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Public servants

A letter to a disappointed fan of Bill Richardson

It's quite natural to be disappointed in our public officials. We expect them to be honest, scrupulous, dignified. Sometimes, perhaps more often than we care to appreciate, they are not.

If I might gently offer some words of caution and realpolitik...

First, citizens who decorate their leaders with expectations are bound to be disappointed, at least a few times. Who among us has not disappointed others? How can we reasonably expect even our best and brightest to be saints? Woe to lesser mortals if even the saintly will sometimes sin!

Second, politics is almost by definition a dirty occupation. It almost rivals warfare in that regard, and of course, the two are inextricably linked. Is it reasonable to expect this occupation to be always fair and clean? Of course, our officials should strive for goodness, and let us thank those who play nicely! But the nature of politics is that of a contest. Reasoned negotiation does not always triumph over shady dealing, underhanded manipulation, or even violence. I think we must accept such possibilities before we can address how to improve our social systems.

Of course, the Constitutional Framers did this and were at least somewhat successful in establishing a system of counter-balancing institutions. That was neat. And it sort of still works, at least barely. But subversion and corruption continually attack and diminish this beautiful political edifice. But can we really expect that the brilliant stratagem would last indefinitely? Honestly, I'm rather surprised it has survived a Civil War, two world wars, and cold war, a depression, McCarthyism, a handful of assassinations, the struggle for civil rights, and sundry lesser threats over the course of 230-ish years.

Third, our own mythologies and cultural constructs -- the American Dream; the American People; the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave; Manifest Destiny; the good fight; Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness (which I enjoy comparing to either "Peace, Land, and Bread" or "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"); the American soldier who becomes the American "warrior" and "hero," especially when killed; and on and on-- all these bits of myth conspire to confuse us. Above all, the notion of "the West" as a superior font for government, liberal democracy, the rule of law, and other similar conceits, underlies all our present myths. These are all self-serving beacons. By their light we see what we hope to see and ignore what lurks in the shadows. And there in the shadows, our own shadows, is where we must confront reality.

(At the risk of bringing in a new perspective, it might help us to appreciate that humans are primarily social and biological creatures, driven by instinct, yet also requiring the tribe (however civilized or not) to sustain our identities (however personal we believe them to be). And thus can a richer, more useful understanding of human behavior begin. So, let's throw away notions that we are angels or devils, and instead appreciate that we are the result of vast evolutionary history over many exceptionally challenging environments.)

Which brings me to Bill Richardson, and we can include Gov. Blagojevich, Elliot Spitzer, and Ted Stevens from recent months. We paint our myths on these public servants, perhaps more deliberately than on others. And perhaps it is right that we do. After all, without standards we are certainly doomed. But when they fail to live up to our myths (and they are great and heavy decorations!) should we tear our hair and wail? Should we allow our panties to get all in a bunch? I think not.

I'm not arguing that we lightly accept ethical failures. But it does us no good to bemoan the fact that many, perhaps most, public servants will exercise poor judgment or succumb to personal weakness. Until we are all saints, I think we must carefully measure how we deal in judgment.

If there is a sustainable approach available to us, it may be our willingness to reconfigure civilization from within. This would be a project on a vast scale over decades, if not centuries. And it will be made from fine steps mostly, except for the occasional exceptional feat. I suppose we are a part of that experiment without quite knowing it. Maybe leadership on global climate change will be the nexus for that experiment. Maybe.

So, let go of those tainted governors, the hypocrite lawyers, the smarmy senators. Let the political foibles of the moment fade. They are like dust. Take that dust and compact it into bricks for a new age, a better day.