Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Hat in Hand Or Chants Democratic?

I think a good deal of our pride in and honoring of George Washington comes (and justly so) from his leadership in war and his self-limiting grasping for power as our first president. Today is Bastille Day in France. July 14, France's fête nationale, is their No. 1 state holiday – inspired by the storming of Paris prison castle Bastille in 1789 that abolished aristocratic privileges, and three years later led to the toppling of the monarchy. The holiday dates to 1880.

George Washington, and all of the founding fathers (though not the outsider Thomas Paine), were part of what seems today to be a curious kind of “aristocracy.” The “fathers” believed in, and practiced, the powers of a culture of deference. And many of the lower orders of the day acquiesced and participated willingly. So we have George Washington advising this:

“To treat them [ie. people without rank] civilly is no more than what all men are entitled to, but my advice to you [his manager at Mount Vernon] is, to keep them at a proper distance; for they will grow upon familiarity, in proportion as you sink in authority.”
And isn’t much of our political squabbling today over issues of “proper distance” and “authority” as expressed in economic terms? There is a tension between the seeming order embedded in a culture of deference and the erasing of privilege which lies at the heart of the Bastille Day celebrations. Deference accepts the hat in hand in expectation of security; the chants democratic of Bastille Day may unleash chaos, usher in the unpredictable. Our times are still taut with the significance of this split in thought and action.

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