Some Advice to a Democratic People

For obvious reasons I am posting this excerpt from Spanish literature in the original language. Angél Gavinet was a prominent Spanish writer, a member of the so-called Generación del 98, who had a great rhetorical impact on Spain during its relatively early days of democracy. This piece was penned near the turn of the twentieth century.

Translating this passage makes it more accessible to English-only speakers and readers, and though the text perhaps loses some of its organic meaning and impact, I have provided a translation. Please consider how prescient these words are today in light of our current state of affairs in the U.S.

–DJ

Algún Consejo a España (Desde Hace Unos Cien Años)

–Angél Gavinet

Un pueblo no puede, y si puede no debe, vivir sin gloria. Pero tiene muchos medios de conquistarla y además la gloria se muestra en formas varias: hay la gloria ideal, la más noble, a la que se llega por el esfuerzo de la inteligencia. Hay la gloria de la lucha del triunfo de los ideales de un pueblo contra los de otro pueblo. Hay la gloria del combate feroz por la simple dominación material. Hay la gloria más triste de aniquilarse mútuamente en luchas interiores. España ha conocido todas las formas de la gloria y desde hace mucho tiempo disfruta a todo pasto de la gloria triste. Vivimos en perpetua guerra civil. Nuestro temperamento excitado y debilitado por inacabables periodos de lucha no acierta a transformarse, a buscar un medio pacifico, ideal, de expresión y a hablar por signos más humanos que los de las armas.

Translated into English:

A people can not, and if they can, should not, live without glory. But the people have many means of achieving glory which is also demonstrated in several ways: there is the ultimate, noblest glory, which is reached through the force of intelligence. There is the glory of the struggle of the triumph of the ideals of a people against another people. There is the glory of the fierce struggle for mere material domination. There is a sadder glory of annihilating each other through inner struggles. Spain has known all forms of glory and for a long time has enjoyed this sad glory without limit. We live in perpetual civil war. Through  periods of endless struggle our excited and weakened temperament fails to transform itself, to find a peaceful, ideal environment, of expression and speaking by symbols more humane that those of weapons.

 

Our Narcissist Is Better That Your Narcissist

Yes, this title is a turn of words from the old cold war slogan: “Our Germans were better than their Germans,” which made reference to the chief scientists from our nuclear program vs. those which the Soviet Union employed. But, dare I say that the stakes are nearly as high today as we watch the current U.S. election madness, hopefully, breathlessly, and often, incredulously. When you strip away all of the bluster, the bitterness and the biting rhetoric, it seems we are left with two unrepentant narcissists who desperately want the presidency, mainly to have the power to fulfill their own personal agendas.

Quite evidently, most of the country is disgusted with both of these candidates. The polls are reporting the highest negative perceptions ever recorded for presidential candidates in our nation’s history. You have to ask yourself, how did we get here? Why are we left with such a Hobson´s choice for the so-called “leader of the free world?” Well, I am not so certain that I have the answer to that question. Nonetheless, I believe that this present outcome is telling us that something needs to change. Not least, the country needs to be brought together, healed of the partisan rancor, and set on a course for prosperity and peace, if that is even possible in our current world.

But, I am just naive enough to believe that these goals are not only possible, they are achievable. Our founding fathers faced more difficult odds and very real threats to the country’s survival and future, with two wars fought on our own soil before we had a constitution, and another devastating war to come a few years later. The colonies were not rich, and they had not much more than an agrarian economy in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There was no powerful industrial infrastructure and not even a dream of being the richest and most dominant nation in the world.

So, if we think about it from that perspective, we will recognize that we are far from being without hope for our future. Yet, we have to wonder if it isn’t high time that we turn the corner and live up to our name, the United States of America. Or, are we all just as narcissistic as our presumptive presidential nominees? Do we want what we want so much that we will ignore what you want and even deride you for wanting it? Have we completely lost the ability to debate issues and hammer out consensus agreements? Is maintaining our ideological belief system so strong that we hate others who challenge those beliefs? Is our self-image so poor that we cannot conceive of holding two conflicting thoughts in our minds at the same time, or that we are incapable of bringing two differing views to a satisfactory resolution.

