Jazz, Politics, Edward Kennedy and the Ghosts of Richard Nixon: Our American Dialogue and the Hatfields and McCoys

Carl L. Hager By

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In a "civilized" society that isn't ready to perish, nearly all aspects of daily existence that one finds difficult to confront and deal with are abandoned in favor of letting someone else take care of them. If acted on soon enough, these abandoned areas can eventually be organized, and become known collectively as government. This includes an ever-growing list of duties, everything from maintaining our national security and defense to putting out our fires, inspecting the purity of our food, delivering the mail and teaching our children to read. It goes from there. But the more of our lives we relinquish to others, the less control we have over the outcome. Have you ever paid someone to do a something for you that you could have done better and more efficiently yourself? Of course you have.

Complaint and argument eventually take the place of public discourse, followed by demands for solutions to the problems we have abandoned and placed on our government—that growing entity composed of all the people we have hired with our tax dollars to take over our original responsibilities.

Soon it becomes the "responsibility" of every citizen, regardless of education—or lack of it—to have opinions and complain about how the governing should be done. What is a government for, if not for complaining and telling them how to do it? They're not called public servants for nothing, right?

Democratic forms of government are eventually reduced to a large bureaucracy of governing bodies, with the voting citizens functioning only to decide who will be allowed to represent us in controlling everything we have lost control of. And as the various governing bodies grow, we develop the additional problem of how to maintain some control over all of the people who govern them, those people we expect to be in control of all the people who are now managing those aspects of daily life for us.

As the size of this sea of governors and governing bodies swells, our ultimate political ambitions in a democracy appear to deteriorate finally into a desire to acquire and maintain at least what Alexis de Tocqueville called "a tyranny of the majority." Our political affiliations become an accumulation of those requisite associations formed not out of any natural affinity for the people involved, but out of a desire for acquiring the power of numbers, the power of gathering hordes of like-minded people who agree with us and will join forces with us, that we might gain control of all the people who do not agree with us. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

We've been reminded often of this dismaying fact of life since Shakespeare first published its preamble in 1623, as a line for Trinculo to speak in The Tempest, "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows." Over two centuries later the dark-and-stormy Lord Bulwer-Lytton's thoroughly modern comment in his 1849 novel, The Caxtons, was that "poverty has strange bedfellows." However, it was Mark Twain's friend, writer and editor, Charles Dudley Warner, who finally wrote the sobering phrase that we all now quote: "Politics makes strange bedfellows."

But note that neither the Bard, the Lord, nor the Hartford Courant Editor (whose other famous line, "Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it," has also been famously mis-attributed to his friend Twain for well over a hundred years) ever uses the word "enemy" to describe one of these associations. That's because a bedfellow, no matter how antagonistic or offensive one otherwise finds him, is in fact a friend in at least one important respect, maybe more. Dictionary.com says a bedfellow is "an associate or collaborator, especially one who forms a temporary alliance for reasons of expediency." The online Macmillan dictionary says such a person is "someone or something that is connected with another person or thing in some way, often unexpectedly." Characterized by enlightened (or not) self-interest, hard to explain later, strange and uneasy though these coyote-ugly liaisons may be, they are alliances. A bedfellow is still someone you are in bed with. And as much as you might wish it weren't so, the relationship usually lasts longer than one night. Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by the son of... We are in the political season, as it is called in these election years.

Hatfields & McCoys

Not coincidentally, at 9:00 p.m. on this last Memorial Day, aka Opening Day Eve of said political season, the History Channel aired its first-ever scripted drama, experiencing great success with 13.9 million viewers across most of the demographic spectrum, and over the ensuing two nights set the record for the most-watched broadcast on advertising-supported cable television (exclusive of sports), ever.


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