A Masthead for Vagabonds, Drunkards and Saints

Midterm Elections 2010

The Knife's Edge - Mt. Katahdin

I don’t really like writing about politics, mostly because there’s so much to be wrong about. Republicans are not jack-booted plutocrats; Democrats are not jack-booted socialists–analogies to Hitler and Nazi Germany were really popular this year, on both sides. Middle-America is not the breadbasket of mediocrity, and the coasts are not the last best hope of Western Civilization. That doesn’t mean I think that votes don’t matter, or that politics in America isn’t largely dominated by the poltergeists of demographic instability and shrinking wealth. It also doesn’t mean that I think the issues can be split down the middle in order to get to the soft gooey truth in the center. The truth isn’t in the center. It’s not in the middle of this or any other country. It’s not the diversity of positions averaged into one great national mean. Cultures are wrong all the time–as I mentioned in an earlier post on the midterm elections. Take a core sample from the Congo, or Cambodia, or the Continental Congress on the issue of Native American personhood and tell me what the middle says. Compromises produce compromises, and little else. Sometimes the results are positive, oftentimes not so much. The only thing that can be certain is that the middle will tell you something about the prevailing mood of that time and place. Sometimes that mood is murderous, sometimes munificent, but usually it’s somewhere on the long circuit from one to the other, because people are basically good, until they’re basically not. Of course, none of this means I’m not going to write something about politics, which I’ve already done–after a fashion–but I am going to use an analogy, because that tends to be the way I think about things….

I’ve been hiking and backpacking for quite a few years now. I started in college on the eastern side of the Sierras, and have been going ever since. I was utterly defeated my first time out; starting at 8,000 feet, with some distant peak as my goal, I barely managed to climb the modest 2,000 feet from the trailhead to the valley’s rim, which marked the bottom of a colossal moraine, which marked the bottom of a maze of switch backs that climbed another 2,000 feet to the peak, whose name I didn’t even know. I don’t remember much about that trip except the total and overwhelming depletion of my body’s resources. I had poured out all of my vim on the side of the foothill of the mountain, and this expenditure amounted to less in the mountain’s economy than the scattering of a seed. I simply didn’t matter. My frustrations, my desires that the tree line be closer, the day shorter, the heat less severe, totaled towards nothing. So, I did the only thing I could do: I put my head down and kept walking towards the twilight.

In fact, what I did that day, and for many days thereafter, is what everyone I have ever taken hiking does when the climb starts. They put their heads down and plant one foot in front of the other. Now, to be fair, I shouldn’t say “everyone.” There are those few elfin souls who skip along apparently indifferent to gravity; then there are those who don’t skip or plant their feet, at all. As soon the trail turns tough, they sit down, huff, and head back, rarely finding their way to the mountain again, though they’ll usually talk about going as soon as they get in shape, or the summer arrives, or they get a new pair of boots. But for most of us, our heads are down, and we’re walking and we’re thinking: why am I out here–where’s the flat part–I can’t wait to get back home–this must be the top–damn flies–damn mosquitoes–no, no, no, please, no more uphill–I can’t wait to get home–why am I here–what’s the point, to climb some ridiculous mountain, sleep, and then walk back down–I can’t wait to get home–I can’t wait to get home!

Under extreme fatigue, our interests become stupid and narrow. There are no starving philosophers. Even for fasting monks, abundance is abstained not absconded. Perhaps wandering some distant Himalayan range, there is one famished ape that would expend his last calorie plucking fruit for a stranger, but it is a breed so rare that we should call it Vessantara and kill it on sight.

Humans are unique in that what we regard as self-interest extends beyond the borders of our skin and kin and finds life in the thin atmosphere of abstraction. We identify with schools and cities, countries, parties, generations, colors, creeds. Of course, the larger the identification, the more things that can go wrong. A cell can lose an organelle or two, but a mollusk can fail in a hundred ways, and a human, well, take a look at an encyclopedia of epidemiology and try to get some sleep tonight. So while we have the capacity to imagine that great-coalition-tent-in-the-sky, when we start uphill, we put our heads down and worry about our feet. Our interests narrow. Our largesse wanes. It’s hard to care about anyone else’s feet when ours are so heavy.

