Guaranteed!

Years ago we bought a pre-owned Chevrolet station wagon and paid extra for the extended warranty that would guarantee the car for another 20,000 miles. Shortly thereafter the engine went belly-up and the company paid to have the engine replaced. Not long after that, and still within the period covered by the warranty, that engine also went belly-up. At that point the company said, in effect, we won’t give you another one because we already did that! So we have not been big fans of Chevrolet since that  time, needless to say, though our personal boycott doesn’t seem to have hurt the company a bit!

Then a few years ago we bought a storm door with a “lifetime guarantee.” Not long thereafter the door showed design flaws and we sought a replacement only to be told “we don’t do that any more.” So it goes. We can’t believe anyone any more, it would appear. Not only do the lies come at us in battalions from on high in the Oval Office, but the notion of truth is questioned on every side; we are told that the truth is what we want it to be. No one seems to remember that truth, trust, and honesty are virtues that were prized possessions not long ago. Take professional sports.

Or, more specifically, take the National Football League. At this writing there are four professional football players under contract who have not shown up for the first day of practice because they want more money. Please note they are already under contract for huge amounts of money — one of them the highest paid player at his position in the league! But they all want more. They want “what they are worth.” In my view they are not worth much — not as human beings at any rate. What happened to giving your word and signing a contract in good faith — and holding to the terms of that contract? These sorts of things seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur.

The breaking of a contract in professional sports — and semi-professional sports, such as the NCAA — has become a matter of course. We read and hear about players and coaches who simply break their contracts and sign with another team or university — as though signing a new contract would mean anything more these days than signing the old one did. It’s all about honor, an old-fashioned word that has also gone the way of the dinosaurs. It used to be the case that when a man or a woman gave his or her word that was it. A shake of the hands, that’s all it took. One knew that it meant something. In small towns there is still a semblance of that sort of assurance, though one does hear about the occasional exception. There are always exceptions, I suppose.

Honesty, truth, trust, and honor are things that define us as civilized people who need and want to live with one another. Civilization, as Ortega y Gasset said long ago, is above all else the desire to live with one another. But we cannot live together with peace of mind and assurance of our fellows if we cannot take them at their word, if they are not to be trusted.

The fact that the president of this country holds the trophy for the most lies and prevarications in a single hour and still has millions of devoted followers simply points to the fact that it doesn’t seem to matter any more to a great many folks in this country. It has become commonplace as our civilized society struggles to keep its collective head above water. Everyone else does it, why shouldn’t I? One of the oldest rationalizations in the book.

But, it will be said, here we have another old fart complaining about how things just aren’t the same as they once were. Sour grapes. Chicken Little warning us about the falling sky. There may be a smidgen of that in what I say. I am, after all, an old fart, and the sky does look very dark at times. But at the same time, in order to hold this society together at some point we must be able to believe one another, we must be able to know for certain that there are guarantees, that a man’s or a woman’s word is to be trusted. Or what? Or things fall apart.

Remembering Churchill

Not many years after the Second World War the world had only a hazy memory of the man who may have saved Western Civilization, namely, Winston Churchill. Historians have wondered over the years why the man was not more honored toward the end of his life as he sat, for the most part quiet, in Parliament and awaited his inevitable death. To be sure, his nation remembered him on the day of his burial while millions paid a last tribute to the man whose voice they heard countless times during that awful war telling them to remain calm and carry on. But perhaps they, like the rest of the world, wanted to forget as soon as possible the horrors of that war and thus Churchill was not given the tribute that many, if not all, of his biographers think he deserved. One of those biographers, Geoffrey Best, asks a profound question as he pondered this rather confusing determination to forget:

“One might not lament the end of ‘glory,’ but what about ‘chivalry’ and ‘honour’? There must be improvement of some kind in the fact that the concept of ‘dying for your country’ no longer provides a model of an ideal death; but there may not be much of an improvement in not knowing whether there is anything in your country worth dying for, whether you belong to this country or that, or even whether you belong to any distinctive country at all.”

Since the time of Winston Churchill’s death this question has become more and more pressing as we begin to see that the wars that cost so many lives are often, if not always, fought for the wealthy to become even wealthier and the poor who survive the wars even poorer. The scales have been removed from our eyes as we see more clearly now what it is that makes men and women do what they do — especially in this country in the past few months as a man who is riddled with shortcomings, prejudices, ignorance, and blurred vision, who has no concept whatever of what true patriotism and self-sacrifice involve, has become one of the most powerful men on earth. One asks seriously whether we truly belong to this country.

