Dear Sylvie and Felix,
It’s late July, two days before my thirty-eighth birthday, more than three months before the 2016 presidential election. This is an absolutely vital time, as they all are, and this was a vital day; the first day when Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, overtook Hilary Clinton in the polls. The political spectrum, stable since Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the death of State’s Rights nearly fifty years ago, may be pulling apart. Everything feels on the edge of something. The scandals are only outpaced by the shootings in various places in the world, the fear, the anger.
This letter is not meant to talk about the good old days, or to share fears of a world falling apart before you can make your way in it (though of course I do). Parents throughout history have always loved their children and rarely do what’s best for them. For a nation founded on opposing taxation without representation, we do exactly that: the national debt is nearly $20 trillion, and the only solution available to your generation will be to tax your own children, as was ours. The environment, non-renewable resources: we have taken more than our share.
This election, momentous as I’m sure it will be, will change little of that. I’m a jaded political science major. I watch the people around me get angry at politicians, and I can only look at the systems that create their incentives, and in some case force their behavior. Adults will always take from their children, because children are powerless, and politicians need votes.
I see all this and my thoughts turn to an old figure named H.L. Mencken. Mencken was a brilliant mind, a powerful journalist and critic, whose apex came at a time, like today, when the the world was transforming. It was the 1920s when the Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln, abandoned its multiracial base to become the representative of Big Business, leaving FDR and the New Deal to claim them among the poor for the Democrats. Mencken would be unclassifiable by modern standards: Pro-science, anti-religion, pro-(for the time) feminism, racist, elitist, conservative. He was an ally of the Mark Twain we rarely talk about: the one who watched America get fall into empire through the Spanish-American War, a bitter, angry, utterly correct Twain, no longer laughing.
It’s hard not to feel that way, lately. There’s a one-liner from a movie that used to be popular:
“You hate people!”
“But I love gatherings. Isn’t it ironic?”
I feel the exact opposite. I like people, or try to, until you get them together and they become political. I’m not sure how jingoistic your public education will prove to be, but even now it’s not polite to talk about the fact that there are flaws with democracy, and that The People aren’t always wise and just, especially when there’s a minority population around to vilify. Mencken left us with, among other things, a wonderful selection of quotations. The problem is that the way of them leads to madness. His hatred of the unwashed masses, and his belief in his own elitism, led him to a fondness for the nastier elements of Nietzsche, and with it, Nazism. Like Heraclitus, he was fond of war, because wars “strengthened national character” and came at little cost of useless life.
In the end, hating the people for being ignorant is just as faulty as hating politicians for pandering them. The only solution is to change the systems that cause them to act the way they do. People mistrust their government, I believe, because they are disconnected from it; America is too big, too fractured, for the concept of citizenry to mean much anymore. If we have to keep democracy, the only solution I can see is refresh the meaning in the phrase “public service”, the way Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy called for a lifetime ago. To make politics not a lucrative and risky career path, but a specific act of working for the people around you, of seeking justice rather than power.
The trouble is, you can’t just wait for some Mr. Smith to show up, sacrifice himself, and do it. You have to create a system that encourages it. And that’s too complicated for me; I fear it’s too complicated for everyone.
There will be dark days ahead. By the time you read this, those will have gone, and others come and gone as well. I hope yours are more peaceful ones. The world, I think, has never recovered from the invention of the radio, and I hope that the connective tissues that now bind the world — telephone, airplane, internet — finally unlock some secret toward combining all people together rather than just factions. But most of all, I hope that you don’t lose faith in people, even The People, no matter how ignorant they seem. It gets so easy to hate them that way.