The current state of affairs does remind me of more than a cold war slogan, though. It harkens back to the cold war itself. In point of fact, we don’t even have detente. We have an open war between liberal and conservative leaders, and the contagion of this warlike spirit has infected nearly the entire population.

My dad had a saying when I was growing up and being a typical obstinate kid. “Knock it off” he would say. We’ll I’d like to tell our leaders and their minions the same. It is time for the decades-long ideology war to end. It’s time for civil discourse. It’s time to recognize that this nation was born and weaned on political debate, compromise and consensus. And a knowing that we were certainly all better off together than divided and factionalized. There is no future for a nation that sets the table for its enemies.

And it all begins with words, hopeful words, healing words, words of compassion and wisdom, and words of truth. And with the recognition that to serve in any position in government is a high honor and a sacred trust, given by the people who so elect their representatives and who need and expect their leaders to be dedicated to serving, protecting and defending them above all else.

And then I wonder why in the world would we elect a narcissist for such important work.

–DJ

The Secret of Tony’s Success

Last evening I had the pleasure of watching the latest installment in Anthony Bourdain’s CNN  travelogue, “Parts Unknown” and I realized that the host’s popularity is derived in large part from the food that he eats. Now, please do not think I am going to minimize anything else about the show or, God forbid, about Tony himself. Not in the least. In fact, I see Tony as a TV demigod of sorts, a larger-than-life everyman who is also, seemingly, a friend to every person on earth. There’s probably even a number of famous people, and the dictators both small and large countries, who are just waiting for his call. (I do love that about him, by the way.) In point of fact, I have saved nearly every show that he’s ever made on my DVR, and I’ve been mesmerized for years by his ability to show us the world, allow us to experience so many diverse cultures, and most of all, to partake vicariously in every imaginable cuisine. And it is also worth noting that this current incarnation of his “travel, eat, and write” escapades is written, photographed and edited about as well as anything ever produced for television.

But to my point, it is really the food that makes such a lasting connection with the audience, it seems to me. Let’s face it, we all have love affairs with food, and best of all, these dalliances are not frowned upon in society, nor do they have to be conducted furtively, under cover of darkness. We can, and do, have every right to indulge our appetites. I can tell anyone and everyone how much I love chocolate, or I can really amp it up with a romance language to express that, “me encanta la cerveza!”

It begins early in life, and continues unabated, this love affair with food. Our tastes may change but our enthusiasm remains high. Thinking back to my childhood I remember the first time that I tasted peanut butter when a school pal of mine had me over to his house and pulled out a jar of Skippy and a couple of teaspoons. Wow! It was love at first bite, an affair that continued for over two decades. At one point I was buying natural peanut butter by the 5 lb. container. (Obsessive, I know.)  Then there is coffee. This is surely one of the world’s most universal love affairs and it continues to up its appeal, showing us its versatility and changing its character as we discover more ways to enjoy it. We’ve come a long way from four spoons of Chase and Sanborn in the percolator every morning, though, believe me, that was a smell and taste truly worth waking up for. Today, so many years later, I feel that if the house burned down, the one thing I would grab on my way out the door is my espresso machine.

I remember fondly my long ago initiation into natural foods and my three year run as a vegetarian. I think about the bread I’ve baked over the years and so many recipes which I’ve tweaked to something near perfection from so many preparations.

And then there is the restaurant experience. A great meal in a worthy restaurant setting can be magical and well as memorable. And not only because of the food, either. The food becomes the shared experience that deepens relationships, the catalyst for love and intimacy. Perhaps you can remember dates you’ve had where you shared a meal. These memories can be vivid and lasting. They are burned into our minds along with the tastes and the smells that rekindle the memories.

And so it was for me last night. When Tony and his erstwhile friends from last night’s episode were all gathered around a table at Chicago’s “Topo Gigio” I was transported back to a night in May seven years ago when I sat at that very table with family and friends. We had a wonderful meal and made the kind of great memories that will last a lifetime. I could smell and taste it all over again and it even felt like I was somehow able to experience it along with the cast of the show last night.

Mind you, I’ve been to precious few of the locales and restaurants that Tony has visited over the years but I nonetheless get that same exhilaration every time I watch the show. It doesn’t matter if he is in Detroit or Charleston or Singapore. I would like nothing more than to be there too, to be able to smell and taste the food.