The terms “great” and “honor” are called into question in a relativistic age as we ponder the pressing questions of how we, too, can become wealthy and where next to find the latest titilation. Chivalry, of course, went out with hooped skirts and the moral high ground has been leveled so no one stands any higher than anyone else. The past is forgotten by people scurrying about like the creatures at Alice’s caucus race, hoping for some sort of tangible reward simply for making the effort: trophies for all participants and find the path of least resistance — but for heaven’s sake, don’t stop and think about what is going on around you!

Men like Winston Churchill were, in fact, great men, because they took advantage to the opportunities offered them and did what they knew had to be done — at great personal risk. Early on he was pilloried by his own countrymen for warning them about the dangers of Naziism, though he was later honored during the war when he rose to great heights; but he is now largely forgotten along with the rest of the men and women who created and sustained Western Civilization.  And there don’t appear to be many around able or willing to take his place.

The Short Straw

Let’s say we’re at war and young LeRoy is part of a small group of soldiers who have been told to attack and destroy a machine gun 100 yards to our left. The lieutenant cuts a number of pieces of straw into different lengths and we all agree that whoever draws the short straw will have to take the greatest risk and led the group toward the machine gun. If LeRoy draws the short straw he is committed to taking that risk. He cannot say afterwards, “I really didn’t want to play: I had my fingers crossed.”

On the other hand if Fred, a part of our group, is a 43 year old man with terminal cancer and he did not draw the short straw but he decides after the fact that he, rather than the young man who did draw the short straw, should be the one to take the risk. He cannot do this. The “deal” was that the one who draws the short straw will take the risk. Those who participated in the event agreed ahead of time and they are all bound in conscience to live by the results, whether they like it or not. Fred should have spoken up at the outset.

Its appears as though a rather large number of Donald Trump’s followers — some 30% by a number of estimates — have said up front that they will not abide by the decision of the vote in this election if it goes against their man. Now, they can say this if they do not plan to vote, but if they vote they are bound by the results of that vote regardless of whether or not their man wins. That’s just the way the game is played.

Take the case of Bernie Sanders of recent memory. Surely he wanted the Democratic nomination so much he could taste it. And he worked hard to get the nomination bringing thousands of enthusiastic, idealistic young people into the fold only to have it taken away from him — apparently with foul play involved. The party Democrats did NOT want this man to win the nomination. Moreover, the corporations did NOT want the man to win the nomination and, as we know, they have the final say in this game we call “politics.” But despite the foul play and despite Sander’s undeniable desire to be the next president of the United States, he decided to throw himself into Hillary Clinton’s battle with Donald Trump — unreservedly (and despite the bitter taste that must have remained in his mouth).

Sanders was not a staunch Democrat. He was an independent, an outsider. That was part of the problem. But the main difficulty he had in attempting to win the nomination was his knowledge that the contest today is not between Democrats and Republicans; it is between the corporations who make the political decisions and the people who ought to make the political decisions. He took on the corporations and he lost and in doing so he must have been tempted to withdraw, but he did not.

Sanders drew the short straw and despite the fact that the game was rigged, he stood by the results. Despite the fact that he seems to be the one doing it, Clinton’s opponent has already declared the contest “rigged.” None the less  he apparently plans to go through with the contest and even, I gather, to cast his vote. Those thousands who follow him  blindly will doubtless also vote. But, many say they will not abide by the results of the vote if their man doesn’t win. This is an outrage! It’s not simply a question of playing the game, because politics isn’t really a game at all. It’s a matter of honor, a word that is in disuse these days, but one that helps to set humans apart from the animals. Agreeing to “play the game” and then preceding to play it while all the time intending to disavow the results if your man doesn’t win is dishonorable, if not simply dishonest. There ought to be a harsher word, but once upon a time, and still in certain cultures, honor was a prime virtue and bringing dishonor upon oneself or one’s family was a serious offense and one that often resulted in the risking of or even the talking of one’s life.

I doubt that there will be much of that, but I fear that those who refuse to play the game are making up their own rules as they go along and are likely to do whatever it takes to disrupt the election and guarantee that the next president stands alone in her attempt to govern this country. This could very well sound the death-knell of our democratic system. We have already lived through eight years of stalemate; the system cannot abide another eight years, or even four. In order for it to work, those who play the game must abide by the rules — whether they like it or not.