by Flynn Washburne, June 29, 2016
If I were to sum up my personal philosophy in a single sentence, it would be this: Never try to encapsulate anything of import or complexity into a single sentence. Or perhaps: if your philosophy is so elementary that it's every constituent element and aspect can be summed up in a single sentence, then maybe you should get out of the house more.
I'm all for brevity and clarity, but some things require a bit more explication. Oh, I suppose that I could, in a Jamesian frenzy of descriptive elasticity, construct a sentence of sufficient length and complexity, with clauses piled upon clauses like bricks in a teetering wall, dispensing commas as if they grew wild on bushes, occasionally (when requiring an aside, or a wry, ironical observation) resorting to parenthetical digression, that my worldview could be contained in; it is possible, certainly, to issue the full stop entirely, punctuating a sentence to within an inch of its life as it meanders down the page like a rivulet down a hillside, its source unknown and its destination unclear, evaporating under the brilliant noonday sun until it resolves into four tiny discrete dots.… But hey, nobody wants to read shit like that.
There are certainly concepts and ideas which can be clearly expressed using a single brief sentence. Your lunch order, for instance. "I'll have a number seven with a coke." Or a breakup. "I'm going out for cigarettes, be right back." Or the most famously pithy and succinct constructions of all, political slogans.
Politicians run on platforms, which are the things on/for which they stand, being composed of individual planks of policy, plans and promises. Boring, right? Nothing you want to tax the simple mind of the voter with. Instead, say: "I like Ike!" Or, "four more years!" Or, "Tippecanoe and Tyler too!" I'm sure that last one made sense once upon a time.
In what is perhaps the most brief yet fraught example, Barack Obama's "Hope," coupled with Shepherd Fairey's bold (10 years ago I would have used, appropriately, the word "iconic" here. That word is forever ruined for me. Thanks a lot, America, you are awesome!) moving image, managed to both convey the tone of the campaign and hoodwink the bulk of the population to boot. Don't get me wrong, I like Obama and I think he did a creditable job, I just don't think he was exactly the change we were hoping for.
As you know, we the nation are embroiled in yet another presidential campaign and with it comes two more slogans for the history books and T-shirts of homeless people for years to come. I have no idea what, if anything, the Clinton camp has come up with, but Trump has given us a doozy: Make America great again. Not "let's" or "I'm going to," but a seeming command in the imperative mood, essentially giving us an order ("You there! Make America great again." "How?" "I don't know, paint it or something.").
But before obeying the Donald's dictate, I'd have to ask him to define his terms. Great like frosted flakes or the barrier reef? Huge or awesome? Given that the physical dimensions of the nation have remained more or less constant, minus a little erosion and plus a little reclamation, he probably means awesome, terrific, super-duper. And the "again" modifies the term to describe an America which we must infer was once great; no longer possesses that quality of greatness: and which can be restored to greatness by him, us, or a combination of two. I shudder to think it, but it could be — and given his generously proportioned ego, likely it is — that the implication is that our part in the greatness transmutation is simply in casting a vote for Trump and instilling him in the White House after which his intrinsic greatness will naturally devolve onto the country in toto. Bam! America made a great again! You got to admire the man's chutzpah.
I'm genuinely curious to know exactly what period of American history Trump is trying to replicate as a greatness paradigm. Could it be when we didn't let the coloreds play sports with us? Maybe the era of that little Asian debacle when 60,000 Americans died for something, right? Tell me there was a good reason. Or perhaps the glory days of the mid-19th century when a quarter million Americans were slaughtered — by other Americans — for the right to own humans. I don't know, maybe he's nostalgic for the Macarena or New Coke. Could be he's just referring to everything pre-Obama, which seems to take a few liberties with the definition of "great."
I don't want to be that guy who cries "racist" whenever he finds himself in disagreement with someone, but I'm thinking "great" would be code for "white." The man does seem a little overly preoccupied with the browner segment of the population.