All right, I will admit it. I’m a food junkie. But I know I’m not alone in the world.

–DJ

Breaking the Bonds of Freedom

Today I am sharing an excerpt from one of my novels, “For the Love of Freedom,” which was set in Michigan near the turn of the last century. The text below is a newspaper column (in truth, an editorial) written by the novel’s protagonist, a political reporter.

Politics is a topic that interests me greatly. But please know that this fictional tome in no way represents my entire political world view. I feel, however, that the text continues to have relevance today, over a decade and a half further on in the history of our republic.

Mainly, my goal in presenting this is to point out that rhetoric and reality are two completely different concepts.

–DJ

Breaking the Bonds of Freedom

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” So goes the old refrain to Me and Bobby McGee. In the late Sixties and early Seventies many young people understood freedom in just that way. After all, what else did that generation have to lose? Under the political banner of “making the world safe for democracy”, with the Viet Nam War hanging as a backdrop to SCENE ONE of their adulthood, there was little worth saving beyond their lives: no faith, no trust, no honor, no respect for the law, no ambition. Their trials and tribulations had all but severed them from society and previous generations. They cast aside the workaday world that had served their parents so well. Many ran afoul of cultural mores—standards that had stood for ages and generations. The phrase “generation gap” became a metaphor for the colossal failure of a society where young and old could no longer connect.

Marriage came to be viewed as confining, or worse—unnecessary. After all, love was free! Drug and alcohol abuse bled like an open wound across the patchwork tapestry of tens of thousands of young lives. Numerous young men fled over the border to Canada to avoid the draft and possible death from a war that held no meaning. Others, young men and women alike, were struck down for expressing themselves under their constitutionally guaranteed freedom to assemble. Like gruesome monuments to hopelessness, their battered bodies lay strewn recklessly across the streets of Chicago and over the grounds of the once idyllic campus of Kent State University. All the while, the former standard bearers for freedom—their parents—watched from the safety of their living rooms. With nothing left to lose, this generation was free. Free from society and the ties that bind.

A generation later, these events are viewed in an entirely different light. The troubles of our nation are behind us. America prospers, as do its young people—most of whom are conformists. Lessons have been learned from the Viet Nam generation. But even with peace in our land and some time to reflect, our understanding of freedom has not fully clarified.

As we look about us today we see that America’s success and her freedom are the envy of the entire world. All nations and people want what we have. But freedom is not, and has never been, free. There is a price that must be paid.

Our founding fathers toiled to buy America’s freedom and then fought to preserve it. These great men established the world’s most successful government, a democracy (or more rightly stated—a constitutional republic), a nation governed by the rule of law. Those who seek freedom in America must still submit to her laws, laws written through the genius of learned and gifted men, laws that are a large part of the price we pay for freedom today.

And so, we have now come full circle in a generation. Thirty years ago, in attempts to be free, young people threw off the shackles of society and its laws. Today we advocate the passage of more laws for the same ostensible purpose.

Which road to freedom is the right one? It cannot be both. And, while many are glad to be free of the memories of the war-torn Sixties, I cannot help but look back. When I watch as freedom fighters clamor for the right to carry concealed weapons, I cannot help but look back. When I hear political hopefuls spouting off about the laws they will advocate and the jails they will build to secure our freedom, I must look back.

If, as I have come to wonder, with the passage of each new law, some part of freedom is abolished, then it follows that more and more laws will bring about a society of less and less freedom. We are fooling ourselves if we think otherwise. Furthermore, freedom of choice is diminished in such a society, and there exists an ever-widening gap between right and wrong, as defined by the law.

So, considering the current propensity for legislating in the name of freedom, one cannot help but wonder how long it will take for the revolutionary atmosphere of the Sixties to once again descend upon us like a curtain on the final act of democracy. We can only hope for someone powerful and influential to recognize the trouble we face. (Now, please pardon me while I carry this logic to its ridiculous conclusion.) Since today’s society has gained such abundant freedom in the face of so many newfound laws, it therefore follows that the possession of such freedom leaves us with nothing much left to lose.

