People of Paradox

Author: Gary Hart

We Americans imagine ourselves to be progressive…that is to say, embracing change, experimental, imaginative, and creative.  At the same time, however, we are much more conservative than we consider ourselves to be.  We are cautious about adapting to new processes and institutions.  We protect past practices and traditional ways of doing things.

We want better public service, but are reluctant to pay for them.  We want better transportation systems, but do not want higher taxes.  We want a stronger military, but do not want a draft and do not want expensive weapons systems to be counted as part of the budget deficits.  We want better schools, but do not want to pay teachers what they deserve.  We want a strong foreign policy but do not want entangling alliances.  We want the benefits of foreign trade, including the jobs created by our exports, but do not want the competition trade involves.

Much of this is standard human nature.  But clinging to the past while seeking to move into the future can cause a form of collective national schizophrenia.  It is the source of much confusion and friction.  When we are confronted with our duality, it often makes us angry.  The best study of this paradox is People of Paradox by the late Professor Michael Kammen.

Nowhere is our ambivalence more prevalent than in foreign venues.  The most dangerous phrase in Washington is “do something.”  During the Cold War when a disturbance virtually anywhere in the world took place, it was a “communist takeover” and we must “do something.”  We did something in Vietnam and seven years later left after 58,000 American and over a million Vietnamese had died.  Now it is the complex Syrian civil war and, despite the sincere hesitancy of senior military commanders, many hawks are heard to say “we must do something.”

When doing something turns out badly, the interventionists disappear or blame the party in power for not “doing more.”  A former Secretary of State might say, What do we have this big military for if we’re not going to use it.  But serious students of military affairs know that, in local indigenous conflicts, our military, if it is used at all, must be used as a scalpel, not a hammer.  The first question a senior military commander asks is, What’s the exit strategy?

Our ambivalence about the use of military power abroad is not just the outcome of Vietnam and Iraq.  It is the changing nature of warfare.  Some politicians, who should know better, are still saying we should have won in Iraq.  But national conflicts based on ancient sectarianism, tribalism, and ethnic nationalism do not lend themselves to permanent “victory” for U.S. interventionist forces as they did in World War II.  There is no surrender ceremony and signing of documents.

So, for a mature nation such as ours on this our national birthday to face a new and different century full of greys and plaids and not blacks and whites requires a higher degree of maturity, a study of history, a knowledge of the roots of our own ambivalences, and appreciation for overcoming paradoxes.

We cannot always have it both ways…large problems solved without expenditures and investments.  We must sideline the ideological hucksters who rant about “government spending” and look at our commonwealth, all those public goods we own together, as in need of periodic investment to transfer them in good health to our children and future generations.  No more pointed illustration of this need is to be found than in this, our centennial of our National Parks.  They require care and maintenance presently being denied by members of Congress incapable of educating their constituents on the need for that investment.

Our slow progress toward what it means to be a mature nation must be speeded up.  We are wasting time in petty, irrelevant squabbles when the nation is in serious need of both mature leaders but also mature citizens.

Happy Independence Day to all.

10 Responses to “People of Paradox”

  1. Brian C McCarthy Says:


    One thing I have learned, from travelling overseas and reading world news, is that we are not a mature nation. We want everything for nothing. We want to think of ourselves as the greatest nation in the world, while we have infrastructures that are an embarrassment, an education system that falls farther and farther below those of other countries, and a political system of electing national leaders that no reasonable and objective person could look at without bewilderment and bemusement.

    I recently read John LeCarre’s “Karla” trilogy – you are a fan of spy novels so you may know it. As it came to its end, the main character, George Smiley, a British MI-6 agent, was told “you won.” His response, [paraphrasing], was an unenthusiastic “yes, I suppose I did.” On reading that, I could only think of the end of the Cold War, an event 20+ years after the events of the last novel. Smiley was unsatisfied because in order to win he had become exactly what he had set out to destroy – he had become exactly like his enemy.

    Have we become that? Do we now accept that in order to succeed as a nation we must sacrifice all principle? There seems to be no room anymore for reason and conviction. Whomever we least want to win an election must be stopped, no matter the loss to our national pride and dignity, in the process. Trump/Hillary must not win so whatever dirt can be dragged up on them, no matter the loss to our national dignity in the process, should go forward. For the people who feel this way, there are no greys or plaids – it is all black and white and either the next president will be acceptable or will be Satan incarnate and the next 4 years must be spent humiliating and degrading them, and if it makes the US look worse overall in the eyes of the world, then so be it. It reflects badly on our country that we can no longer agree that once an election is over, it is over, and the president is the president. We want the US to be regarded as the greatest country in the world – but if our guy/gal loses the election, make him/her and the whole country look a fool – that’ll show them.