If there's one thing the power structure could always be assured of back in the "great" days, it's that they're only competition came from within their own ranks: white men of privilege. Now that the field is wide open, these guys are justifiably running scared and scrambling to cloak their racism in a more socially acceptable guise. Except for Trump, of course, who apparently didn't get quite a few memos about what constitutes acceptable speech and behavior in the 21st century, and has chosen to go it old school.
I say that if America was ever "great," then great she is still. But, like the single sentence philosophy, using one word to describe a full country is facile, and fosters the illusion that complex problems can be simplistically solved. One recalls Gerald Ford's exhortation to the public via WIN buttons to "whip inflation now." As if we had something to do with it, or could do anything about it.
America, speaking of defining terms, is a nation of more than 300 million people spread out over 3.5 million square miles which has been evolving, maturing and adapting at levels from the molecular to the macro for 400 odd years. Say "America" and you could be speaking, for one, of the physical topography. Great? Some places, sure. I can personally attest to the non-greatness of the Mojave Desert. Speak to me not to stark, sere beauty. This place sucks.
Or the government: America as administrative entity. Calling our government great is a stretch. At best it's a low functioning mess that kind of works sometimes.
Then of course there's the people. As stated, 300 some million folks, and here's the thing about people: whether singly or in groups they are irreducibly complex like countries or philosophies. We are definitely a great big mass of people, but great as superlative of goodness? We have our moments, but let's not get carried away.
I do feel, and I'm aware that I'm being heretical in saying so, that many qualities held up as examples of greatness have more to do with being human than being American. People are people regardless of what physical or political boundaries constrain them. The geographical coordinates you were born into do not make you special nor do any strips of cloth or terrible songs you are commanded to respect. Ask your average Joe what America means to him and you're liable to hear something about rights and freedoms. Delve a little deeper and do a little analysis and you will discover that America, either conceptually or actually, has little to do with what motivates or gratifies him. His contribution to the larger picture may be a vote every couple of years. His America is his job, his family, his friends and whatever diversions he has chosen to offset the pointlessness of existence. But he (and you, and I) is America, a single cell in the body of the great lumbering beast that is our country. We are what we are despite the government or what politicians continually insist that we are. They love to define and classify us, to place us in discrete categories according to our relative worth vis-a-vis their own goals. But every demographic is made up of individuals with at least enough free will to defy expectation and act according to what is right, not what analysis of his buying habits determines he should do.
Every country gets the government it deserves. The Reich did not spring full-blown from the mind of one man and suddenly install itself over the collective objections of a peace loving populace. The entire nation was complicit in its conception, growth and ultimate primacy. The people are responsible for who and what they allow to govern them and when that entity grows beyond their control and the situation becomes untenable it is the responsibility of the people to revolt and reset the system.
We (America) have not yet arrived at that point. Things are still humming along pretty well despite what a lot of alarmists would have you believe. It's not perfect and shame on anyone who thinks anything so huge and diverse and complicated could or should be. You can focus on the flaws and it's a damn good thing we have people who do just that, but I personally feel it's kind of amazing that the whole system has not collapsed and thrown us into a road warrior-esque post-apocalyptic nightmare.
Part of me wants to see what would happen in a Trump presidency. The same part that thinks it would be cool to replace all the drivers at the Daytona 500 with chimpanzees. The part that loves chaos and the unexpected. However, the rational, sane part of me currently holding sway after years of dormancy realizes that both examples are dangerously crazy. Amusing to concede and valuable as a thought experiment, but hardly practical.
The greatification of America is a task beyond the reach of any one man or indeed the entire electorate. It doesn't mean you don't do your part in spreading greatness, though, at attainable levels within your own limited sphere. Make your bed great again! By some luxurious sheets with an extravagant threadcount and maybe one of those giant pillows that you can simulate intimacy with. Learn to make those corners with the little pockets.
Make your lunch great again! Make it "deluxe" or "supreme." Add some cheese. Have a cocktail. If the era of the three martini lunch wasn't great, I don't know what is.
Strive for greatness in every area you are able to affect and there's no telling what we as a nation may be able to achieve. Seriously though, don't vote for Trump. That's just crazy.