Tuesday, July 26, 2016

politics, musicals, and compromise

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"You can't always get what you want."

A true statement and a great Rolling Stones song that was oddly used by one of the political conventions. Which is weirdly appropriate, because it is a GIANT understatement when it comes to politics. Especially this election year.

"You can't always get what you want."

Anyone who has lived past kindergarten has figured this out the hard way.

At some point most of us learn that to move forward in life, we have to compromise. Sometimes it's not that hard, like choosing between hamburgers and hot dogs at a cookout when you'd hoped there would be steak. Sometimes it's only a matter of giving up some minor standard or even choosing "none of the above", like refusing cake at a party because it's commercial cake from a grocery store bakery and we prefer only scratch cake made with pastured butter, free-range eggs and gluten-free locally-milled einkorn flour.

But sometimes we have to choose between A and B when we don't like either option and a choice HAS to be made. Maybe A and B are actually totally appalling to us and we'd really like to choose C or D but they aren't that great either and actually don't stand a chance in hell of happening. Sound familiar?

We don't always understand why it has to be this way and we definitely don't like it.

We get tired of all this compromising. We get tired of having to deal with nuance and complexity, of having to think so hard and negotiate constantly, of seeing what we perceive as "the other guy" getting what he wants while we constantly get what we consider second or third best or, worse, the shaft.

We want life to be easy. We want to make an old-fashioned John Wayne-like stand and defend it, make our choice and stick with it come what may. Even if we aren't in control, we want to at least FEEL like we are.

I know that's what a lot of people want. Because that's what I want. Because I think that's basically what most humans want.

But the older I get, the more I realize something. And I hate to break it to you, but you need to realize it too:

Life is all about nuance and complexity and compromise.

Actually, anything that has any value is all about that. For example, if you've ever married another person and managed to stay married to them for more than six months, you are already pretty darn familiar with this fact.

Sometimes it sucks and it's hard and it's unappealing and it's dirty and it's annoying and it sometimes makes us feel gross. But it's necessary. And it's just a fact of life.

Another fact: Our great country is all about nuance and complexity and compromise, too.

It would be oh-so-nice if things could just be cut and dried, nice and easy, everyone could get along, etc. If there were no hard choices, no hurt feelings, no anger, no disagreement, no alienation, no being offended, no name calling, no harsh words, no .... you get the picture.

It would be especially nice if this election year was about choosing between two amazingly perfectly impressive candidates to lead our country into an amazingly perfect direction. Or even between one obviously amazingly perfect candidate and one obviously ridiculously imperfect one. But for most people, the choice isn't that simple.

And if you hearken back to some day when life was cut-and-dry and choices were simple - shocker! There has never been any such time. Not ever. Not when we left it to Beaver. Not when somebody's father thought they knew best. Not when there was a chicken in every pot. Not even in a little house on a prairie. And most especially not when this great country was being founded.

Maybe you've heard about the musical "Hamilton." If you don't know about it, I forgive you for not following musical theater and will give you a minute to Google it.

The musical is about one of our "forgotten" Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton. If you don't know who that is... who am I kidding, if you are reading my blog, you know who Alexander Hamilton is. Yes. You do. If you need to Google him, go ahead. We'll wait.... See, you did know who he was, you just needed a Wikipedia reminder and a $10 bill.

So anyway, I wrote my junior US History thesis on Alexander Hamilton a billion years ago. I should be able to tell you all about him. But honestly, my retention isn't all that good. It took listening to the musical "Hamilton" to really understand what I learned about him all those years ago, to get him, and as a result, to get a better idea of what the founders of the United States must have been like.

The leaders who fought and died to create this Grand Experiment were not perfect or holy or omniscient. They did not look like the portraits we see in text books and museums. They were not working from some boilerplate handed down from on high. They did not all agree. They did not have it all figured out.

To make this country happen, they had to make peace with "You Can't Always Get What You Want." (It should probably be on a monument somewhere, but it's just not very inspiring...)

