Picking and Choosing

Posted on April 24, 2016


I realize a title like “Picking and Choosing” in our part of the world should probably come with some high level banjo picking in a Bluegrass style by someone like Earl Scruggs. And, of course, I’m showing my age by mentioning Earl, whose “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” will still set your heart going and your toe tapping.

But I’m not writing about banjo picking, as much as I enjoy the Bluegrass station on channel 61 in the Sirius of my car radio,

Let’s explore a bit today how we pick and choose the best from the past to guide us in our lives today. A column I did not too long ago on immigration prompted me to run this one past you again. What was good in the past that we need to remember and repeat? And, conversely, what was bad, or even evil, in the past that we need to omit from our lives today?

The easy examples are phenomenon like slavery, child labor, racial and ethnic hatreds, etc. We can personalize this a lot by including memories of people and events we’d like to forget, and those we’d like to remember which edify and lift us up.

The two basic, broad categories we draw from in the past are secular and religious. An example of a secular element we remember often is the Constitution and you can throw in the Declaration of independence for good measure. The best example of the religious category is Christianity. They often intersect and I think that’s what got me going.

Of course, the on-going presidential campaign has thrown a lot of this into relief. Or, put another way, the candidates have addressed and continue to address how to, how to, how to what? Improve our lives? Protect our country? Restore morality? Give us everything we need or think we deserve or are entitled to? Or is that not a function of government? Speaking of picking and choosing, how do we pick and choose between them? I mean the candidates themselves, not what they say since what they say is largely determined by the necessity of getting votes. They will say and do virtually anything to get the votes.

My question, I guess, is how does one measure what one says or does against standards like truth and integrity. This, of course, is based on the premise that we value truth and integrity, and might as well throw honesty and good manners in as well. If we do, your choices for president in November are limited to “none of the above,” or perhaps you can write your name on the ballot.

Perhaps equally important, do standards like truth, integrity, morality stay the same over the ages, or do they differ? How about some of the other biggies, like freedom, equality, liberty, opportunity, and fill in your own here.

And, let me add, one other factor. Do the above—truth, equality, integrity, etc,–differ over cultures, not just time? Does a Bedouin camel dealer have a different understanding of truth than an insurance salesman in Des Moines?

“But, of course not,” you may answer. How can truth be different between camel dealers and insurance salesmen? It is an absolute. Truth is truth. I apologize to camel dealers and insurance salesmen if you are one of them. I’m not picking on you. It could be history professors too.

And while I’m at it, and since it is an election year, I ask: does what we hold dear about the correct role of government in private lives change over times, and now that we opened the other door, over cultures as well? Is it as easy as picking capitalism over socialism, Cruz/Trump over Sanders/Clinton? Or vice-versa? Liberty over Equality? Or, put another way, the liberty of the individual to compete freely, or the equal care of all citizens under socialism?

No, it isn’t obviously. I wouldn’t have asked questions with easy answers. But let me suggest a possible way to answer questions such as those with honesty and with the best interests of all citizens, understanding perfectly well, as the old adage goes, that “you can please all the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but not all the people all of the time.”

The answer lies in history and culture. I want to be careful here not to be looking over our shoulder at the past all of the time for answers that have to be crafted now and for the future. We have to be creative and alive to innovation, to trial and error, in equal proportions to recalling the past.

One pick and choose option– the way I look at it as an historian–is between socialism and capitalism. How many examples of a successful socialist/Marxist regime can you think of that has survived and prospered its people over time? Go ahead, give it your best shot. Even think over the “long term,” maybe 50-75 years, a couple or three generations.

Now, how many have prospered under capitalism? You are right if you thought, “us,” now in our third century of a capitalist system.

I know many of you will balk at such simplicity. There are so many faces to capitalism and socialism that I can, and most probably, will be accused of gross simplicity, ignoring all the nuances and obvious collaterals to anyone thinking of those two terms as governing principles.

But let’s think like political candidates for a few minutes in this column. This lends itself of course to sound bites and tweets, or retweets as the Donald discovered (or his geeks told him about). Let’s not think and write like George Wills for example. I really like George and his thoughts when I can follow them on the first reading, but it usually takes my noggin about two or three readings to penetrate. Let’s not think that way.

Let’s stick with making a decision: picking and choosing. Let me put it to you this way, given the fact that I live in Tuscaloosa. If you had to pick and choose the next National Champion in football, which would you pick? A proven winner, or a directional school (like “South” or “North” or “Northeast” or “Southwest” something or another). You Carolina (both North and South) are excused from this exercise. There is always the slim possibility….Unless you are from across the State or root for the other School here in Alabama that plays big time football, I can guess your choice. Go with the winner.

So pick and choose your candidate of choice for president carefully. Use the old historical measuring stick. Pick one backing a winning political system, or pick one espousing a proven loser.

And, BTW, capitalism and its best practitioners, “US,” usually allow you the freedom to choose. Not so Marxists/socialists of the purebred stripe.

Politics 101 made easy. “Picking and Choosing”

Published as “Pick Your Candidate with Care “ in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday April 24, 2016.

Posted in: History, Politics