by Max Harris, Wisconsin Humanities Council
| This is the first in a series of articles that are part of "A More Perfect Union: Wisconsin Reads." This election-year program uses literature as a springboard for civic conversations about political integrity and participatory democracy. The "A More Perfect Union: Wisconsin Reads" discussion series consists of four books: Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph Ellis, In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien, The Oresteia by Aeschylus (translated by Ted Hughes) and The Children's Story by James Clavell. This article originally appeared in The Country Today in February 2004.
The program is a project of the Wisconsin Humanities Council and its fellow members of the Cultural Coalition of Wisconsin. For more information, contact Jessica Becker at 608-263-3155.
This week, as the presidential primary circus comes to Wisconsin, I find myself remembering a line from Tim O'Brien's best-selling novel, In the Lake of the Woods. Tony Carbo, campaign manager for a Minnesota politician in pursuit of election, says, "In the real world [of politics] you don't accomplish zip without winning. Losers just lose." It's a case of the ends justifying the means. Since you can't do any good without winning, you do anything to win.
Faced with a barrage of stump speeches and campaign commercials, some of us may long for the good old days when American politicians told the truth and treated one another with respect. Except that there was no such golden age. Joseph Ellis writes about the first generation of American leaders in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and Madison are now revered American heroes. We tend to forget that they competed with one another for power. As Ellis observes, "The politics of the 1790s was a truly cacophonous affair...In terms of shrill accusatory rhetoric, flamboyant displays of ideological intransigence, intense personal rivalries, and hyperbolic claims of imminent catastrophe, it has no equal in American history." In short, the partisan politics of the revolutionary generation was downright ugly.
Nevertheless, despite all the inflamed political rhetoric and the embarrassing moral compromises of our first politicians, the American experiment succeeded. The unprecedented attempt to establish representative government based on popular sovereignty not only worked, but it has endured, and is now the dominant political model worldwide. As the presidential primaries attest, even the major party candidates are now selected by something akin to a popular vote. Ellis's book explores the paradox of flawed politicians creating a pre-eminently successful political system.
O'Brien's novel and Ellis's history are two of the books featured in the Wisconsin Humanities Council's election year book-discussion series, "A More Perfect Union." The first book meets many of us where we are. We're cynical. The second book puts that cynicism in a historical context. A measure of ugliness in politics may be the price we have to pay for representative government. Free speech isn't always pretty.
But shouldn't there be limits to the ugliness? Isn't a politician who conducts a clean and honest campaign more likely to preside over a clean and honest government? If a politician spins half-truths during a campaign, isn't he (or she) more likely to spin half-truths in power? And who decides what are the ethical limits to which politicians should be held?
Well, actually, we doat the ballot box. The law must be obeyed, but some have compared campaign law to a series of obstacles around which the powerful can always find a detour. It's up to us, then. The preamble to the Constitution places responsibility for the formation of a more perfect union firmly in the hands of the people. If the genuinely ethical politicians started winning the elections, even the crooked politicians might undergo a tactical conversion. But, are "we, the people," when we vote, really prepared to sacrifice self-interest to ethics? Are we willing to ask, "Which candidate is more likely to preside over a just society?" Or do we insist on asking, "Which candidate will put more money in my pocket?" What degree of compromise between political success and ethical integrity will we tolerate? Do the ends ever justify the means? These are just a few of the questions we hope the "A More Perfect Union" discussion series will raise.
The third book in the series is a play. Aeschylus' Oresteia takes us back to the beginnings of democracy in Greece. It begins with a king who characteristically decides that the end justifies the means: he sacrifices his daughter to the gods to gain divine blessing on the war against Troy. It ends with the introduction of a system of justice that depends on the deliberations of a jury rather than on the brute force of impassioned warriors. Even the most cynical among us must be grateful for this innovation. And yet, the patriotic rhetoric at the close of the play conceals all kinds of injustices that remain deeply embedded in Athenian democracy. Written nearly 2,500 years ago, the Oresteia is arguably the most up-to-date of all the books in the series. We're reading it in a stunning new translation by Ted Hughes.
The final book, James Clavell's The Children's Story, returns us to the present. Clavell wrote The Children's Story after his five-year-old daughter came home from school one day, recited the Pledge of Allegiance and demanded a dime. Clavell paid up, but quickly learned his daughter had no idea what the pledge meant. The Children's Story shows how easy it is for patriotic rhetoric and religious values, if they are only learned and never discussed or understood, to be undermined. In his handwritten epilogue, Clavell asks, "What is freedom and why is it so hard to explain?" There are few questions that should resonate more powerfully in the months leading up to November's elections.
These are important issues. The Wisconsin Humanities Council hopes that many of the state's residents will join us in reading these books and thinking about the issues they raise. For democracy to work, "we, the people" need to vote. But we also need to engage in reasoned consideration of the issues. We are, after all, the jury.