Wednesday, May 21, 2008

ON ANCIENT GREEKS AND MODERN OREGONIANS

'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'

John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn

Truth. Beauty. And their triplet, the Good. Philosophers have attempted to understand the essence of these words since the time of the ancient Greeks. As a student of that discipline, I have not only contemplated the meaning of those concepts but have even tried to rank them. Given my love for philosophy, you might expect me to place Truth at the top of the hierarchy and Beauty at the bottom. Or you might think I’d agree with Keats that the two (and by implication, their triplet) are inseparable parts of a holy unity. In fact, though, I shall attempt in part to rank these concepts, and my conclusion may not be what you’d expect from a devotee of philosophy.

It feels odd to begin a post about Steve Novick’s race for the U.S. Senate with musings about Platonic forms. After all, Novick is no philosopher. You could call him a historian. A mathematician. A politician. An activist. An attorney. A humorist. A romantic. And quite a character. But he’s no philosopher. Novick has always been too much of a man of action to be the beard-stroking kind of guy. Like Marx, he doesn’t support sitting around interpreting the world; he prefers working tirelessly to change it.

Nevertheless, despite Novick’s proclivities away from Plato and towards Pericles, he has reminded me once again of what I take to be a philosophical truth, one that I only came to learn in the past few years. It gets back to the trichotomy of Truth, Beauty, and the Good, and my chutzpah in trying to rank them. While I haven’t fixed on their precise ranking, I am ready to suggest which of the three belongs at the top. The winner, as evidenced by my recent trip to Oregon, is Beauty.

Yes, that’s right. I went to Oregon to support a 4’9” politician who lacks fibulas and an arm … and who has devoted his entire campaign to talking-truth-to-power … and I’ve come back with an ode, not to Truth, but to Beauty. How is that possible? Because the four days that I spent in Oregon felt like four months, and gave me more than enough time to reflect on some of life’s secrets. One is that there’s no greater human faculty than the ability to appreciate Beauty.

Whenever a true aesthete is faced with profound Beauty, s/he will not only have been deeply enlightened, she will have glimpsed the meaning of the Good. Similarly, to witness ugliness is to gain the best glimpse possible of what we know as “evil.” Whether you want to be a philosopher or an activist, you will be well advised to heighten your aesthetic sensibilities. But remember – the most beautiful things may not be revealed in nature or in museums. Sometimes, the most beautiful things of all are the hearts and characters of our fellow human beings. I saw that for myself in Oregon.

My trip to the Beaver State was agonizing to be sure, but it was a blessing nonetheless. To begin, I saw very little ugliness. One guy yelled “Vote Hitler” when I was on the street yesterday morning holding a sign saying “Vote Novick,” but that was about it. Even when my dear friend lost the lead he had in ALL THREE pre-election polls, and even when he similarly lost the lead he held in the initial election-night polls ... even then there was no ugliness. Nor was it ugly to watch the lead slip away in one of the campaign’s hotel rooms while many hundreds of people massed in a ballroom downstairs, no doubt expecting to be celebrating a victory. Quickly, it became clear that even though Novick would win the city of Portland by double digits, he would lose the State of Oregon. In the end, he lost by only about four percent – or roughly 20,000 votes. Agonizing? Yes. Ugly? Strangely, no.

It has been reported by many outlets that Novick’s campaign speech was absolutely brilliant – funny, inspiring, classy, you name it. In the middle of the speech, he reminded us of how, during the campaign, his younger brother suddenly died in a horrible tragedy. Watching a man who has just suffered a gut-wrenching political defeat talk about the sudden loss of a beloved brother is about as poignant as life gets. There is nothing less ugly than watching one brother express his undying love for another.

Truth be told, the evening did provide a little glimpse of injustice. With the help of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Novick’s opponent in the election essentially spent twice what Novick did and clearly would have lost the race had the party establishment in D.C. let the Oregonian Democrats choose their own nominee. Some could call that ugly. But in spite of that injustice, I was too blinded by Beauty to see any ugliness in the ballroom last night. And that can be attributed to many factors, not the least of which was that the Novick campaign had virtually no regrets. They fought like Rocky against Apollo Creed and came razor close to pulling off a shocking upset that would have turned this “gnome” of a candidate into a national celebrity. It hurt that he wasn’t given the chance to rock the nation the way he rocked Portland. It hurt badly. But that doesn't make it ugly. No regrets, no ugliness.

In case you can’t tell by now, the mood in the ballroom when Novick began his speech didn’t suggest that this was the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning. We were surely witnessing the start of Novick’s career as a public figure, a career that could be described as … what is the word? Oh yeah, beautiful. When a few ladies interrupted the candidate with the words “We love you, Novick,” they were merely echoing the sentiments of everyone in attendance.

If you go to the website “Blue Oregon,” on which I have been a regular poster during the past several months, you will find in its archives plenty of statements about Novick that are anything but loving. He has been called mean, vicious, unqualified, and just the kind of polarizing force that has given politics a bad name. Well, I would concede that Novick, especially in his earlier years as a blogger and activist, has made some impolitic, critical statements, which went further than Truth would allow. But any hyperbole that emerged from his pen clearly pales in comparison to the numerous times when he insightfully and courageously called a spade a spade and would have made Plato proud. In fact, Novick is nothing less than the Platonic form of the non-sell out. That, combined with his prodigious talents, explains why his staff and volunteers believed so much in him. His huge heart and refusal to take himself (or anyone else) too seriously explain why they love him. As Beauty goes, that is a devastating combination.

Strangely enough, though, the most beautiful thing about the latter days of Novick’s campaign wasn’t really centered on the candidate. The force wasn’t centripetal, but centrifugal. It focused my attention on the entire staff and all the volunteers. I’m trying to recall another time in my 47 years when I witnessed such palpable and heartfelt affection among such a large group of people. They seemed to be working as tirelessly as Novick, and even more effortlessly, for they carried less weight on their shoulders.

It wasn’t difficult for any of us to look around in that ballroom last night and find kindred spirits among Novick's staff, family and friends; wherever we looked, there they were. Beautiful faces. Beautiful souls. They inspired me, just like they themselves were inspired by their candidate.

In conclusion, I have previously blogged about the dissolution of my former synagogue, where some of the ugliness, perpetrated in the name of “spirituality,” was enough to turn even a corpse’s stomach. Now, I am proud to announce the flip side. In the name of electoral politics – one of the most reviled domains known to man – I found transcendent Beauty (that’s “Beauty” with a capital B). Say all you want that Novick lost, but I know that isn’t true. So did the others who showed up at the ballroom in the basement of the Benson Hotel. By creating something of true Beauty – meaning that it lasts! – Steve Novick and his campaign staff will always be winners. I admire them and congratulate them – my teachers -- on their success.

2 comments:

Betty C. said...

OH, couldn't you call it the Duck state?

I'm really sorry about this, but your take on it is very, well, philosophical.

On to great things with Obama (she writes, fingers firmly crossed...)

Daniel Spiro said...

Believe me, Betty, I haven't forgotten Obama. I was just checking Real Clear Politics earlier today to get my fix of minutia on the race. And I've been watching McCain implode on veterans issues. (Can he possibly sound like more of a curmudgeon?)

But my experience in Oregon was too powerful for me not to fully process. I wouldn't be much of a novelist if I could go through that kind of experience and quickly move on from it emotionally.