Writing Right with Dmitri: The Train of Thought

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Writing Right with Dmitri: The Train of Thought

Editor at work.

Letting your mind wander can be a good thing for a writer. As long as you do it before you put things down on the page. Sure, the reader requires focus, a thesis, topic sentences, and a recognisable conclusion. But to get there, you need connections, and it's sometimes a good idea to let the thought process meander a bit.

Just now, I was sitting outside watching our resident chipmunk. He's a happy little fellow, bounding cheerfully across the grass, boing, boing, and picking up the seeds the birds drop from the feeder. He's a little cautious around squirrels and rabbits, though. They're a bit large for his taste. Ditto that mischievous bluejay. Bluejays are corvids, and they're superintelligent. You need to watch out for bluejays.

'Superintelligent' is not a word I'd apply to any humans I've seen on television this past week. You see, they've been having one of those quadrennial political spectacles we call a national party convention. And it's the party I usually make more fun of than I do of the other party. That's personal prejudice: I think that, while the other party may be full of fools, crooks, and philanderers, their policies are basically at least marginally more honest than this party's, the one that's been having the convention this week. And it would seem that this party's gone a bit off the rails this year, even by their own – admittedly questionable – standards.

This happens periodically in politics, at least in the United States, which now has about 240 years of insanity to look back on. So I reflect that George Washington, the first president, didn't approve of political parties, which he thought were a really bad idea from England. Washington's idea of amity didn't last long, however. Pretty soon, there was the party of this and the party of that. One of the early ones was called the Democratic-Republican Party, which always makes the students laugh.

Believe it or not, the Founders (we always capitalise them, though we no longer call them the Founding Fathers, because we're in denial about how they shut out the women back in the 18th Century, many of whom were much smarter than their husbands) actually thought the presidency should work like this: the guy who got the most votes was president, and the guy that got the second-most votes was vice president. What a wonderful idea.

Of course, this was back when they also thought that it was okay to limit voting to white males 21 or over who owned property. They'd probably faint dead away to find out that we let anyone 18 or older vote, male, female, or other, of any ethnicity, even if they rented an apartment over somebody's garage. They'd probably think it was chaos. And they might point to Cleveland as proof.

Now, the idea of having a president and vice president from different parties didn't work too well. Even if the two leaders knew each other really well – maybe especially then. When John Adams was president, Thomas Jefferson was vice president, and that didn't go well at all. After that, the running mate was invented.

The current Republican candidate has picked a running mate nobody's ever heard of. That is not unusual. Think about brides who prefer homely bridesmaids in order to look better themselves. (That's also why bridesmaids' dresses are usually embarrassingly silly and in unflattering colours.) One of our national pundits pretends to fall asleep whenever he mentions the vice presidential candidate's name.

Many observers opine that this week's dog-and-pony show, and the hijacking of a political party that started out with a remarkably different agenda back in 1860 (Lincoln, antislavery), is indicative of the death of that party. And they seem surprised. But political parties are a lot like biological species: sometimes, there are extinction events.

The Republican Party that elected Abe Lincoln to the White House in 1860 only succeeded because the previous 'liberal' party, the Whigs, collapsed spectacularly in the 1850s. There was the usual split right-left over issues like immigration, religious minorities, terrorism, and economics. Yeah, nothing changes but the names, although personally, I think we ought to revive the Know Nothing Party. It's so perfectly descriptive. You want to know what a Know Nothing looked like? Here's Daniel Day-Lewis playing one. And you know he's a method actor…

Come to think of it, that clip isn't that far off this exchange during a political debate in 2015. So, the issues are essentially the same, only the players and the catch phrases have changed.

Now, that's my meandering train of thought. What does it add up to for writing? A paragraph like this:

US national elections may sometimes seem less than transparent to outside observers. One of the reasons for this is that few of these observers are aware of the complex history of the evolving process of democracy in this nation. After all, before 1776, there was no model for this kind of activity. There were parliaments, true: but these parliaments were answerable to, or in open conflict with, an entrenched monarchy or oligarchy. In the new United States, the president and legislature were faced with the task of inventing an ad hoc form of government that both led the nation and responded to the will of the people. To choose leaders, they needed an electoral process, one that reflected the state of the art in terms of political understanding. Over the past 240 years, that process has evolved – not, perhaps, wisely, and often not quickly enough to anticipate all the missteps of which human nature is capable in the face of rapidly changing technology. Is the sound bite generation more politically aware than the stump speech audiences of the 1830s? Possibly not. But the necessity for political involvement is as urgent now as it was in the days when Davy Crockett mounted a tree stump and let off his own one-liners. Is the quality of candidates in decline? We tend to view the past through rose-tinted spectacles – Andrew Jackson was just as colourful as certain television personalities, and possibly even less qualified to lead a large country. Will we as humans ever learn to run a democracy properly? Perhaps not, but we'll probably die trying.

Was all that worth the expenditure of brainpower? I don't know. After all that, I think I need to go watch the birds some more. Maybe they'll improve my train of thought.

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Dmitri Gheorgheni

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