    I’ve gone off your topic but I feel that your post was about this country failing to act maturely when it comes to revenues versus expenditures and I think the failing goes way beyond that. We can no longer elect leaders who can hold the respect and support of citizens who didn’t vote for them. That is a very big problem and, in my mind, makes us look like petulant children in the eyes of the rest of the world more than bickering about taxes and spending ever could.

    Very truly yours,
    Brian McCarthy

  2. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    I ask in advance you forgive my fading in and out of the land of the poet as you read the following:

    As long as We as a Nation continue to avoid facing the truth of our experience and instead, hide behind artificial constructs with which we seek to replace that same experience, we will continue to wander in the illusion of that paradox of which you speak. Wisdom comes with Experience that has not been filtered by Lies.

    I do not know if it is possible to repair the damage done to our collective psyche in the short time that may be left to us. The process of Real Healing in my view, is a Spiritual one that follows its own rules and cannot be forced without creating side effects that may be worse than the existing malady.

    It begs the question. Then what can be done?

    There are those who stand as beacons of a Sensibility that is grounded in unfiltered Experience. Many have placed themselves in full view of this nation’s People hoping that what is True in them may be noticed and imbibed by those Witnessing. Let as many as have courage rise, knowing there may be a price to be pay.

    Let those with courage and at the helm of affairs come down from their fortresses and Walk among the People and allow themselves to Feel Humanity’s condition by allowing their own Hearts to be broken open.

    Let the suffering among us be ready to forgive past error and embrace that which brings us True Peace and Joy.

    The world of nations is divided into armed camps and bystanders. The belligerents stand poised to destroy one another. The bystanders stand by dumbfounded or believe they can play the belligerents to advantage. Nature Herself has taken issue with the folly of mankind and seems ready to finish us off by any means necessary.

    I often pray that the Fear of God might be indelibly branded into the Hearts of the People.

  3. John Kane Says:

    It appears that many are at a crossroads, a “Paradox of the Hart” so to speak.
    Have you read Hillary Rhodham’s senior thesis? It is my belief that much is revealed in ones writings. We have no candidates.

    Party Loyalty
    Author: Gary Hart
    Speaking only personally, it would take me about ten seconds to publicly denounce this candidate and all those “strategists” and talk-show loud-mouths who had high-jacked my party and turned it into something totally at odds with the principles for which it traditionally stood.
    Sometimes party loyalty does ask too much.

    People of Paradox
    Author: Gary Hart
    So, for a mature nation such as ours on this our national birthday to face a new and different century full of greys and plaids and not blacks and whites requires a higher degree of maturity, a study of history, a knowledge of the roots of our own ambivalences, and appreciation for overcoming paradoxes.

    THE REPUBLIC OF CONSCIENCE (edited for length)
    by Gary Hart
    Four qualities have distinguished republican government from ancient Athens forward: the sovereignty of the people; a sense of the common good; government dedicated to the commonwealth; and resistance to corruption. Measured against the standards established for republics from ancient times, the American Republic is massively corrupt.
    There has never been a time, however, when the government of the United States was so perversely and systematically dedicated to special interests, earmarks, side deals, log-rolling, vote-trading, and sweetheart deals of one kind or another.
    The key word is not quid-pro-quo bribery, the key word is access. In exchange for a few moments of the senator’s time and many more moments of her committee staff’s time, fund-raising events with the promise of tens, even hundreds, of thousands of dollars are delivered.
    Recent months have seen, in effect, the legalization of Watergate. Who would have thought, forty years after the greatest political scandal and presidential abuse of power in U.S. history, that the Supreme Court of the United States would rule the practices that financed that scandal were now legal?
    The lobbying business is no longer about votes up or down on particular measures that may emerge in Congress or policies made in the White House. It is about setting agendas, deciding what should and should not be brought up for hearings and legislation. We have gone way beyond mere vote buying now. The converging Influence World represents nothing less than an unofficial but enormously powerful fourth branch of government.
    America’s founders knew one thing: The republics of history all died when narrow interests overwhelmed the common good and the interests of the commonwealth.
    On a more personal level, how can public service be promoted as an ideal to young people when this sewer corrupts our Republic? At this point in early twenty-first-century America, the greatest service our nation’s young people could provide is to lead an army of outraged young Americans armed with brooms on a crusade to sweep out the rascals and rid our capital of the money changers, rent seekers, revolving door dancers, and special interest deal makers and power brokers and send them back home to make an honest living, that is, if they still remember how to do so.
    What angers truly patriotic Americans is that this entire Augean stable is legal. Even worse, recent Supreme Court decisions placing corporations under the First Amendment protection of free speech for political purposes compounds the tragedy of American democracy. For all practical political purposes, the government of the United States is for sale to the highest bidder.
    “Just because it is legal doesn’t make it right” should be carved above every congressional doorway, every cabinet department, and even the White House itself. Contrast the fact that upon returning to Independence, Missouri, in 1953, Harry Truman refused to take even a pencil from the White House (“It didn’t belong to me,” he said, by way of explanation) with modern presidents whose political networks have graciously waited until they departed the White House to make them rich.
    Restoration of the Republic of Conscience requires reduction and eventual elimination of the integrity deficit. Virtue, the disinterestedness of our elected officials, must replace political careerism and special interests. The national interest, what is best for our country and coming generations, must replace struggles for power, bitter partisanship, and ideological rigidity. This is not dreamy idealism; it is an idealism rooted in the original purpose of this nation.
    We were not created to be like other nations. We were created as an alternative to monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, and corrupt political systems. The more we follow the easy path, the one paved for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful, the more we stray from our originally intended purpose and the more we lose our unique purpose for existence.
    There is a Gresham’s law related to the republican ideal. Bad politics drives out good politics. Legalized corruption drives men and women of stature, honor, and dignity out of the halls of government. Self-respecting individuals cannot long tolerate a system of election and reelection so dependent on cultivating the favor of those known to expect access in return. Such a system is corrosive to the soul.
    We are not the same country we started out to be. We cannot conduct our political process the way we are doing in the twenty-first century and claim to adhere to our earliest principles. We must decide who we are. And if that decision is to restore our highest ideals, then major changes must be made in the way we elect our presidents and our members of Congress.

