Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
I am writing this column on Election Day, knowing that I have to file long before the polls close.
I write with a sense of relief, knowing that this election ” the most important of my lifetime, as the cliche has it and as I do indeed believe ” will finally be over.
I also write from the somewhat odd position of having been completely disconnected from all election news for the past seven days.
Months ago, I wrote a column saying that the election news was making me cranky and crazy and I just wasn’t going to follow it anymore. But I broke that promise almost immediately.
For the past week, however, through a totally unexpected burst of sheer dumb luck, I have been on a sailboat in the Caribbean. We cruised through smaller islands and anchored in tiny bays, and it was virtually impossible to get any news of any kind.
And what a relief it was.
My “cranky index” plummeted … well, OK, I was on a sailboat in the Caribbean; I’d have to be a damn fool to be cranky. But still, what a relief to escape the constant barrage.
On the boat, I found myself fascinated by all the amazing bits and pieces of very specialized hardware. There were clips and clamps and pulleys and levers of shapes and sizes that you don’t find anywhere but on a sailboat. And each was perfectly suited to its task.
I’m a bit of a hardware geek, and I peered at these very specific pieces of steel and puzzled out how they worked and why they were shaped the way they were.
And the thing about that hardware is that it has all been shaped by sheer necessity.
For thousands of years, men on sailboats have challenged the sea. The challenges are clear, brutal and uncaring: wind and waves. The goal is simple: to get where you’re going, alive. And the stakes are high: life or death.
Those circumstances have inexorably shaped all the bits and pieces that I stared at, as surely and inexorably as the wind shapes the sand dunes of the open desert. A clip has to stay shut ” absolutely ” until it has to open. And then it must open ” absolutely. There is room for innovation, of course, but bad ideas fail fast, and the price of failure is stark.
There is room for vanity and excess in some areas, of course. But in the parts of a boat that must function under stress, form (as the saying goes) must follow function.
If I can shift analogies for a moment, think about the difference between race cars and regular passenger cars. Once, American sedans sprouted enormous tailfins, intended to make those cars look like rocket ships. If a race car has fins, they are there to make it go faster ” not to make it look faster.
Passenger cars are designed to sell. Race cars are designed to win.
And as I thought about all of that, I found myself thinking, again, about our elections. Not about this year’s election. Not about who was ahead in which poll in which state. Not about who was more dishonest or more evasive.
I was thinking about the basic concept and process of democracy itself.
For all that the United States is the oldest democracy on the planet, our process of choosing our leaders seems really not to have improved very much at all over the years since George Washington was elected president in 1789. Indeed, it may well have degenerated.
Our entire system of electing our government is flawed in so many ways it’s difficult ” and painful ” to list them.
The way we register voters is flawed (and open to fraud). The way we maintain those registration lists is flawed (and open to fraud). The way we cast our votes is ” let’s save some time and ink here and abbreviate: “f’ed and o. to f.” The way we count those votes is f’ed and o. to f.
And between those electoral bookends of registering voters and counting votes there are the processes by which we choose our candidates and finance their campaigns. Not to mention the campaigns themselves.
All of it flawed and open to fraud. (F’ed and o. to f.)
And, sitting on that sailboat in the Caribbean, blessedly isolated, I thought about the difference between the process that brought boat fittings to ever-increasing approximation of perfection and the process that has left our democracy endlessly floundering in imperfections.
The difference lies in the eternally bedeviling issue of human nature.
The challenges of the ocean are, as I said, wind and waves. And while they may be infinite in their variations, they also maintain their elemental simplicity. They aren’t trying to kill you. They aren’t trying to save you. They simply do not care.
And the sailor’s goal, as I said, is similarly basic. He wants only to reach his destination alive.
In politics, we have no such clarity. We do not really know the goals or desires of the candidates or of their parties or of their helpers. We do not really know the goals or desires of the voters.
Indeed, none of these people may really even know their own goals.
Wind and waves do not lie. People may not tell the truth even to themselves.
Politics, like politicians, is sadly human. All too human.
And so political systems must apparently be forever flawed.
As Winston Churchill famously pointed out, “Democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Will the results of this election ” results which you will most likely know by the time you read this ” give us some glimmer of hope?
Hope for a better tomorrow? Perhaps.
Hope for a better democracy? No, I’m afraid. No more than a ship reaching shore can give us hope for a future without storms.
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