schweigen ist golden, 'Speech is silvern, Silence is golden;' or, as I might rather express it, Speech is of Time, Silence is of Eternity."

A silent election campaign would direct our attention to the eternal. The tough questions we ask of ourselves in private reflection would prepare us to voluntarily undergo what sacrifices are needed to respond to the challenge of the present hour. Unless we do that, it does not matter a hill of beans how competent or incompetent our elected leaders may be, they will be able to do nothing with us, any more than a potter, skilled or not, can mould dry sand into a firm vase. Elections have a serious purpose and we must be clear about how to attain that purpose.

I would therefore like to propose a hypothetical question buzzer. As soon as a candidate can point out that a question is hypothetical he can hit the buzzer and that reporter is bumped to the end of the line. For that matter, why not have a backbiting buzzer? This anybody, leader or reporter, could push at any time (I suppose I pushed it myself earlier on in this essay) and the discussion would then have to turn away from personalities. The only personality that can legitimately be skewered before voting is myself by myself. Let us keep it that way, and elections will turn out a firm clay of a citizenry ready to be shaped into great things.

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