In 1927, American high society was swept up in a frantic religious mania. Leading politicians, intellectuals, philanthropists, educators, reporters, and scientists prophesied that the nation would be consumed by fire and brimstone in the form of “unfit” babies unless it offered up a sacrifice. The state of Virginia went before the U.S. Supreme Court, that temple of modernity, with an offering. Legendary progressive Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes looked upon Carrie Buck, a 19-year-old imbecile with an imbecilic mother and imbecilic bastard infant, and embraced his role as Solomon.
In 1817, the United States under President Monroe was locked in an argument with Spain about who should own Florida. While Monroe’s secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, endeavored to cut the Gordian knot in diplomacy with his Spanish counterpart, an unexpected event and, as it turned out, opportunity presented itself: Seminole Indians on the border of the young United States attacked a convoy and massacred a group of Americans. The president responded by requesting that Andrew Jackson, hero of the Creek Wars of 1812-13, drive the Seminoles south of the border. Jackson did so and more, driving the Spanish out of Florida and bringing the territory under American control.
Simple is hard—more difficult than cutting diamonds, more back-breaking than mining coal. Of course, complicated is also hard. Nothing good in art comes easy. But we can be deceived by the simplicity of an artwork’s effect, tempted into believing that it must derive from a simplicity of effort. And to all such temptations, there’s really only one answer: an insistence that simple is hard. Harder than adamant. Tougher than steel.
We have not ended up where we began, with democracy. Our institutions of government, business of lawmaking, and notions about successful popular rule do not resemble all that closely the storied originals from Athens. Of course, the broad outlines of democracy are still here—elections occur; liberty and rights are invoked—but democracy’s substance has changed. Democracy has become an expression, an imposition, even, of the self over other selves. It is not a call to order—it’s an impassioned cry.
It was one of those extraordinary “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” moments, to be reckoned alongside learning that Santa Claus is a myth or becoming conscious of how babies are made. I was in third grade. One of my classmates needed to be excused.
“Mrs. Ruesink, can I use the bathroom, please?”
“I have no idea. I assume you can.”
Your outrage du jour is that the University of Washington had the temerity to suggest that cheerleaders should be attractive. The horror!