  4. Eric C. Jacobson Says:

    It is mini-essays like this one that reflect the magnitude of the tragedy that befell our nation and world with the demise of Senator Hart’s presidential prospects in 1987-1988.

    I first noticed Gary’s emphasis on what he then termed “patrimonial leadership” while working with a team of 5 volunteers on the website Hart authorized us to create and launch in support of his exploratory consideration of a 2004 presidential campaign. Courtesy of the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine” a Q&A partially on that subject survives here:

    In that Conversation Gary described this approach as “a concept of generational accountability that few political figures understand or care about. The principle of governance is simply this: Every action taken by this generation must take into consideration whether it will make the world better for the next generation than it has been for ours.”

    I was born in the middle of the baby-boom generation (in 1954) and have always believed that my generation would in the fullness of time implement at least SOME of the ideals (broadly defined in Dr. King’s vision for America as a “beloved community”) that were current in our youth. But with the sole exception of America’s evolution on some social and lifestyle issues, that has NOT happened. Quite the contrary!

    In early June, just prior to the primary voting in my home state of California (and in New Jersey) that would determine the Democratic nominee I wrote an open letter to my generational peers attempting to influence the outcome. Not unexpectedly it didn’t “go viral” but by paying Facebook $10 to “boost” it, I got the text before about 500 readers.

    Although the voting on June 7th didn’t go as I preferred I believe my entreaty is MORE relevant following the “pass” Hillary Clinton was just given by the pernicious powers-that-be for criminal activity she obviously engaged-in, activity for which other Americans, including Naval Reservist Bryan Nishimura, have RECENTLY been held criminally accountable notwithstanding the arguable non-intentional nature of their misdeeds. See

    It is simply beyond comprehension that the Democratic Party super-delegates would tip the nomination to a poster-woman for unequal protection of the law and make Mrs. Clinton the 2016 Democratic Party standard-bearer. If they do, they will deserve the drubbing the public will inflict in November when Donald Trump is handily elected president.

    If Hillary’s delegates (for some reason) refuse to vote for her primary season rival Bernie Sanders (who has certainly earned the nod), the assembled delegates in Philadelphia MUST come to their senses and nominate someone else.

    They cannot do better than the host of this forum, who is perhaps the only Democrat in America who has “what it takes” to defeat Donald Trump.

    I say so with due respect to Joe Biden, a man who represents continuity in a year the public is Demanding (with a capital D) progressive change. With Trump as Hart’s adversary Hart’s old “issue” instantly becomes a NON-ISSUE! And unlike Hillary Clinton I believe that good ol’ Gary would have the common sense to unify the party and actually select Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren as vice-president, each of whom could seek the presidency in 2000 if Hart were to step down after 1 term, which given his age in January 2021 (84), might be a possibility.

    With all this in mind, I offer my open letter again here as a humble variation on Senator Hart’s excellent theme of his main post: the urgent need to invest in the assets within our American commonwealth in order “to transfer them in good health to our children and future generations.”
    June 5, 2016

    To my fellow baby-boomers:

    Because of the accident of our births into a post-WW2 world that was “our oyster” (except for the threat of nuclear mega-death from the stand-off with Communism and for the associated sacrifices of blood and treasure in Vietnam), some of us have secured prosperous private legacies for ourselves and our families.

    At the same time there is no denying that the public legacy we are leaving for posterity is poor. Government has ceased to function properly and by and large (but with some notable exceptions) is now led and staffed by mediocre types with little to no conception of what it really means to be dedicated servants of the public interest. And all these governmental incumbents came up through the ranks of politics and civil service “on our watch” generationally speaking.

