The old professor was right
A long-ago lesson in political science turns out to be relevant today
Sometimes what we learn sticks longer than we think — if we’re lucky. (Image by Prawny from Pixabay)
Here’s what an arrogant young fellow I was: When I was a college freshman, I was so annoyed by what I considered a lack of rigor in my introductory political science class — not to mention the outdated examples in the aged professor’s lectures — that I made an appointment with the dean of the university to complain. That the dean, an erudite gentleman of the Old South, even agreed to see me is remarkable, of course, but that was only the first lesson of several that I took from the experience.
Nodding sagely that sunny afternoon in his quiet office, the dean shocked me by agreeing that the professor was indeed past his prime. Then he offered to let me repeat the course with another professor. He would make that possible, he said, “at no cost to the Reverend Smith” — a reference to my father, who was, in fact, paying my tuition. The dean, it seems, had done his research on me.
That moment with the dean has come back to me many times during my journalism career. His good example is probably one reason I always try to prepare assiduously for an interview. But the greater lesson was in the generosity of someone far above my stature taking the time to listen and consider my thoughts, not to mention in the respect he displayed by the candor of his reaction. Important learning can come from such experiences — often, like this, outside the classroom. It’s what we all hope for young people who are given the opportunity of a fine education.
But there’s one more lesson I took from the episode. While my old professor never knew that a cocky student had complained about him to the dean, I still wish I could offer him an apology, because the fact is that something in those lectures that I so disparaged sticks with me even now, and it’s fundamental to my view of politics. In analyzing how voters choose which candidate to support, the professor offered advice to his young students, many of whom hadn’t yet cast a vote.
“It comes down to character,” he said. “Nobody’s going to agree with you all the time. Vote for the best man.”
Or woman, of course, but, as I said, the professor was of another era. Still, it strikes me that it has never been more important for us than now, at a time when our democracy itself seems imperiled, for us to follow that advice — namely, to pay more attention to the character of our public officials than to their specific policy views.
In that way, I’m an adherent of one of the intellectual progenitors of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke. He was a member of British Parliament during the American and French revolutions. As a defender of the notion that a government is sustained by religious institutions, a foe of capital punishment and a proponent of limits on the monarch’s power, Burke didn’t shy from controversial stances. He even supported trade with Ireland and expanded rights for Catholics, which were topics as controversial in his day as abortion rights are now.
Burke’s most memorable moment came in a 1774 speech to his constituents in Bristol, when he argued that while our elected officials must put our interests above their own, they aren’t obligated to follow their constituents’ views. That, he said, wasn’t what citizens should expect from someone they elect in a representative democracy.
“But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living,” Burke said. “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
At the end of those remarks, he added, “a flatterer you do not wish for.” Burke may have been wrong about that; the electors of Bristol, annoyed by his support for unpopular causes, turned him out (though he managed to find a smaller constituency that gave him several more years in Parliament.)
So ask yourself: How many politicians nowadays are doing what they deeply believe is right, as opposed to what they think is most likely to make them popular with voters? Too few, we surely would all say; fewer, it seems, than in times when our democracy was unquestionably more stable than it is now. We might infer a connection there, don’t you think?
True enough, a politician isn’t able to do much good for anybody if taking a stand leads to losing office, but that’s how democracy must work. If we elect people who seem to merit our trust, we must then trust them to do right by us. If we think they have failed in that task, we have the opportunity to elect someone else.
There’s an alternative, of course, because we have the technology today to give citizens direct authority over all government decision-making. Imagine a hand-held democracy device — call it the DemoGizmo, maybe — that’s activated by facial recognition software, and handed out to every citizen at age 18. DemoGizmo would enable us all to cast a vote on the key decisions facing our government — how much to spend on defense or infrastructure, what kinds of aid ought to go to people in need, how our healthcare system might be improved. With a bright graphic interface and smart software showing instant results, and with the kind of a product rollout that made Steve Jobs famous, the DemoGizmo (I should trademark that name now, right?) might make participation in democracy as addictive as a video game.
It’s a terrible idea, of course, and not only because of the complexity of governing 332 million people (with a net growth of one person each 40 seconds, incidentally). In a society that struggles with misinformation and disinformation — that is, people misunderstanding things, and others actively feeding people falsehoods — stepping even further away from expertise and thoughtful analysis in decision-making could be fatal.
Yet any informed citizen these days recognizes that a lot of elected officials are, in fact, eager to turn themselves into flesh-and-blood DemoGizmos, by trading their integrity and judgment to make themselves more popular — to be exactly the kind of representative that Edmund Burke warned against.
What kind of integrity does a member of Congress show in backing a disgraced former president who fomented an insurrection that killed people in the United States Capitol, and in denying what we all saw on that day? What judgment is displayed by senators who adamantly vote against anything proposed by the competing political party, regardless of its merit?
Unless they take such positions, we’re told, primary challengers will chase those politicians from office. That’s a transaction nobody should be willing to make, and a fight that no self-respecting politician should shirk. It’s a choice made clear by no less an authority than the Gospel of Mark: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
It’s not only elected officials who bear the responsibility for such denigration of American democracy, of course. The celebrity talking heads of Fox News who nightly elevate anti-vaccination arguments — though they are themselves fully vaccinated, a requirement of their hypocritical employer — have become accessories to death. We are torn between heartbreak and fury at the stories of pro-Trump anti-vaxxers who lie in hospital beds, denying the existence of a pandemic and the efficacy of a vaccine until, literally, their last breath. What kind of a person would perpetrate the lies that these people have believed?
