“We hold these truths”

My Dear Plato,

Do I discern a note of biographical reflection in your recent reference to “a sassy woman?” Indeed we are all beneficiaries of those whom Aristotle described as a unique and different creation from that of man, and though in our egalitarian society on this side of the great aquatic divide many would dispute the sage’s insight, I personally think that there just might be a rather large germ of truth in what the old man said.

Being Greek of course, you are much more versed in such reflections than am I, a modern-day Roman in a Republic which was founded on the notion of equality, a concept enshrined by Thomas Jefferson in the 1776
Declaration of Independence from your great nation ruled by George the Third.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, (the first being) “that all men are created equal.”

So wrote this slave owner of the South who was surely not referring to African-Americans, women, Native Americans, Hispanics, or anyone else not of White Anglo-Saxon descent. It goes without saying that the subsequent history of this land has been defined by a continuing struggle over just what these words mean, and how that meaning ought to be applied in the varying circumstances of national life which have transpired over the rather limited years of our existence. Racism has always been, and may well always be, the Achilles heal of America’s positive influence in the world; a cancer which has metastasized into every aspect of the body-politic as well as the social and economic fabric of everyday life.

We are not alone in this illness as can be clearly seen by recent events around the world, but our long history of slavery has rendered our struggle with racism to be far more intense and destructive.

Equality in the penal system, equality in the economic sphere, equality in educational opportunity, equality in health care; indeed, equality in the perception of common humanity: such equality is still illusive in our White-dominated society. In a word, while egalitarianism has severe limits in reality, we like to think of ourselves as a community of equals with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.

Which brings me to the royal couple, Meghan and Harry. You realize, my dear Plato, that Meghan is a California gal, raised in L.A., and an attendee of Northwestern University which is not known to be a bastion of conservative thought. Yes, she is bi-racial, and thus in this country as well as yours, defined as Black. And yes, as Black, she has surely experienced the racial discrimination which inevitably falls upon those of color. But I would presume that such experiences have only deepened her intense desire for the full equality enshrined in Jefferson’s immortal words, a desire which can be discerned from her earliest years directing her into the Feminist Movement.

In a word, dear Plato, Meghan is an American, and as such, one who assumes independence of thought and action. Clearly this does not fit in well with the Royal Firm where obedience and loyalty to duty are the hallmarks. I do recall that the last time that a Royal married an American, there was something of a similar step away from the imposed obligations of Royal rule. We are quite unmanageable you see, especially when others seek to direct our lives. Oh yes, we love Royalty (especially since we don’t have to pay for them), but we love them primarily as just another group of celebrities whom we, along with our own version of tabloid press, will hound and abuse to our heart’s content. I fear that Meghan and Harry will therefore never fully realize the good which they seek by their latest action. But I wish them well as I know you do also.

In response to your desire for further exposure to our humble literary offerings, I will send this site on to a few of my friends who I hope will find it to be of some interest. Unfortunately, letters are not much in vogue these days, but let us press on against the “windmill” of popular neglect. Cato

Lese Majeste

Dear Cato,

I do very much take your point about the seriousness of the present times and thus the need to give this due weight in our commentaries. However, perhaps there is still a place for gallows humour ? I believe it may be eminently necessary given the current world situation and, on a less than global scale, the present froth and lather whipped up by the tabloid press over the Meghan and Harry imbroglio here in the UK !

Stepping back, I do wonder what makes ardent monarchists tick ? There seems to be among them an almost mystical, blind and unquestioning faith in the institution of the monarchy. This was evidenced by a very dear friend – who passed away about three years ago – who spent much of his life serving the aristocracy as a gamekeeper; latterly on an estate where we lived next door to him in a rented cottage for a few years. Apart from his all round goodness and fun as a human being, one of his claims to fame was having taught Prince Charles to shoot (or, at least, having tried to !)

His view on the monarchy, nay, on all the aristocracy, was that we ordinary mortals could not fathom their ways but should merely shake our heads at their antics and eccentricities. History and tradition was enough for Bob; in spite of my best endeavours, he had an unshaken belief in the unbroken line of succession spreading back to an ethereal past peopled by men and women of true distinction and wisdom. I did try my best to point out that this this almost ubermensch analysis tended to ignore a multitude of acts down the years (fratricide, regicide, invasion, illegitimate accession, coup d`etat) that rendered the purity of the line somewhat questionable. As far as he was concerned, it was still “the rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate”.

