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Yin and Yang of the Everyday
Children figure out they have two hands, two feet, two ears, two eyes, and so forth, and many, if not most, tend to grow up with a built-in bias in favor of symmetry. Whether it’s innate, acquired or a combination of influences really isn’t the point, but it sometimes takes a lifetime to get over it.
We’re taught to match things by shape, color and size, to avoid putting the square peg in the round hole, to color between the lines, and to arrange our chess pieces just so. We could start the game with the king’s rook placed next to the queen’s bishop, but we wouldn’t have that moment of neatness and order before the pawns and knights really mess things up and make the game interesting. I think a lot of it has to do with predictability and fortunately most of us have many years to reconcile or adjust to these conflicting influences. Two of the areas of my own life affected by this include:
I spend a lot of my spare time digging in the dirt and find modern gardening books more useful than those published before the use of color photography. Serious gardeners are constantly borrowing ideas from each other (wasn’t it Picasso who said “good artists borrow but great artists steal”?) and long winter evenings with color-illustrated gardening books at hand are almost as good as an afternoon wandering around Hampton Court, Sissinghurst, Fellows Riverside Gardens in Youngstown, Ohio, or the Japanese Gardens in Portland, Oregon.
The formal gardens of Hampton Court initially dazzle with their intense displays of color and massive plantings of annuals symmetrically arranged with geometric precision. Our own efforts at garden design, originally influenced by formal landscaping practice, have become somewhat informal in recent years, leaving more to the imagination. This means more irregularly shaped beds, sometimes on more than one level, planting in groups, curved as well as straight borders, wandering paths leading to partially hidden gardens in unexpected locations, water features and so forth. Garden design, like golf, is always a work in progress—to hire others to do it is to deny yourself most of the pleasure.
I won’t, however, be drawn into the annual versus perennial debate. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that announced to the world “Friends don’t let friends plant annuals” which gives you some idea of how even gardeners can become overly partisan in their own way. I do think perennial garden purists miss out on a good deal of color by such rigid practice and as one who favors horticultural diversity, I frequently combine longer-blooming annuals along with our perennials. A rule once made, however, begs to be broken. In the middle of a sunny, grassy area bordered on three sides by a serpentine garden of mixed annuals and perennials, we have a nearly circular bed of massed marigolds with a grouping of canna lilies in the center. I never said I was consistent.
Voters, well informed or otherwise, tend to identify with the opinions, views and positions of one of the two major parties. These days to be Republican or Democrat is not enough, but a lot of people enter the voting booth to support the candidates they are given, not the candidates they might wish for. News reporters and commentators sometimes act surprised by mavericks who stray from approved party positions, but seldom suggest that there are minor parties out there worth thinking about.
Well-known public figures say something controversial and they become icons, defined forever in the public’s mind by late night comedians—no need to think or read any further. Just for fun, try your hand at identifying the author of the following excerpts from a book published in the late 1990s.
…America’s leaders are reenacting every folly that brought these great powers to ruin—from arrogance and hubris, to assertions of global hegemony, to imperial overstretch, to trumpeting new “crusades,” to handing out guarantees to regions and countries where Americans have never fought before…
The form of government nations adopt is their own business, and a foreign policy that declares global democracy as its goal is arrogant and utopian.
As for the specter of Islamic fundamentalism, the huge U.S. military presence and the perception of American dictation and domination only exacerbates that problem.
The writer is Patrick Buchanan and people who reject his conservative Catholic views on sexuality and abortion may never get to read his A Republic, Not an Empire…(NY, 1999). In this book he takes a number of positions on foreign policy that the “new American century” dominionists dismiss as a quaint form of neo-isolationism. Nowadays, many of the anti-war websites link to articles by Buchanan while pro-war apologist and born-again atheist Christopher Hitchens has become the darling of the neo-cons.
The seeming contradictions and inconsistencies in public policy debate are to me more interesting because, like annuals in a perennial bed (or the other way around), they’re more unpredictable and surprising. Consider the case of Ron Paul, a congressional representative from Texas who is campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination.
Ron Paul is a physician known in Congress as “Doctor No” because he consistently votes against legislation he thinks unconstitutional, as well as some (but not all) pork barrel spending—even when it affects his own district. In spite of that his Texas constituents have elected him to nine terms in Congress. In 1988 he ran for President as a Libertarian, defeating American Indian activist Russell Means for that party’s nomination. Some of the positions taken by this maverick from the libertarian wing of the Republican Party are as follows:
On foreign policy – “Intervention, no matter how well intended, inevitably boomerangs and comes back to haunt us”. (9/8/05)
Terrorism—“Cease the occupation of foreign lands and the suicide missions will cease”. (7/14/05)
Racism—“Racism is simply an ugly form of collectivism, the mindset that views humans strictly as members of groups rather than individuals. Racists believe that all individuals who share superficial physical characteristics are alike…” (4/16/07)
Foreign Aid—“Something has gone terribly wrong with our foreign policy.... The trillions of dollars we have shipped overseas as aid, and to influence and manipulate political affairs in sovereign countries has not made life better for American citizens”. (7/20/05)
Welfare—“I also question the priorities of singling out programs, such as Medicaid and food stamps, that benefit the neediest Americans, while continuing to increase spending on corporate welfare and foreign aid... I find it hard to believe that federal funding for Fortune 500 companies and China is a higher priority for most Americans than Medicaid and food stamps”. (11/18/05)
Iraq War—“All the reasons given to justify a preemptive strike against Iraq were wrong. Congress and the American people were misled.... We shouldn’t wait until our financial system is completely ruined and we are forced to change our ways. We should do it as quickly as possible and stop the carnage and financial bleeding that will bring us to our knees and force us to stop that which we should have never started”. (4/17/07)
Patriotism—“Who are the true patriots: those who conform or those who protest against wars without purpose? How can it be said that blind support for war, no matter how misdirected the policy, is the duty of the patriot”? (5/22/07)
Our son, presently doing a post-doc in physics at Penn State, together with colleagues and friends on and off campus, actively supports Ron Paul. One of the interesting factoids he sent my way is that slightly more than half of all political contributions given by active duty military personnel to Republican candidates have been donated to the Ron Paul campaign—more than all the other Republicans combined. This after he was harshly criticized by Mr. Giuliani at the South Carolina debate for his lack of support for the war and for discussing “blowback” (a CIA term that suggests that in politics as in physics, most actions tend to generate an equal and opposite reaction). In response to a question, Paul spoke about American overt and covert operations in the region going back to the CIA-orchestrated 1953 overthrow of Mohammad Mossadagh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran. (Incidentally, active duty military people have given more to the Ron Paul campaign, than to any individual candidate from the Democrats).
Afterwards, Dr. Paul offered to give Mr. Giuliani a short checklist of books to read, starting with the 9/11 Commission Report. Others books on the reading list are: Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire; Michael Scheuer’s Imperial Hubris: Why the West is Losing the War on Terror; Robert A. Pape’s Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism; Terry McDermott’s Perfect Soldiers; Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower; James Bamford’s A Pretext for War; Loretta Napoleoni’s Terror Incorporated or Insurgent Iraq; Peter Lance’s 1000 Years for Revenge; Fawaz A. Gerges’ The Far Enemy; Peter Bergen’s Holy War, Inc.; and Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars.
I don’t have to agree with all of Ron Paul’s ideas and positions to admire the man, and I’m guessing he probably knows or cares very little about pollsters or focus group consultants—he was against the war before it began while most of his colleagues, on both sides of the aisle, supported it. Misplaced specimen or not, considering the present crop of presidential candidates, he may indeed be just what we need to liven up today’s political garden of earthly blights.