One of the changes that seem to accompany the aging process--or at least it has with me--is a growing amount of skepticism about political, philosophical and spiritual values. This isn’t necessarily bad unless it turns into cynicism--which is threatening to me only in election years.
The just-finished election has tested me sorely. Maybe it was more mendacious than most, or maybe my skepticism is growing--or maybe a little of each. But it was increasingly hard to fend off cynicism this year when I was inundated with puerile or scurrilous flyers, when two local candidates for national office found it useful to bring Ollie North to Orange County to speak for them and another would turn back the clock to treat AIDS victims like lepers. By Monday night, I felt certain that if I saw one more George Bush commercial about Willie Horton, it would push me over the edge.
The most depressing thing about all this bilge is that it apparently works. If people weren’t taken in by it, the millions of dollars spent to produce it would be turned into more useful channels. And sometimes the bilge is cast in the guise of pseudo-issues. Consider one example from the 1988 election: George Bush’s repeated admonition that there would be “no new taxes.” This reminded me very much of Lyndon Johnson telling us that if we didn’t stop the Vietnamese communists in Saigon, we would have to stop them in Honolulu.
Neither statement will stand up to the most superficial reasoning process, either literally or symbolically. It is impossible to predict the kind of economic extremity that may face this country in the next 4 years (and, indeed, faces it now with our massive deficit), so a flat-out rejection of the option of increasing taxes--our major source of revenue--is both absurd and dangerous, and the person suggesting it is guilty of the highest degree of sophistry. Yet, simply because we want to hear it, we buy it in the marketplace of fatuous election sloganeering.
Thinking very long along these lines almost guarantees cynicism--and that’s where I was last week when two unconnected events saved me, gave me some perspective I needed, made it possible to survive another 6-month orgy of slogans, bombast, character assassination and empty promises with the hope that somehow it might be played out on a higher plane the next time.
The first incident will be reflected on this page Friday in a “portrait” of a Fountain Valley pediatrician named Quynh Kieu, a radiant and effervescent woman new to our political system and our mores. She and her husband--also a doctor--came with the first wave of Vietnamese refugees in 1975 and have served their community well. The family lives in a prosperous old residential area in Santa Ana, and the front yard is garnished with a display of political signs. The Kieu family shows no reluctance to wear their candidates on their sleeves.
When I asked about this, Dr. Kieu told me with a kind of enthusiasm I hadn’t heard in years about how she had used our political system--"the most democratic in the world"--to redress grievances she would have had to swallow in her native land. “We’re here to stay,” she said, “and we want to be very active citizens.”
The other incident took place a day later when we visited a young American doctor and his family, longstanding friends. Their yard, too, displayed political signs (mostly unhealthful for a doctor with a conservative practice), and husband and wife were planning their activities for Election Day. The children would be left in the care of a sitter, the doctor would have his practice covered by an associate, and both would be working all day checking out registration lists and getting voters to the polls. Their enthusiasm spilled over the whole weekend. They had candidates in whom they believed and for whom they planned to devote every ounce of energy under difficult logistical circumstances.
The political enthusiasm of these two households was infectious and healing. All of these people were highly intelligent and as dismayed as I was about the nature of the campaign. But they were working within a system in which they believed to raise the level of the campaign and to elect candidates they felt would govern best. There was no time for sour grapes.
Part of this, I suppose, is a matter of age. I think I had the same political enthusiasm they displayed when I was their age. Now it’s an easy out to say I’ve seen too much, heard too much, experienced too much to find that place again. And it’s also easy to slide from that place into non-participation, despair and even cynicism about institutions that--on balance--have served me well. There are different degrees and types of enthusiasm, but it is decidedly a life-enhancing quality that enriches our senior years.
I thank my young doctor friends for teaching me that lesson in this election year.