Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

The title of this blog comes from a Pete Seeger song:

The lyrics contain a number of metaphors that apply to the current political situation in the States: First, times and circumstances change. What was once safe doesn’t necessarily remain that way. Second, having a “big fool” set direction may not turn out well. Third (and one of my favorite quotations), “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” which was doubtless based on George Santayana’s original: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Remembering history by itself isn’t sufficient. It’s only the first step.

If you have read anything about history, you know what the political situation was for most of our ancestors. You have probably read at least a little about Genghis Kahn, Julius Caesar, Adolf Hitler, and Mao Zedong, other other despots and dictators of lesser renown. Human history is replete with wars, famines, slavery, and superstition. One of the many quotable ideas from Henry David Thoreau is, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” The rest of the quotation is appropriate for our current times:

What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.

Back in the mid-1980s, Professor Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. The principal focus of the book was the way the change from a print culture to a video culture (primarily TV) changed both public and private conversations. It has been a while since I read Postman’s book, and I can’t remember if he made the connection with Thoreau’s comment about despair being concealed under “games and amusements,” but the concept is appropriate. Consider the number of situation comedies that have been on TV over the last quarter-century or so. And, I must confess that I plead guilty to having enjoyed many of them. I don’t think that in and of itself is a problem. After all, many of Shakespeare’s plays were comedies. The mode of delivery was different, but the basic content of Shakespearian comedies, was highly similar to that in the comedies of TV’s “Golden Age.”

The tragedies also amuse, of course, as do “murder mysteries.” Theater and literature (both poetry and novels), have always served to comment on or distract us from what is happening in our own lives. In some cases, we can use what we read or see (on the stage or on TV) to better understand the problems we face and to gain appreciation for possible solutions. A common saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same, is an indication that regardless of how our technology changes, human nature remains essentially the same.

When we think about slavery, most of us in the states think primarily of what we experienced in the States. Slavery, however, has a very long history. We had to fight a civil war to eliminate it in this country, but most cultures (with very few exceptions at this point) eliminated slavery in the nineteenth century. The world had slavery from the beginning of humanity to the middle of the nineteenth century, and, of course, a few places/cultures still have it. And, of course, slavery isn’t the only primitive custom that is still with us in at least some cultures and locations. Our “modernity” is fragile. It is a thin veneer covering primitive tribalism and territorial warfare.

Our current political situation in the States (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, in Europe) provides a glimpse into the tug-of-war between the desire to advance and the desire to regress. Those who want to advance are in favor of increasing inclusiveness, with everyone being essentially the same and desiring equality. Those who want to regress, are thinking in terms of “us-versus-them” and the need for “us” to exclude and/or dominate “them.” Among a variety of other things, the concept applies to religions, countries, and sexuality. In the States, for example, under the guise of “religious freedom,” some what to deny religious freedom for others. The so-called “Bathroom Bills” are another example of fears gone wild. What, exactly, are people so afraid of? Baking a cake for a gay couple’s wedding is not going to make the baker gay. As best I can tell, if Jesus were alive today and working as a baker, He would be glad to bake the cake. He, after all, really was a Christian.

So here we are, waist deep in the Big Muddy, and we need to decide if we’re going to follow the Big Fool into the murky waters of past hatred or move into the sweetness and light of the future.

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