Wednesday, December 22, 2010

house of cards

The other day, I caught a snippet of a TV interview with a fellow who had written a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States. Born into a wealthy family, Roosevelt was a naturalist, explorer, hunter, author and soldier. He also felt what was once a given among patricians -- that it was their duty to both lead and protect those who were not in power. In this vein, Roosevelt did what he could to defend the people from the greed of corporations and banks.

The TV interviewer asked whether the author thought a man of similar diverse interests and capacities could be elected to office today. The author replied that he doubted it and, given the leadership that has evolved since Roosevelt was president (1901-1909), it was hard not to agree. Not only has the patrician imperative of noblesse oblige been replaced by status-according-to-wealth, but the electorate has come to expect two-dimensional leaders, people who stand for a couple of things and otherwise are juiceless ciphers. And the leaders -- who long for office and power -- try to comply with the electorate's demands.

How often do we box ourselves or others with the same narrow definitions we apply to our political leadership? He's an editor, she's a lawyer, he's a father, she's a mother, he's boring, she's fascinating, he digs ditches, she cooks lasagna...? It's cozy and comforting, in one sense -- editing what we see and hear to fit on our own private 3x5 index cards. But invariably, with investigation, it turns out not to be true. It's bad enough that we do it to others, but it can be purely confounding when we discover we have done it to ourselves ... limited the limitless as a trade-off for a safety and security that never works very well. The serial killer is remembered as a quiet fellow who was nice to neighborhood children. The saintly soul turns out to have a penchant for porn.

Naturalist, explorer, hunter, author and soldier ... I guess that any time I start believing my own descriptions of self or other, it is time to rethink what is "obvious." Who wants to live in a house of cards?

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