Terry Pegula will be introduced as the new owner of the Buffalo Sabres tomorrow morning. This post is not about that event. Waxing patriotic is a bit out of style in the thoughtful sense, so if you would rather enjoy the upcoming day feel free to do so. If you wouldn’t mind a couple of typed notes on a holiday centered around history, then let’s hang out for a bit then. I promise not to take the edge off of the celebrations.
George Washington, like all of the founding fathers, was nowhere near perfect. You don’t own slaves and immediately enter heaven upon death. Someone is going to want to speak to you about, well, owning other people. It’s kind of a big deal. The Seneca’s might also have a beef. The story of our history is the story of our highest ideals and our failure, if not our constant struggle, to meet them. We screw up a lot as Americans. It’s kind of what we do. Every now and then, though, someone commits and act that gets us closer to who we want to be.
The picture at the top of the page is of the original Washington monument. It was rejected because it was just a bit ostentatious. The one that was eventually chosen and constructed is now an iconic piece of American architecture. However, the argument that the original statue was somehow too opulent when eventually a gigantic and not at all subtle obelisk was built rings a bit hollow, and in the end I think misses the point.
Look at Washington’s left hand. What he is doing, and what he is symbolizing is the whole point of the endeavor. He gave it back.
Right now everyday people are dying by the hundreds on the streets to liberate themselves in a corner of the planet that has rarely seen the stuff. They request the right to determine their own fate as a people. What that fate may be, who knows? Whether the path is towards more liberty or less is uncertain and fraught with peril, much like ours was and continues to be. Democracy in any form requires constant attention and care lest it be wretched away by those who prize wealth and power over the well-being of their fellow men and women. Engagement in its process is a necessity. You can’t walk away from the stove or the whole building may go up in smoke. In essence, those who fight tonight on the streets are choosing to play life on the “hard” difficulty.
People will emerge from the masses claiming to know the way forward. Some, maybe all, will be false prophets. All of the hardships, all of the bloodshed, is simply for the opportunity to perhaps decide their own lives. Its humbling. We have it so easy over here sometimes. Well, some of us do. Others might sympathize. The point is that the road gets even harder once the shouting stops.
Any one of those coming forward could be just another strongman. Another guy in a pillbox hat and aviators waiting to turn the guns on his own people at the slightest hint of defection. The liberators can be driven by dreams of leading their country to glory – their country to be owned as if it the personified it. A god to their people whose smite was to be avoided at all costs. Washington could have been that guy. Washington could have had it all. He was universally adored by his people. Even now we still feel it, though not as strongly as we once did. Civics is on the wane. People know who Washington is, sure. Good luck if they can tell you what he did besides beat the British.
What he did was walk away.
In that photo, Washington is giving up the sword. He is giving up his power. Power is rarely returned once given, and Washington did just that. Who does that even today for the smallest things? The act was so powerful that it took nearly 150 years before someone had the nerve to run for a term beyond his precedent, and then it so freaked out the nation that G.W.’s model became the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. The act of walking away from the temptation of power ensured that the republic he had fought for would have an opportunity to succeed and correct the faults that even he was helping to continue. Washington gave us a shot at making this work. We are still working on it over 200 years later.
The commotion on the teevee screen are people taking their shot at making it work the hard way. Maybe whats going on over there is too decentralized for a figure like Washington to appear, but that day will come when the temptation will arrive for someone. Let’s hope for their sake that the man or woman has the fortitude to walk away.
Happy Presidents Day. Here is to knowing when to quit.