To make this country happen was Messy. Dirty. Annoying. And there was lots and lots of the crap we hate - nuance and complexity and compromise.

Most people know about the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, the one that led to Hamilton's early death. Fewer may know that Hamilton feuded with a bunch of people. Including Thomas Jefferson. Alex and Tom were not friendly.

Jefferson was a big States Rights dude from Virginia who owned a plantation and slaves and had spent much of the Revolution in France. Hamilton was a big Federal Rights dude, an anti-slavery immigrant orphan from the Caribbean with no property who fought in the Revolution and served as Washington's secretary.  I love the lyrics Lin-Manuel Miranda gave to an interchange between them during a Cabinet meeting:

‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’
We fought for these ideals; we shouldn’t settle for less
These are wise words, enterprising men quote ‘em
Don’t act surprised, you guys -  cuz I wrote ‘em!
Stand with me in the land of the free
And pray to God we never see Hamilton’s candidacy

Thomas, that was a real nice declaration.
Welcome to the present - we’re running a real nation
Would you like to join us, or stay mellow
Doin’ whatever the hell it is you do in Monticello?
Don’t lecture me about the war, you didn’t fight in it
We almost died in a trench
While you were off getting high with the French

You get the gist. They didn't like each other, they had totally different points of view, totally different ideas of what this country should focus on. So they blocked each other in cabinet meetings, stymied each other in Congress, threw shoes at each other, cut each other down, and refused to meet the other half-way, right?

Well, to a degree. But not forever. Because they both wanted this nation to exist and succeed. So they compromised. At one point they went behind closed doors, sat down at a dinner table, and came out with something that is actually titled the Compromise of 1790. They didn't both get exactly what they wanted. They didn't become friends. But they worked together to get something they could live with. Something that the country needed to move forward.

And during the election of 1800, Hamilton made another compromise. For the good of his country. The electorate was tied between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr for President. Hamilton didn't like either one of them. (Actually he wanted to be President.) But he thought about what was best for his country and wrote this in a letter of support of the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson (these are Hamilton's actual words):

"Mr. Jefferson, though too revolutionary in his notions, is yet a lover of liberty and will be desirous of something like orderly Government. Mr. Burr loves nothing but himself, thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement, and will be content with nothing short of permanent power in his own hands. No compact that he should make with any passion in his breast except Ambition could be relied upon by himself. How then should we be able to rely upon any agreement with him?  Mr. Jefferson, I suspect will not dare much. Mr. Burr will dare everything in the sanguine hope of effecting everything. This portrait is the result of long and attentive observation on a man ... in respect to whose character I have had peculiar opportunities of forming a correct judgment. In a choice of Evils let them take the least – Jefferson is in every view less dangerous than Burr."

So even though he did not love Jefferson or think he was an amazingly perfect candidate for President, Hamilton put his support behind Jefferson. He knew both men well enough to determine that Jefferson was qualified and experienced and rational enough to be the best leader, to maintain order and liberty, to resist the urge to use the office solely for his own purposes, and as thus had the credentials to not totally screw up everything they had been fighting for.

Reading the descriptions Hamilton pens in this letter reminds me of two other candidates currently vying for the Presidency of this great nation. One imperfect and open to great criticism but desiring liberty and having experience with running an orderly government. And the other one. (And some C and D choices that are appealing but don't have a chance in hell of winning with our current system, so....)

Maybe we can't always get what we want, but I sure hope we get what we need - the less dangerous choice. And that nobody gets shot in a duel in the process.


  1. Nailed it! Here's to hoping the majority of the people in this country go with reason and what's best for the entire country, even if it's the lesser of two evils.

  2. Ultimately the choice comes down to evil vs. good intention. Or you could put one other way, US polarization from the world and internally or 4 years with status quo with no really devastating results. I will have to take the latter. Heaven help us, please.


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