I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite pecs.
In his op-ed on Monday, David Brooks revisited the father of our country and paid wistful attention to the mythic figure's concern for dignity.
When George Washington was a young man, he copied out a list of 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior…." They were designed to improve inner morals by shaping the outward man. Washington took them very seriously…. In so doing, he turned himself into a new kind of hero. He wasn’t primarily a military hero or a political hero.
What kind of hero was Washington? Brooks adopts the words of a historian:
[Washington] "was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him off from other men."
To be a political or military hero, one need only win; to be a moral hero, one must seem worthy of the victory. By 1796, largely thanks to the efforts of Thomas Jefferson, the French neo-classical sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon had captured this dignity in stone:
Here the gentleman farmer and surveyor, the commander and citizen, stands erect with chin up and rests his left arm on a fasces, a symbol of the Roman republic. Washington's sword-bearing hand now guides a cane. His weapon, the sheathed sword of state, hangs opposite on the symbolic post. One can well envision this Washington declining to become emperor, as the story goes, and choosing instead to step down after his second term for the sake of this nascent democracy.
The conventional wisdom about George Washington is that he was all three: a great general, a beloved statesman, and a prudent, self-governing man. Nowadays, we still have victorious generals and accomplished politicians. But dignity, the quality that demonstrates wise self-regulation, has vanished from the scene:
…the dignity code itself has been completely obliterated. The rules that guided Washington and generations of people after him are simply gone.
Brooks mentions a few politicians who have become all too familiar to us in ways George Washington never was. He has a point; it is difficult to think of any figure in the public square who maintains that sort of dignity and commands that sort of respect. To find a suitable analog, we have to turn to contemporary fiction. Science fiction. Interlarded with heavy doses of science fantasy.
We have to turn to Admiral Adama from Battlestar Galactica. As the BattlestarWiki explains:
Adama has the rare combination of qualities that make up a good leader: insight, the ability to naturally command respect, a common touch that enables him to relate to the enlisted personnel under his command as well as his officers, intuition, intelligence, a strong belief in his own abilities, and the ability to take the advice of others. These qualities are reflected in the fact that personnel of all ranks aboard Galactica hold him in high regard….
Sure, Adama has his issues. However, he keeps them in his quarters and always presents a dignified face to his people. He believes that they deserve nothing less than a steady hand at the helm. And sure, there are those in his fictional world who question Adama. There are even some who rebel against him. But most are fiercely loyal to him. Even some sleeper agents planted in his crew by the enemy find his character so compelling that they choose to stand with him, come what may. This loyalty attaches neither to Adama's military victories nor his political maneuvers, but to his virtue. One close colleague explains the allegiance of Adama's people this way: "They're doing it for the old man!"
When it comes time to stir up dissent, Adama's insidious adversary, the community organizer Tom Zarek, compares Adama's return to that of a Greek god: "Zeus has returned to Olympus." The comparison is cynical. The gods are capricious, mad with power, and all too human; their dignity is a sham. Of course, in the world of Battlestar Galactica, most humans believe in these gods. The humans are hellenistic polytheists, while the robots and cyborgs are monotheists– an intriguing domain for thematic development in the series. So when Zarek compares Adama to Zeus, neither man believes in Zeus but both understand that most of Adama's followers do. Aiming to offend, Zarek implies that Adama is imperial rather than democratic, the de facto god of his people.
Here, the comparison between perceptions of the real George Washington and projections of the fictional William Adama becomes strained. For it was quite reasonable to present the founding fathers of the United States by way of Roman republican iconography that reinforces our most cherished political values, representative government and the rule of law. Right? But no crackpot would ever, ever compare Washington to Zeus. Certainly not in earnest. Certainly not in the form of a gigantic, fantastically expensive, state-commissioned sculpture intended for display in the nation's most hallowed halls. Right? RIGHT?!
The plot thickens, but I need a drink. Let's continue in a separate post.