Friday, June 11, 2004

Richard M. Nixon: or, An Existentialist Manifesto

Richard M. Nixon is the most significant public figure in recent history. As a politician, his relentlessly finessed and often contradictory initiatives were so difficult for the public to understand that most don't remember that the man founded the EPA -- or, for that matter, suspended the capitalist economy. Indeed, most people think of Vietnam as Nixon's war, even though Lyndon Johnson deserves ownership -- partly because everybody was and is so disgusted by that nasty little Cambodia bit.

As a person, he is perhaps the most documented moral creature in history. For all his unprincipled and questionable actions, he seems to have cared deeply about his country and believed most strongly that his actions were for its good. It is silly to talk about whether this belief absolves him; that's relevant only to his own private conscience. It illustrates, though, the difficulty the human consciousness encounters when trying to police itself. To give Nixon the benefit of the doubt -- the "crook" speech alone makes me doubt that he was a sociopath, so needy of the public's love it was -- he doesn't seem to have realized he was crossing lines of proper behavior.

The human consciousness is a drama. (Okay, maybe a Joycean drama.) All the characters, our friends, enemies, and acquaintances, are assigned roles and given moral ratings (good, evil, neutral). I don't notice this in my thought, so much, but I have noticed it in others, and I find it probable that I do the same sort of organization. The mind exists to classify data into sets and to make connections between those data sets -- it's how we survived in the wild. The content of those sets varies wildly, from emotions to formulae to geographies, but the task of the low-level brain, the subconscious, is the processing and interconnection of these sets. We ourselves are characters, too, though more elusive and less easily classifiable than others.

Alright, this isn't really going anywhere. Nixon represents the breakdown of self-analysis; Carter its crippling preeminence; and Reagan and W. its lack.


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