Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #107. First published in the St. Cloud Times online June 4, 2016; in print June 5

“Democracy is an exercise in patience and persistence, not quick corrections.”

These recent words of New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow caught my attention and rang a bell. My attention, because they address pointedly the distortions and shrillness that have drowned out civility and balance in our political discourse and public business. A bell, because of my name.

Relative? No

I grew up thinking I am a direct descendant of the patriot known as the orator of the American Revolution. However, some meticulous genealogical research by a cousin, a gifted and careful scientist — he retired as professor of human genetics at Yale Medical School — shows we don’t trace back to any of the patriot’s 17 children. I have the name but not the genes.

I have nonetheless retained an interest in my namesake, and part of his story that is not well known bears directly on Blow’s observation.

In 1775, Patrick Henry made the classic all-or-nothing declaration: “Give me liberty or give me death.”  Among the best-known phrases in American history, this is about as far as you can go with either/or distinctions.  It helps explain why he is revered by right-wing militia groups.

But Henry lived for more than two decades after the revolution.  And 16 years after his most famous utterance, he penned words far more relevant today.

He’s writing to the newly elected Sen. James Monroe, later our fifth president. Henry had opposed adoption of the Constitution, because initially it lacked a Bill of Rights.  Now, late in life, he says to Monroe, “The Form of Government into which my Countrymen determined to place themselves, had my Enmity, yet as we are one & all embarked, it is natural to care for the crazy Machine, at least so long as we are out of Sight of a Port to refit.”

This older Henry, who in the interim had been made wiser by two stints as governor of Virginia, knew the lines of public affairs are fluid and blurry, not clear and sharp. The passion that fueled the revolutionary’s “liberty or death” was transformed into the governor’s “care for the crazy Machine.” Henry had learned what would be stated in 1938 by another great American orator, Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us.”

Yes, democracy can be characterized in many ways, but “we are one & all embarked” and “caring for the crazy Machine” gets it close to right.  Because we are in it together, “one & all” (except for the American Indians, we are all immigrants), no one is going to get it all their way.

Blow's words

When Blow calls for patience and persistence, he doesn’t mean I persist forever insisting it’s my way or the highway, or I wait patiently until everyone comes around to my opinion.  No, he means the crazy Machine is really complicated (it’s all of us; what else could it be?), its moving parts are all interrelated, and quick corrections — whether walls, mass deportations, undoing an imperfect health care reform in unrealistic hope of getting to single-payer in one giant leap, and so many other all-or-nothing proposals that becloud practical care for the crazy Machine — usually gum up the works.

Reasons for fury these days against political establishments? Yes, Congress and our state Legislature have done next to nothing — the former won’t hold a hearing for a Supreme Court nominee, the latter couldn’t compromise when we have a budget surplus. Yes, there’s too much money greasing too many campaign wheels. And yes, the economy isn’t working for lots of people.

But it’s not that democracy has failed us. We’ve simply forgotten democracy is really hard work. The worst possible response to our doldrums is to see in someone peddling quick corrections a savior.  Henry saw no “Port to refit” on the horizon.  If we dock the ship of state in the port of authoritarianism, we cease to be who we are.

Patience and persistence are not flashy. They don’t condense into sound bites or rally chants. They’re what scientists, like my cousin, practice every day.  And because I see scientists as exemplars of what democracy requires, I consider the dissing of science and scientists the most alarming feature of current political rhetoric.

As my namesake in the 18th century realized, we’re embarked, and the journey is perilous as well as exhilarating.  In 1947 Winston Churchill famously said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Early in the 21st century, “Give me persistence and patience” doesn’t have the zip of “liberty or death,” but it’s what the experiment in democracy that the earlier Patrick Henry helped forge requires now.