November 8, 2010


I miss James Thurber (1894-1961), a contributor to the New Yorker, cartoonist and one of America’s great humorists, along with Mark Twain and Will Rogers. He had an eye for the silliness in human nature, especially when people were taking themselves seriously. I suppose the modern equivalents of these earlier humorists would be Jon Steward and Stephen Colbert who, a few days before our last election, held a sanity rally which drew thousands. If Thurber had been around, he might have warned both men their efforts to tone down the political rhetoric was un-patriotic. “Discussion in American means dissent,” he once wrote.

Certainly, putting sanity into politics goes against the grain of our experience.  Elections are times when candidates make the most outrageous claims against their opponents while being protected under the First Amendment and supported by the other American notion there is “a sucker born every minute” (P.T. Barnum).

Politicians are so obvious a target for humor, it seems unsportsmanlike to pick on them. Besides, as de Tocqueville noted, “We get the government we deserve.”   

Insanity may be a fact of human nature. I saw evidence of this last Saturday as I ended my walk through the park. Heading home, two cars had blocked each other at an intersection and both refused to budge. One car had nearly completed a left turn while the second had crept forward in defiance of that turn with sufficient determination to make it impossible for either car to continue on its way. The drivers sat for a time glaring through their windshields and making shooing motions for the other to back up. Neither did. Eventually, I drew close enough to observe that both drivers were women, one in her fifties, while the other was somewhere in her twenties. Finally the older woman gave way and reversed into the dangerous intersection which was quiet at that moment. The younger woman, with no thought to the danger in which she had placed the other driver, proceeded on her way with a righteous smile spread across her face.

When foolishness like this exists as an ordinary occurrence, it’s not hard to understand why gridlock exists in our Capitol. If we want a civil society, let’s begin with ourselves.