I spent about a year and a half, in college, thinking I wanted to major in political science. The phase passed, but there is one lesson I return to regularly: In the 30s and 40s, many politically astute people thought there were two possible political choices -- Communism, the sort seen in Russia, or Fascism, like that in Italy and Germany.
With a historical perspective, now that "Fascism" is a bad word and Communist countries aggressively embrace anti-Communist economics, that's a troubling thought. Basically, the professor was telling us that, from what we know now, everyone was wrong. We were sitting there, politically active freshmen who liked to argue the full slate of intricate daily issues along party lines, and were told there weren't just two choices, one right and one wrong. He was saying that not only were there answers we had never heard of, it was possible that every answer we had could be horribly wrong.
That lesson, which shocked me, may be why I ended up abandoning political science. Regularly acknowledging the possibility that the right answer is impossible isn't valued in modern politics. And no one seems to see the benefit of buying into a vision where everyone is lost and blindly feeling their way toward home.
I imagine that vision often: two mobs of blind people, all lost, trying to find their way home, going opposite ways on a city street.
Forty years ago, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago collapsed into riots, as the party tried to find its soul. Richard Nixon won the election, creating a majority out of people who felt the middle class had lost its place in the world, and the country had lost its way.
Today, with the conservative consensus crumbling and the Democrats fighting bitterly among themselves, the anniversaries are being reassessed and re-hashed. A lot of the reappraisals seem to be restatements of sides: who was right and still is; why one fight was key; how the heroes are heroes and could have succeeded, if only everyone had understood how right they were.
It's history as polemic.
But, what I see looks likes dogs trying to smell something familiar after a heavy rain, all lost and sniffing for some scent to remind them which way is home.
It's not just politics: America is a nation of people looking for something. Built by pioneers pushing toward something they hadn't yet found. From the very first, we talked about cities that were only imagined, and idolized a nation that was only a dream. We know one religious song, as a nation, and it's about being lost and getting found. Most of us believe in Jesus, in America, and we never say we chose Jesus, were convinced of Jesus, or argued or deduced our way to Jesus.
We always say we found him.
Last month, we parachuted a ship onto Mars and somebody put together a map of all the ships on Mars. They're strewn all over the top of the planet. I know we're looking for scientific things, microbes and fermented bits of frozen life, but with all those attempts up there, I wonder if there isn't something more that we're looking for. Is it just that we have questions, or do we have some unavoidable sense that we're lost and we're looking for something?
In politics, we talk about the soul of a party, the conscience of a nation, the sense of the people and the ghosts of ancestral politicians, but everyone seems to say they've found what it is we're looking for. In religion, people don't generally admit that Jesus is lost, they just announce they've found him.
I get stuck, though, with that lesson from introduction to Poly Sci. I can't help thinking maybe we're all wrong, we're all lost, we're all pretending we know the way home, sniffing down a rain-washed street and hoping something will seem familiar, sometime soon.
I guess it's scary to think the blind are leading the blind, but it wouldn't be so bad if we admitted we couldn't see, said we were doing the best we knew, and just tried to help each other out of the ditch.
Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.