    What I call our current “mad mad mad mad world” (after a movie comedy of our youth) is the direct result of our complacency as the wrong kind of people (primarily self-serving elites) privatized and took over American politics in general and the Democratic Party in particular. A short comment is no place to inventory the many manifestations of our societal madness: but think of post-hurricane Katrina New Orleans or (a desultory decade later) the intentional poisoning of the drinking water in Flint Michigan with lead (stunting a generation of children) or the FACT that today most Americans afflicted with serious mental illness are caged in jails and prisons where they are routinely abused by sheriffs and guards, of all unqualified people.

    The Clintons EPITOMIZE everything that is wrong with politics and government in America. They showed their true colors decades ago when Bill, while Arkansas governor, at Hillary’s behest, made a show of executing a mentally retarded inmate in an Arkansas prison shortly before the 1992 New Hampshire presidential primary. This unfortunate man, Ricky Ray Rector, was so impaired that as he ate his last meal, he decided to save his dessert “for later”.

    It is all no longer funny. On Tuesday, voters have a chance to help usher this toxic couple off the stage of contemporary American politics. And conversely, have the chance to place at center stage (not just “stage left”) Bernie Sanders, a man of rock-solid character who has held fast to the values of decency and responsibility he was raised with in a Brooklyn home that was poor in resources but rich in social consciousness and love, someone who has (semi-miraculously amidst the noise and confusion) found ways to put those ideals into practice as an elected politician for 4 decades. And he has done so against the grain of opportunism and corruption as far as the eye can see.

    As Bernie says, he can’t effect the enlightened social change he advocates alone. If elected to our nation’s highest office a President Sanders will, for 4-8 years, attract back into political and governmental service the best, brightest and most conscientious of our fellow citizens. And that team effort can heal America and the world.

    On Tuesday by sending Bernie on his way to the Democratic nomination and then to the White House, baby-boomers can (at long last) begin to establish a public legacy for themselves and their posterity of which we can be proud. Better late than never.

  5. Gary Hart Says:

    Thanks and apologies to commentators from the host who just returned from Ireland on a trip meant to continue the complex peace process. GH

  6. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    Senator Hart,

    How will Brexit impact the peace process and future of Northern Ireland?

  7. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    I want to extend to you and to all who visit this meeting place a heart felt thank you.

    Walt Whitman expressed his understanding of the spiritual nature of Gratitude in the following excerpt and I would share it with you all.

    “Thanksgiving goes probably far deeper than you folks suppose. I am not sure but it is the source of the highest poetry—as in parts of the Bible. Ruskin, indeed, makes the central source of all great art to be praise (gratitude) to the Almighty for life, and the universe with its objects and play of action.

    “We Americans devote an official day to it every year; yet I sometimes fear the real article is almost dead or dying in our self-sufficient, independent Republic. Gratitude, anyhow, has never been made half enough of by the moralists; it is indispensable to a complete character, man’s or woman’s—the disposition to be appreciative, thankful. That is the main matter, the element, inclination—what geologists call the trend. Of my own life and writings I estimate the giving thanks part, with what it infers, as essentially the best item. I should say the quality of gratitude rounds the whole emotional nature; I should say love and faith would quite lack vitality without it…”

    From the Philadelphia Press, Nov. 27, 1884

    I bring this up only because I have found that there is great power for good in the things most of us take for granted. You constantly express your gratitude to those of us who visit with you and I wanted you to know it is very much appreciated in perhaps more ways than you may realize.

  8. Gary Hart Says:

    Thanks to all for these thoughtful, sometimes profound, comments, with particular thanks to J. Kane for his research and Mr. Borg for this last kind comment. To Ms. Miller, a full report responding to your question has been submitted to the Secretary of State. Alas, it is classified. I can say this, however: TIGC (There Is Great Confusion)

  9. Paul Borg Says:

    Dear Senator Hart,

    I want to share with you that I regard Senator Sanders to be a beacon of the unfiltered Experience I spoke of earlier. I am hoping he accepts my gratitude for all that he has done to set Us on a better course. I do not disparage him accepting the outcome of his effort to win the Democratic Party nomination for president. There is Wisdom in the man that may elude the youthful, idealists among us. All that we experience as good and decent in the man, Bernie Sanders, I recommend, be imbibed and made a part and parcel of ourselves. When those that would take America knowingly or unknowingly, down the path of Self destruction come face to face with any of Us who have felt the “Berne” be cautioned that their intent will meet with a resistance of Spirit.

    Thank You again for kick starting something wonderful.

  10. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    Classified, eh? You should have penned a companion op-ed!

    No matter, the confusion will undoubtedly clear before your report sees the light of day. 🙂

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