These are realities that we won’t solve quickly. Today, though, there’s an opportunity for me to set one matter straight, all these decades later, by gratefully endorsing what I learned from both my old professor and the dean who honored me with a hearing: It’s all about character.
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VIEWED FROM UPSTATE
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share dispatches from:
Indianapolis, Ind. (The Times of Northwest Indiana, nwi.com)
Bismarck, N.D. (The Bismarck Tribune, bismarcktribne.com)
Waterloo, Iowa (The Courier, wcfcourier.com)
Columbia County, N.Y. (Times Union, timesunion.com)
Bayard, Neb. (Scottsbluff Star-Herald, starherald.com)
NOTE: The complete “Viewed from Upstate” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Legislators move toward banning high school transgender athletes
The state House of Representatives has approved legislation to ban anybody who isn’t assigned the female gender at birth from competing in Indiana girls high school sports, reports Dan Garden in The Times of Northwest Indiana. The bill’s sponsor says she realizes this hasn’t been much of an issue so far in Indiana, but she figures it may be someday, and she wants to be sure “biological girls” get a chance to play. Democrats say the Republican supporters are just trying to stave off attacks from the party’s now-dominant right flank.
Tribe pulls out of Dakota Access Pipeline oil spill planning
Lake Oahe, created by dams on the Missouri River, is the third-largest reservoir in the U.S, extending from Pierre, S.D., almost to Bismarck, N.D., a distance of 251 miles. But drought has created a threat of an uncertain response in the event of a spill from the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline, according to reporting by Amy R. Sisk in The Bismarck Tribune — because the water’s edge is now far from docks. That’s why the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe leaders have pulled out of joint environmental review planning, which a federal judge ordered after finding that the existing environmental plans were inadequate. Standing Rock’s Doug Crow Ghost says the tribe wants the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to better incorporate climate change into its environmental planning for the pipeline.
Shortage of officials puts high school sports at risk
There aren’t enough adults stepping forward to officiate at high school sports events in many parts of the country and Hart Pisano reports in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier that northern Iowa is the latest place to feel the pinch. Almost every sports is affected, but the upcoming baseball and softball seasons are the most likely to face game cancellations, officials say. “With low pay, long hours and the relentless verbal abuse officials endure from fans and parents, it isn’t challenging to figure out why there’s been a shortage dating back more than three years,” Pisano notes.
Dispute over land use threatens large-scale solar plans
New York State has an ambitious goal of zero carbon emissions by 2040, which will require a big build-up of renewable energy infrastructure. That’s running into headwinds in places like Copake, a rural town in the Hudson Valley between New York City and Albany. There, a plan to build a 220-acre solar farm that would generate 60 megawatts — enough to power 15,000 homes — is drawing opposition from local officials and others who say it could despoil the scenic beauty of the area. Columbia County has in recent years drawn a growing tide of former urban residents who admire its bucolic charms, and freelancer Tom Gogola reports in the Times Union that the influx has added weight to the fight, which puts conflicting environmental concerns on different sides.
Charity building homes for disabled veterans
Since 2004, a Massachusetts-based charity, Homes for Our Troops (HFOT) has built and donated 326 homes to disabled veterans that can accommodate their needs. In the Scottsbluff Star-Herald, Christopher Borro reports on the first home planned for Nebraska — for the family of Timothy Kramer, who was a military police officer in Iraq 16 years ago when his vehicle hit an explosive device, causing him traumatic brain injuries and leaving him wheelchair-bound. HFOT stays in touch for life with the veterans it serves, and it builds the homes wherever the recipient wants them. Kramer wants to stay where he grew up, so he and his family will get a new home there later this year. There’s a personal link to this one: The head of HFOT was for a while Kramer’s commander in Iraq.
Perhaps some readers know that I’m a singer. But for a decision about a summer job after my junior year in high school, which took me to a small newspaper in Rensselaer, Indiana, I may have pursued a career in music. So it’s a joy to still be engaged in singing, with a wonderful choral ensemble known as Albany Pro Musica.
Our group is currently in rehearsal for a March concert of the “All-Night Vigil” by Sergei Rachmaninoff, an awe-inspiring work that will surely be one of my life’s musical highlights. Perhaps I’ll have more to say about what I’m learning in a future edition of The Upstate American — or something to share about Rachmaninoff, a remarkable man. He moved to America in 1918, and lived here until his death in 1943.
For now, I will just treat you to something I came across as part of my preparation for this concert: a rendition of Rachmaninoff playing The Star-Spangled Banner. It’s in some ways the most beautiful arrangement of our national anthem I’ve ever heard. When I first listened, in my study at home, I found myself weeping. Maybe I’ll be able to explain that in a later edition of The Upstate American.
For now, though, I offer this to you as a mark of my hope for our country, and as a way of thanking for reading, and for meeting me here, on *our common ground, this America.