Semantic Antics

From The Ruston Daily Leader, September 23, 2010

Disclaimer:  I want to make it clear that I am about to address a topic—political trust—with which books upon books have been written.  I do not presume to know more than the authors of these books.  Rather, read this as the beginnings of an interesting question to which you may have your own opinions and observations.

In light of today being the last day of our Constitution week as well as the upcoming election for Louisiana Lt. Gov., which will be held on October 2, I would like to peer into and pull back some of the layers surrounding how we truth, and thereby choose, our leaders.

It is in the political rhetoric today that a leader must be or, at least be under, the guidance of a shrewdly talented marketer.  (S)he must be presentable but not too stuffy, witty but not too fluffy, educated but not too pretentious, knowledgeable but not too tendentious.  Under the watchful eye of our media, potential leaders of our country must now sell themselves to us more thoroughly and personally than ever before.  These politicians live much of their lives orchestrating a story they can market to a country of people who so desperately want someone to put their trust in.

But the figures show that we are not as trusting of our political leaders as we have been in the past.  The most recent Gallup poll shows that Americans’ trust in the Legislative branch is at an all-time low.  However, it also shows that though our trust in politicians has plummeted, our trust in “the American people as a whole when it comes to making judgments under our democratic system” has been at a consistently high level at 73 percent.

In a PEW research done in 1998 on Americans’ view of the government, 40 percent of those with distrust in government complained about the political leadership—believing that politicians are dishonest, selfish and too partisan.

The Harvard Kennedy School for Public Leadership published some research in 2009 showing that Americans are among the world’s most optimistic people when it comes to our belief in the potential of our government.  We still hold the words of our founding fathers close to heart—that “the power under the Constitution will always be in the people.  It is entrusted for certain defined purposes, and for a certain limited period, to representatives of their own choosing; and whenever it is executed contrary to their interest, or not agreeable to their wishes, their servants can, and undoubtedly will, be recalled” (George Washington, Ibid., 29:311).

This is all seemingly positive, right?  If 87 percent of Americans polled believe that problems we face today can be solved by effective leadership, then it seems that we, as a nation, are more trusting in our own country than the rest of the world.  However, it is only in our potential that we remain so strongly optimistic.  To believe in the potential of an institution or person is to believe in the perceived strengths or capabilities that make up that individual, organization, investment, etc.  But this believe in the potential is only the beginning of the solution.

This leads to some questions about the qualities of trust and the trusted.  Do we trust the qualities that we identify with most or the qualities with which we find admirable?  Do we trust people who seem to share our values, intellect, and background?  Is it the influx of disparaging and vituperative media in our lives that makes us distrustful of our politicians?  Is it the conditions of our environment that make us prone to trust?  Do we simply tend to trust in our government when comfortable in the happy, warm cocoon of a flourishing economy?  And most importantly, how do we come to terms with trusting an individual so desirous of power as to put himself through the dehumanizing process that is American Politics?

In honor of our Constitution week, let’s consult that great work and see some of the rights to which we, as citizens, are entitled.  The Constitution is appropriately called the Living Constitution.  As any great piece of writing, it is timeless and remains alive within the people of this country and those who choose to participate in the political process.  When we perceive these rights being put into action in our political process, there is a perception of greater trust in our government.

Pepperings from the dinner table

from The Ruston Daily Leader September 30, 2010 column

Culture is by necessity political.  It is a response to environment, an environment constructed by those functioning within it.  We experience meaning by virtue of our relations with one another.

Perhaps because our culture is so relational, we experience fear for that which is unknown.  We experience paralysis in response to fear in plenty of big ways in foreign affairs, the economy, education, relationships, and so on; however, we also experience this fear in small ways, such as not waning to try new things even if they may enrich our lives.  In fact, evidence indicates that we fear an unknown outcome more than a known bad one.  Does this relationship between fear and familiarity have the same effect on our view of cultures different from our own?

I have noticed a particular comfort in many cultures in the familial aspects of the dinner table.  For the past 50 years, there has been an increasing exposure to other cultures by means of technology.  This perceived familiarity with things foreign from us has quelled many fears and insecurities concerning the unknown.  We have come a long way since mystery casseroles, boiled chicken and the Brady Bunch.

I came back to Ruston about a month ago and was thrilled to find the addition of a Vietnamese restaurant–Pho Paris–on Tech Drive.  I’ll never argue with a cuisine that serves up onion, cilantro, hot chilies, and lime!  Since the French occupied Vietnam in the middle 19th century, there are actually a good number of French Vietnamese restaurants.  Pho is a a noodle soup usually served with a choice of meat and a concoction of the above-mentioned items.  Some say that it was the French who influenced the broth of the Pho while the noodles traveled in from China.

Huu Ngoc, an author and “cultural expert” (cool title, huh?), has written a great deal on Vietnamese culture; he reminisces on his memories of those times at the dinner table: “Pho was very special, almost status food.  We loved it because it had everything we valued–rice, noodles, broth, meat and vegetables.  it was complete, nutritious, infinitely delicious and yet so easy to digest that we could eat it morning and night, day after day”.

It is a comfort to momentarily taste a glimpse of another culture’s creativity with sustenance.  If you look into any other country’s cuisine you will find that most have been born out of necessity.  You will usually find a stew that combines a meat, a starch, inexpensive and readily available vegetables doused in a myriad of spices–must like the gumbo of the Creoles or the Goulash belonging to the Germans.  We marry our knowledge of the history of a country with its responses to its struggle to survive when we note the heavy dependence on the potato in Irish culture or relish in the stir-fry method introduced by the Chinese as a way of conserving fuel.  We smell the climate of a foreign region by tasting the perfect balance of warm, sunny days and cool evenings of the Burgundy region in France and the Willamette Valley of Oregon, which make the obstinate Pinot Noir grapes so delicious.  These are the senses that make each and every culture burst with life.

Of all people, Louisianans know what it means to struggle.  We know what it means to find lightness in the heaviness.

I know that in my family despite heated political disputes, religious disagreements, and varying lifestyle choices, when it comes to our food we all of the sudden become agreeable.

The whole point in this rambling piece on cuisine is not to be another elevation of the foodie craze.

What I mean to say is that I have found something very profound in the things shared at the dinner table.  These are the beginnings of where we learn to be communal.  And to be in a community, or rather, to be social is to be functioning in an interactive and improvised play.  The dinner table is where we learn to turn the seriousness of our day to day into the lightness of human interaction.