Monday, January 15, 2007

A Royal Abstract

Although he's packing his bags for Iraq, there's still some question whether Prince Harry will really see any combat:

The defense ministry has previously confirmed Harry could go to Iraq if his unit was deployed there, but said he might be kept out of situations where his presence would jeopardize his comrades.

Hey, be real—how many Iraqi insurgents are really going to recognize Prince Harry? Even if terrorists had a picture of him pinned to their RPG turrets, I mean... seriously. Not going to happen.

But it got me thinking. This guy is royalty. And, as an American, I kind of have a problem with the whole idea of royalty: my country was founded on the vitriolic denial that any person is "more equal" than anybody else. No one should get special treatment... ever. Of course, that's an ideal to strive towards in an imperfect world, but inequity has been on my mind recently, especially about political leaders.

On NPR's Fresh Air the other day, House representative Rom Emanuel was asked about his involvement with the Clinton impeachment, and he quickly interrupted—"I just want to say that I found the whole situation incredibly tense and thought Clinton should have resigned. I never once had a problem with his affair, but lying under oath was really unforgivable. As a leader, I felt he had a duty to set an example for the rest of us and I thought lying under oath was incredibly irresponsible of him." Few people seem to remember that Clinton wasn't just a leader, an elected official, even the President, but he was also a lawyer—he, above all others, knew the import of lying under oath and should have had the decency of not trying to argue the meaning of is. If you're guilty, do what everyone else does—plead the 5th. Or resign your position. Because if one person can get away with lying under oath, then I'll be expecting my own "Get out of Jail free" card in the mail this week.

I once asked a foreigner what they thought I was feeling when I saw Clinton testimony broadcast on national TV... they had assumed I was ashamed. While that's partly true, I wasn't ashamed for having America's dirty laundry brought into the open; I was ashamed that Clinton had brought this mess into the spotlight to tarnish America's image. Thus, quite to the contrary, I was fiercely proud that America's judicial system was healthy enough to prosecute our highest elected official for his illegal actions. (To clarify, my position is 100% apolitical—Nixon and Clinton should have shared jail cells.)

And this last week, Gerald Ford died. America's period of mourning for a president is six days. Not to be a party pooper, but that's five days too many. President or not, Ford was just a guy.

When I said that last bit to my wife, she looked at me and said, "He's not just a guy."

And that's the problem.

Novelist Margaret Atwood has said she's in favor of a monarchy, not because she wants some random family touting undeserved priviledges, but because our human nature drives us deify our leaders... which then makes it difficult to critisize them and still seem patriotic. Instead, Atwood would prefer a generic head of state to draw praise and awe so our elected leaders can serve the function we've assigned them—to be our servants, not our masters.

Governments already sort of solve this problem, in their own way. America has a president and a chief of staff. If the shit hurled at the president gets too thick, the chief of staff gets swapped out. France has a president and a prime minister (President Mitterand went through about 7 prime ministers during his 14 years, if memory serves). Et cetera.

Reality check, though: the presidency is not made up of one man or one woman—the presidency is only a position (albeit an important one). Why is this important? Because you can kill a man, but you can't kill a presidency.

So after Ford left office, what's with calling him "President Ford"? It's that deification Atwood talks about. It's why America and other democracies around the globe establish term limits for their most prominent political leaders.

Or imagine you've lived in Cuba for the last 40 years: if you're under 45, you'll have literally known no other national leader for your entire life. When Castro dies, you might not even care he's a dictator... since he's been the rock keeping your country afloat and now he's gone. God is dead. Nobody could ever replace him.

I don't want a monarchy, but it does bother me when I see flags at half-mast for a American president for nearly a week. He's not a Pope or a King with divine right. He's just a guy. And he should be treated like any other person who dies, with a day of morning. Maybe a couple of thousand years ago, we'd bow down and kiss the dirt he walked on... wait, that's another dude. Sorry.

The larger issue here is how we define our relationships to the objects and people around us, which is the central theme of existentialism: do we define things by their essence, by their meaning, by their abstractness... or do we define things by their experience, by their tangible concreteness, by their uniqueness? If we see an object or person as its essence, then its destruction is not a massive loss to us... whereas if we see an object or person only as its experience, then no other object or person can ever replace that loss.

For example, if the desk where the Declaration of Independence was signed were accidentally destroyed and an exact replica were put in its place, how would we react to seeing the replica? Can we "abstract" the replica and imagine the original desk? And is that good enough? Or are we bitter with remorse that the original—so unique in its creation—is gone forever?

Philosopher Martin Buber describes these two approaches as "I-it" relationship and an "I-Thou" relationship. The "I-it" relationship views the essence of a thing, the abstractness of it. To see things from an "I-Thou" relationship is to recognize that each chair and each carrot and each person is the only one of its kind. As my friend Jim Latham said, "If you had an 'I-Thou' relationship with everything, you'd never even leave the room." (And here's a bonus epiphany—movies where heroes remorselessly kill villains are "I-it" movies, like movies about ninjas, but movies where heroes have a conscience about killing their villain are "I-Thou" movies, like movies about samurais.)

Abstraction is the key. We abstract things of like kind: trees, cars, chairs, apples, etc. Words help abstract because they only define the similarities between items... but none of their differences. Words refer to the essence of things. There is, however, one case where words don't function as abstractions: a person's name.

People can't be abstracted. They are unique. They are one of a kind.

Or are they? Are they really?


Scott said...

I always looked at the week long mourning period as a way of looking back at what the president did and meant for the country durring his time in office...While Ford may not have deserved six days, someone like FDR would in my opinion...But then tha's very abstract as that could easily be construed as partisan...And then you have to take into account what ex-presidents do after they're out of office...I would say both Clinton and Carter have stayed reletivley active in serving the country since their time as president, and maybe that's why we continue to label them as President Carter and/or President Clinton...

Ross Pruden said...

No, all presidents who leave office retain the prefix. Frankly, I find it offensive—they're no longer the country's president, so their title should reflect that. At the end of their term, they are citizens once more.

Presidents serve as public officials so the public service memorial should be standardized regardless of their acts in office, or after they leave office. Privately-funded memorials, however, can do whatever they want to do.