Every generation laments that things have never been worse. Is it true, or is our perception of the past skewed by nostalgia and selective memory?
We can't be sure. But things certainly do seem awful.
It might give us some consolation to know that the peculiar circumstances of our times were anticipated hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. Consider these lines from the medieval philosopher Omar Khayyam, according to the classical translation.
Justice is the soul of the universe,
The universe is the body.
The angels are the wit of the body,
The heavens the elements,
The creatures in it are the members;
Behold here the eternal unity.
The rest is only trumpery.
Now there's a word you don't hear anymore: trumpery. According to Dictionary.com, its meanings include:
• something without use or value
• nonsense or twaddle
• worthless finery.
In the context of modern political culture, we might suggest updating the definition to include the following:
• a wind that howls in the darkness and shakes the branches to no effect
• the discordant screeching of high-sounding promises and hollow excuses
• apoplectic squawking in response to criticism
The effects of trumpery fill the headlines. In Europe, the declining nation-states of an aging continent flail about, uncertain whether to pin their last hope for prosperity on unification or dissolution. As the EU approaches its 60th anniversary, its future is up for grabs.
In America, the schism between right and left grows ever wider, even after voters made clear their disgust with partisan bickering and governmental incompetence. Worse still, the new Republican majority seems incurably dysfunctional. As columnist Charles Lane observed, never in history has one party been simultaneously so totally dominant and so totally incoherent.
All across the world, fears over terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, espionage, and economic collapse drive a wedge between old friends and coax former enemies to become
HOW WE GOT HERE FROM THERE
People are drawn to causes like moths to streetlamps. Whether it's nationalism, globalism, or any of the myriad isms that litter the political landscape, we attach ourselves to movements and ideologies so we can feel part of something bigger than ourselves. That's a good thing, but only when we truly serving a noble cause rather than exploit the cause to amplify our own egos.
Environmentalism, limited government, universal healthcare, free markets, and world peace -- these are all high-minded goals. But we won't advance any cause by wielding it like a club to beat our adversaries into submission. If we really want to change the world for the better, we have to find a way to work together with those whose priorities differ from our own.
And if we don't, then all the sound and fury of our trumpeted principles will inevitably come to nothing… which then allows us to say we tried and point the finger of blame at others.
A LESSON IN LEADERSHIP
In one of the most painful episodes in Jewish history, Jotham, the lone surviving son of the great judge Gideon, chastises the people for standing by and allowing the wicked Abimelech to seize power by murdering Jotham's brothers. His sardonic rebuke takes the form of a parable in which the trees, symbolizing the Jewish elders, went in search of a leader.
They asked the olive tree to come a rule over them. But the olive tree replied, "Shall I give up my good oil to go wave over the trees?"
So they went and asked the fig tree to rule over them. But the fig tree replied, "Shall I give up my sweetness to go and wave over the trees?"
Next they asked the grape vine to rule over them. But the vine said, "Shall I give up my wine to go wave over the trees?"
Finally all the trees went and asked the thornbush to rule over them. And the thornbush replied, "If you will truly submit to my rule, then come and take shelter in my shade; but if not, then fire will come forth from my thorns and devour you."
Each tree symbolizes a different kind of ruler: the olive is a wise and deliberating scholar; the fig is a savvy pragmatist; the grape vine is a leader of discernment who can adapt his style to the shifting demands of his nation.
But what makes a person of quality abandon his success in private life to shoulder the burdens of public service? Only the belief that the people will respond to leadership and work together in building a prosperous nation. And observing that the people would rather squabble than serve, they see no point in relinquishing their own prosperity to "wave over the trees."
In the end, all the trees grow frustrated at the failure of their elders and seek their own populist ruler. They turn to the thornbush, who offers impossible promises and ominous threats, making no attempt to build unity through common vision, and resorting to the vagaries of trumpery.
King Solomon laments, Behold, I have found only this: that God made man upright, but he has sought out many intrigues.
If we want prosperity, we can't merely rail against those with whom we disagree. We have to find common ground and join forces in pursuit of the common good.