Politeness and our Struggling Democracy

A few years ago, on what is popularly called our “baby-moon” (that special trip you take with your wife before the hurricane descends in the form of a squealing, squeaking, energetic little boy who these days sits at the dinner table fighting with me over what a “map” should look like and what “X” should mark), my wife and I left our bustling capital to drive into the interior of Virginia. Monticello – to walk through the house where Jefferson slept. “He would read all morning, eat lunch with three glasses of wine, play with his grandchildren all afternoon and then read again all evening,” the tour-guide said. Montpelier, that little room on the second floor where Madison wrote the constitution, “He asked for every book available on how to organize society; starting with ancient Greece and moving forward through time, learning from the past and the lessons given to us by history.”

It was summer, the birds were flitting through the trees; the morning mists clung to the hills and nestled in the valleys where the founders and framers walked together unpretentiously. There’s a favorite local story about how Jefferson hitchhiked with a farmer one warm summer night, discussing the country, without the man knowing he’d hosted the president until later. As we walked through the gardens, immersing ourselves in the past, our past, we found the old plantations were musty and worn from use and time; but still noble and elegant and exuding quiet dignity of a time when we had respect, not contempt, for each other – friend and foe alike. ‘Politeness’, as Jefferson once told his nephew, is ‘artificial good humor’ – that which kicks in with the muscle memory of the well-bred when amiability flags.


What struck me was how connected those men of old were to the currents of their times; even as their expansive Virginia estates seem isolated, even today – lost in space and time somewhere on the edge of it all. Imagine what they must have felt like two-hundred years ago when a trip from Washington D.C. took days, not hours? When knowledge that was sought from Paris or London was brought on boats over an ocean, taking weeks – where reading was something that was done in four hour chunks beside the fire, not four minute intervals on an iPhone waiting for the metro? When people thought in poems and prose, not in 400 word opeds?

Walking through the past, that summer which feels so long ago now, was a heady experience for me – engaged as I was in the most consequential of contests – a presidential campaign. Big dinners with Mitt Romney at the Army Navy club; policy papers and documents and working groups – we were going to fix the world, we were going to change everything. We were going to put it right. Because it’s a great responsibility, the mantle of leadership is. Peggy Noonan just wrote, in her singular fashion, an article that captures some of this – although I might widen her target. “Democracy is not your plaything” she writes, and it’s true. What we are fighting over now, in the most adolescent of fashions, is nevertheless the most sacred trust of all; it’s the future for my little boy, the country he will grow up in, the old thoughts he will hold in his imagination as he too walks through musty memories of when our nation had gravitas and amazing men were designing the boldest and most successful experiment in world history.

I’ve never really mourned the 2012 outcome; while victory floats upon a cushion of celebration and reflection, a loss is an existential affair that presages hardship. At some point, I suppose – when it’s all over for me, I’ll think about it; and write about it. These days my little boy occupies my time, as does the business of fighting our nations enemies – which we do regardless of who sits behind a polished desk in a tired old mansion built atop a swamp. But if I were asked, which I was not, I would say that what 2012 represented for me was the death of dignity.

Because it was dignity they took from us – cheap hits by those who only cared about winning. And that sort of seems to have presaged the current “circus”, as Peggy calls it, hasn’t it? I wonder what Jefferson would have thought of our current state of affairs, holding with tremendous responsibility as he did that fragile flame in his open palms lest he inadvertently deprive it of oxygen and kill it? Probably something civil like, “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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