The odd thing is, the very thing that we are prone to forget on that long hike is the thing that makes it bearable. Pick up your head and look around, and you’ll know why Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, and you’ll know why the Quran says that when they question “thee concerning what they should expend, say, ‘The abundance,'” and you’ll know why you called up your buddy and cajoled your wife and browbeat your brother to strap society on their backs and head up the mountain in the first place–because there’s something to see: 4.5 billion years of geology, thousand-year-old trees, the dying of the glaciers, a curious muskrat. Still, it’s hard to remember all of that when you’re beleaguered and tired and maybe just a little scared that you didn’t bring enough water, and the mountain doesn’t seem to care…

It’s a long analogy, I know, but this election is no more difficult to understand in its broad-strokes than any other election; Mark Twain explained it well in his essay, Corn-pone Opinions–though my take is a bit more generous, since I haven’t lived long enough to achieve Twain’s disillusionment. When things get hard, it’s our nature to put our heads down, narrow our field, and trudge ahead. We stop caring about caring for strangers, and moon landings, and music programs, even though that’s why we started up the mountain in the first place.

5 Responses to Midterm Elections 2010

  1. Justin williams says:

    In my opinion, (and my limited experience since I am not 1000 years old), I have a vantage point that comes from within a bubble. Ultimately, only I can control my bubble and expand and control it at will by experience and hard work. I am able to be a good person and in turn show by example others around me how to be. This is not always easy because part of this is deflecting those bad people who do not care about what is important in the short time we have here. There are so many people waltzing through life with blinders on waiting for someone else to fix something, do something, etc. No one is going to fix your life but you. Your reality is what you create inside your bubble by what experiences you have, what friends you keep, how you treat others that you come in contact with, do you expand your bubble to show others what is important or are you the only one in it. Ultimately, no party or system or religion is going to make magic for me. I am the only one that can do that. I really don’t care about laws either. They are to control the sheep. Insert George Carlin rant about the 10 commandments here. Make your bubble, expand it, keep the bullshit out of it and hopefully we can all have some peace inside it. I am my own GOD. I create my own reality, daily. I am too smart to let the masses tell me what it is that I should be doing or thinking. Sorry for the jumbled rant. I enjoyed it Travis, and agree.

    • C.T. Webb says:

      Your rant wasn’t really jumbled, just sincere, which I appreciate. I certainly understand the struggle to assert your individuality, to mark your territory–I mean, I started this blog. I’m not quite as willing to toss out the masses with the bath water, though, since I still appreciate all of the things that are possible because of people, even though there’s a lot of bad with the good. Thanks for reading, and commenting.

  2. Jeff Scott says:

    I think your analogy is an astute observation on how weathered a person can become through life experiences and how our they may affect our thoughts and beliefs, but I am not sure it is a narrowing of perspective. I think it is simply a product of linear decisions, chance, or divine intervention. The climb, the “goal”, or the purpose has vexed me at times. I recall the expression questioning the destination as the goal or is it the voyage to reach it. The destination is often how we define ourselves, but in my experiences it is the voyage that I appreciate the most, it defined who I am. It made me question my core values when I came upon those damn “flies.” This is a nice topic that requires a couple of beers, so I will stop. I have enjoyed reading your blog Travis.

  3. AsiaBill says:

    It’s been 10 years and I still haven’t forgiven Ralph Nader from helping Bush get elected in 2000 while failing to reach his necessary 4% or 5% of the vote. But his description of the American two party system being a total farce as a MONSTER with TWO HEADS is right ON! Both parties need to be hung up and most of their leaders arrested for blatant legalized corruption known as lobbyists. How they look at themselves in the mirror and accuse other countries’ leaders corrupt by accepting bribes I’ll never know other than they must be laughing quietly all the way to their banks???? I LOVED Jesse Ventura of Minnesota and the reason he decided to run for governor of Minnesota but it didn’t take more than one short term before the two headed monster ganged up on him as an independent to get him out. The worst downside of this political malfunction is and will continue to be many truly selfless younger leaders who feel inspired enough to think they can change the world will hesitate to be independent and join the gang sharing power.

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