Politics and Life

January 17, 2011

I think often of this snippet from Samuel Johnson, which he contributed to Oliver Goldsmith's Traveller:

"How small of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!
Still to ourselves in every place consigned,
Our own felicity we make or find.
With secret course, which no loud storms annoy,
Glides the smooth current of domestic joy."

If these lines are true I must be an idiot to think, and write, as much about politics and affairs of state as I do. Johnson is telling me that politics have little to do with the quality of my life.

I understand what he is saying, and I agree with him to some extent. Regardless of how bad things get politically, most of us can find niches in which to hide away from them and pursue our own affairs with as much skill as we can summon.

But if I were to quote these lines to Bradley Manning, in solitary confinement in Quantico, in a tiny cell for 23 out of 24 hours in the day, and not even allowed to get up and exercise his body during that time, they probably wouldn't mean much to him.

Nor would they mean much to Gulet Mohamed, who sits in a cell in Kuwait, not because the government there wishes to imprison him, but because he cannot be put on a plane to come home. The United States has placed him on a no-fly list, for no reason they will disclose.

If I were to work at it a bit, I could list hundreds of persons who lives have been taken over completely by politics, who are suffering from governmental policies which, on the surface, make no sense whatsoever and which the government can't be bothered to explain.

Certainly if in Johnson's time you fell into the hands of the government hideous things could happen to you. But the government was not extensive enough then to reach out to the number of people it can reach now. Part of our political problem, and our political danger, is that government now has vastly greater police power than any government did in the 18th Century. Though the Great Cham had sumptuous imagination I'm not sure he could have conceived the situation we find ourselves in now. From his perspective it would have been genuinely fantastic. It's fantastic even from mine.

Furthermore, government did not have the kind of influence on economic life it has now. That was both a good and a bad thing. The government then did not protect you from people selling poisonous goods but neither did it reach as deeply into your pocket to provide subsidies for the wealthy. I'm not saying government wasn't bought by the rich as it is now, but, then, the buying and selling of government affected a smaller portion of the population. Please don't think that by noticing this, I'm making a Tea Party argument. We can't return to the conditions of the 18th Century, and we would be idiotic to try. I'm merely claiming that politics demands a greater hold on the attention of the average person than it did in Johnson's time.

Exactly what this suggests I'm not sure. Can I say, as I sometimes think, that persons who try to ignore politics and government completely are contributing to future tyranny? Maybe that would be a little harsh. On the other hand, I don't know what can effectively confront ruthless minority rule other than an informed and interested public. I don't think there's any chance that we can place the full powers of government into the hands of an elite ruling minority, regardless of what name we give to it, such as the Democratic or the Republican Party, and expect not to be exploited by it. Only childish minds expect things like that.

Right now in America most of us are suffering genuine deprivations because over the past decade, at least, and probably longer than that, a comparatively small number of people with political power committed crime after crime after crime, and got away with it. And why? Because the people who were supposed to be enforcing the law were also the criminals and they saw no reason to enforce the law against themselves. There is no doubt about this. The evidence for it is so overwhelming that anyone who doesn't believe it has not looked.

So I have to say to Dr. Johnson, whom I respect as much as I respect anyone, living or dead, thank you for your verses. They are worth considering, they are worth treasuring. They can often be a comfort, and suggest sensible life choices. But I cannot, in the first part of the 21st Century, let them take me over. Your time is not my time. I need to keep my wits about me as far as government is concerned. And I feel obliged to try to persuade my fellow citizens to take the same stance.

©John R. Turner

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