Five years of failure

Sam Smith

In 1986, I was asked to give a toast at the fifth anniversary celebration of the DC Community Humanities Council. Here is what I said:

Five years ago the DC Community Humanities Council was formed, charged with the diffusion of ideas, the encouragement of thought and the inspiration of rational discourse within this our nation’s capital. This was a little like trying to sell Bibles in a brothel, and I think that any fair assessment of what has occurred around us since we began would indicate that we have failed miserably. The best efforts of the council and its sainted staff have failed to halt a national and local stampede towards what is perhaps the most anti-humanistic era of our lifetimes.

It is an era, to be sure, not without ideas and a sense of history but what ideas and what history. It’s as if the worst of the past had been resyndicated and put on Channel 20, with none of the other stations working. We draw from the economics of Morgan, Mellon and the British East India Company, the morality of Comstock, the civil liberties of Palmer and McCarthy, the civil rights of Tara, the lifestyle of Babbitt and Gatsby, the religion of Gantry, the political ethics of Teapot Dome, the business ethics of Ponzi, the gentleness of Nietzsche, the altruism of Ayn Rand, the ecological sensitivity of General Sherman, the spiritualism of Warren Gameliel Harding, the imagination of Rutherford Hayes, the brilliance of Franklin Pierce, the expressiveness of Calvin Coolidge and the evolutionary theories of William Jennings Bryan.

It is an era when we propose to devise the most complex weapons system ever created, but when we go to explain it to people, our government feels compelled to use comic book stick figures on television. We have become the first society to know more about the external world than we do about ourselves. And now we even seem to be losing the ability to talk or write about the problem.

It is an era in which, like the fifties, the man in the gray flannel suit is in the ascendancy, but unlike the fifties, when he was viewed with the ambivalence that the market forces upon us, he or she is now a cultural role model, and, unbelievably, even considered hip, charismatic and sexy.

And it is an era in which we know how to promote, facilitate merge, network, manage, integrate, finalize and bottom line, but are losing the ability to make or to create. I have a nightmare that one day the country will awake and discover that there is nothing left to manage, finalize and facilitate. And there will be no one left to build anything.

So we have failed — here in the jaws of the lion — but I would argue that given the powers arrayed against the humanistic ideal, failure has been the only sane and honorable course. And the failure, one hopes, is only temporary. Long ago, John Locke warned of the constant decay of ideas, and how they must be “renewed by repeated exercises of the senses.” If not, “the print wears out, and at last there remains nothing to be seen.”

The print is fading, but, thanks in part to this band of happy humanistic warriors, it could have been a lot worse. It has engaged in repeated exercise of the senses with an integrity, decency, fairness, sensitivity and good humor rarely seen in this town anymore. In a city that is obsessed with style, it is one of the few real class acts. So a toast to the Council for all it has done and will do and to the humanistic spirit. May we live to see it once more.

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