And, sooner or later, something has got to give. Look close; you can see it in the desperate eyes of our young students. They’ve been rammed through somebody else’s chamber. They’re not quite sure how they fit. They haven’t really been taught to think for themselves. Indeed, they are not free to do so, the mantra of our school systems being, “If you want to succeed in life—get with the program—follow our lead.” In other words: go with the flow or else! Or else what? Failure, perhaps, or exclusion. No one wants to be made a foolish example of the consequences of non-conformance. And children learn this painful lesson very early in life. They learn to go along, even though they may not really understand why. It’s the rule, we tell them, the law, the accepted way. And if they dare to be different, punishment looms over them like a threatening cloud.

Meanwhile, historians and freedom fighters and REAL Americans are out trumpeting the melody of rugged individualism. It is the underlying strength of our American Republic—or so they say.

Well, once again, and at the risk of repeating myself: You cannot have it both ways. If you want people to think like rugged individualists, you must encourage them to do as much—even teach them how. You can’t pour everyone through the same sieve expecting that they will come out the other side as glistening examples of independence and free thinking individualism.  And, if you want to encourage freedom, you have to eventually set young people free—free to choose, to make mistakes, to succeed, or to fail—presuming, of course, that you have first taught them how to think. Instead of passing laws to fence them in, how about teaching young people to make good and proper decisions and then turn them loose? Teach them respect for others and their property, and you may not need laws to restrain improper behavior; they will know the difference between the two.

All of us want freedom to remain the hallmark of society. But, if that is to be so, we cannot allow this noble concept to further degenerate into an empty rhetorical rallying cry.

We want freedom to become real in our hearts, in our streets, in our society, and most of all, in our government. But I cannot be the only one who shutters as I read the news, or when I see a clip on TV, where yet another candidate promises us tougher laws and more prisons for greater freedom. There must be others besides me whose hearts’ cry “Stop! That is not the answer. How about demonstrating freedom by the example of your own life, how it is an empowering force—for good, and not for evil?” After all, this is what gets preached in our schools, our churches and the halls of our government. Is it not?

At this, the closing of the twentieth century—a century that has seen the most atrocious wars, and the most prosperous peace; in which most of the nations of the world have followed in our footsteps to democracy; where great strides have been made to wipe out poverty as we know it—indeed, while we still have the time, the strength, the resources and the hope, let us break the bonds of freedom into a new and glorious way.

Then, when a politician talks, some of us might begin to listen.

 

Toe in the Water

Everyone has a beginning. This is mine. At least with regard to blogging. Today, I find myself staring into the world wide web, a void which, though already containing unfathomable and uncountable bits of information, ideas, opinions, images and sounds, is still as empty as interstellar space. I do not pretend that I will make much of an impact.

However, looking ahead, I just might say some important things, though much of what I write will likely be rather unimportant to the masses. Hopefully, it will not also be uninteresting.

It is hard to imagine who might appear as members of my audience. Perhaps it will be limited to my loved ones and friends. Such is more that I could hope for.

Though I believe myself to be relatively thoughtful and articulate, I do not imagine that which I am going to say will spark a movement of any sort. Still, I will not be reticent to express opinions, though probably not in the manner you have come to expect from the blogosphere writ large. Truth be told, I have little regard for nonsense, gossip or any opinions that tear down another person, their value or self esteem. The web is already rife with such claptrap. So, my own reasons notwithstanding, there is absolutely no need for me to pile-on with any more of the same.

Who am I? Let´s suffice it to say for now that I am a person who is much like many others. I have a spouse and children whom I love. With a handful of cherished friends and numerous acquaintances who I have come to know over the years. I have some talents and abilities, somewhat underutilized and a tenuous self image. On the plus side,  I possess a desire to be a better person to friends and strangers alike. I have worked hard to create a decent life for myself and my family. And, thanks entirely to the grace of God, I have largely succeeded, though I have not ¨struck it rich¨ or become famous in any way, whatsoever. In truth, I believe that fame and fortune can be considered great blessings, but any person so blessed who does not use his or her notoriety or wealth wisely is perhaps the most miserable of all creatures.

So, tune in from time to time. It may be worth your while.

Here is a thought for today:

With loved ones all beside us
We´ll leave our fears behind us
The path from here is now made clear
We need not halt for blindness

–DJ

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Cactus Flower (do not repost or reproduce without credit or permission)