Monday, November 05, 2012

Today's guest author: Clare Austin

This is not a picture of Clare
Today's selection is timely, in that tomorrow is election day (get out there and VOTE... unless you're a stupid person, in which case, stay home and DON'T) and it comes to us from Clare Austin, who describes herself thusly:

"Clare Austin is a wife, a mother, a friend to cats, and a hockey nut. In her spare time, she's a historian of American political ideas at a university in the "Athens of the South," Nashville, Tennessee. Yes, they do actually call it that. No one really knows why."
Theodore Roosevelt, Bullets, and Politics

October 14, 2012, was the 100th anniversary of a specific and unique speech given by Theodore Roosevelt. He was in Milwaukee, WI, in 1912, stumping as part of his campaign for president under the banner of the Bull Moose, formally the Progressive Party. John Schrank, a deranged man who had been stalking the former president for weeks trying to get a clean shot at him finally did, just before Roosevelt was due to go on stage.

The bullet wound wasn't fatal, but it was painful, lodging in his chest after being slowed by a steel eyeglass case and the manuscript he had prepared for his speech. Still the Colonel—as he was sometimes called—insisted on going on with the show. "I am alright," he said, "and you cannot escape listening to the speech, either." You see, he believed in powering through, did our Teddy, just like a bull moose would. And he believed he had a message that this incident only served to underline.

The political climate of Teddy Roosevelt's life would have felt at once familiar and strange to us. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a time of burly, rough and tumble politics, with schisms and personal vendettas galore. It was a time of unrest, of repeated boom and bust economic cycles, of the increasing power of "combinations" in all sectors of American life—social, political, and economic. The politics of the time could be vicious and bloody, both metaphorically and literally.It was a politics of color and sound and movement only slightly less choreographed than today's television spectacles.
But there's a lot we wouldn't recognize.

We wouldn't recognize the power of the now almost meaningless American socialist movement. Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist candidate in 1912, was as great an electoral threat to Roosevelt as Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats. We tend to forget that about ourselves. (Keep in mind that the violent birth of the Soviet Union was still some five years in the future.)

We might not recognize the conservatives' certainty that the cruelties of human society were both inherent and necessary, that for society to function the struggles of daily life had to be hard, and that it was futile and dangerous to try to even the playing field. But at the same time, we would probably reject the Progressives' unending faith in the power of knowledge and expertise to end suffering, in our ability to overcome and transform human tragedy by changing the system.

Our political climate today can be just as vicious and occasionally as bloody as it was in 1912. Our politicians talk in sound bytes a little more frequently, and the public is a bit less willing to take political rhetoric at its face. But sometimes, words uttered a century ago, in an age of optimism about the human future and the power of progress, echo down to us only mildly distorted by their trip through time.
Friends, every good citizen ought to do everything in his or her power to prevent the coming of the day when we shall see in this country two recognized creeds fighting one another, when we shall see the creed of the "Havenots" arraigned [sic] against the creed of the "Haves." When that day comes then such incidents as this to-night will be commonplace in our history.
Roosevelt foresaw revolution in the politics of his day. He foresaw a time when the working class, pushed too far into the margins, would fight back, much like they had in 1877 and 1886 and 1894, much like they would in Russia in 1917. But more than that, Roosevelt saw social unrest as a chance to perfect human society and the Progressive movement in particular as
a movement in which we ask all just men of generous hearts to join with the men who feel in their souls that lift upward which bids them refuse to be satisfied themselves while their countrymen and countrywomen suffer from avoidable misery.

Roosevelt the politician's answer to chaos was a call for justice for the working class, justice that he believed would forestall the collapse of the American system while tapping into what he deemed to be the vast energy of the laboring man.

Our solution today, sadly, would be to say "Get over yourself. You've got it good." And some version of "Stop picking on me."
We've lost, somehow, not a sense of civility in politics (that never really took hold), but a sense of optimism about what politics is. We are just as petty and violent and competitive as we were in 1912, but we no longer believe that truly big ideas—ideas about human nature and reality—have any place in our political life. We don't debate these kinds of ideas; we barely acknowledge their existence.
Off all the parallels and discontinuities between Teddy's world and our own, the starkest is this. We no longer seem to believe that through politics we can try to understand ourselves. As a consequence, we can't.

1 comment:

Ruprecht said...

Just like corporal punishment in schools, we need a "Teddy" back.