I say all this in light of the current hysteria sweeping the United Kingdom – a dubious title given the current state of affairs – concerning Meghan and Harry. In my humble opinion, the Royal Family has for many years remained an overblown, overstaffed and increasingly marginalised institution. Rarely has the Monarchy made changes unless they have been forced upon it; thus in the wake of Diana`s death a more empathetic and human face began to be shown, albeit somewhat reluctantly. Perhaps now, with Meghan and Harry, we begin to see another sea change. For my part, I say good luck to them. We are really the last of the European royal households to try to adopt a more contemporary and relevant role. The Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Andorra and Belgium have all transitioned reasonably well to a functioning constitutional democracy without the vast entourages that currently accompany the House of Windsor.

I see Harry and Meghan as a decent couple, no better, and certainly no worse than the rest of us, trying to carve out a life for themselves in what are actually quite difficult circumstances. I am certain that the extent of the media coverage is not fully appreciated across the pond. The tabloid press over here is absolutely vile. It is relentless, it is invasive, it assumes a sense of ownership over the lives of those it chooses to headline which it has absolutely no right to do and it presumes to set a national agenda which is frankly completely at odds with the true everyday cares and concerns of the vast majority of the population. The royal couple are seen as a commodity and there are truly disgusting racist and biased overtones to much of the commentary accompanying the media coverage.

I would rather see a considerably slimmed down and modernised monarchy and one that does not attract such a centre stage for our attention. In the meantime, I say, good on you Harry, you won`t be the first buttoned up man saved by the intervention of a good (that is to say, sassy) woman.



Into the New Decade

My Dear Plato:

I realise that you wished to include humour in our correspondence, yet the recent actions of the so-called “President” of this Republic must surely preclude any such levity. Through his reckless action, he has sown the seeds of war which I rather suspect will produce a harvest of violence that will not soon recede in memory. One thinks of past rationalisations such as the Gulf of Tonkin in Vietnam or the weapons of mass destruction supposedly in Iraq, and the doubts begin to arise when told of “imminent attacks” planned by the late Iranian general recently “taken out” by the “flawless” drone attack.

One should remember that the last time the United States assassinated a similar figure was in 1943 when P-38 war planes intercepted Admiral Yamamoto during an inspection tour in the Pacific. Of course the difference between that action (somewhat questionable in itself) and the current killing is that we were then in a declared war with the Empire of Japan. Clearly such is not the case (as yet) with Iran. Questions of international legality thus arise, accompanied of course with other concerns such as morality, Constitutional protocol, or simply the stupidity of such impulsive behavior accompanied with apparently so little concern for consequences.

If ever there was convincing evidence that the current occupant of the Office of President is unfit to hold that position, this latest decision on his part shines forth in any court of reason. My namesake of over two millennia ago struggled to see the Republic of Rome maintained in the face of rising dictatorship. We in this country have at least a chance to succeed where he ultimately failed. We can still vote. It may well be that in the future (assuming we have one), historians will look back at 2020 as the crucial year in determining whether democracy would survive in this land of such promise.

No, my dear Plato, as we enter yet another dark tunnel of conflict and human suffering, it is clear that any attempt at humour would be in the same league of taste as that conveyed the President in so many of his mindless tweets. I do of course wish you and any who grant us the courtesy of reading this brief missive, the very best in the New Year with the sincerest wish that the commonality of the human condition will cause reflection and good will to triumph over the forces of fear and animosity.


The Discomfort of Thought

Dear Cato,

Thank you for your clear exposition on the American frontier as the defining myth in the USA. I suspect we may well agree on a couple of further current myths; one perpetrated on your side of the pond that says you should “Make America Great Again” is, I suggest, almost a mirror image of the other over here in the United Kingdom that we should “Take Back Control”.

You will forgive me if I leave you to an analysis of the MAGA soundbite and focus myself instead on some of the intellectually lazy and questionable apothegms currently doing the rounds in the three ring circus that represents electioneering activity here in the UK.
Of course, one cannot separate debate about Brexit from the general menu of competing promises offered by the main political parties, hence any argument on any topic seems inevitably to return to the dreaded `B` word !

But to the myth itself. Taking Back Control, or it`s single word equivalent – and conveniently vague cousin – `Sovereignty`. This was always only a thin veil draped inadequately over the blowsy realities of globalisation and inter dependence. Sovereignty might carry faint echoes of the Empire on which “the sun never sets” and stir some kind of drumbeat patriotism among those disaffected sections of our population who are only to ready to lay blame for the country`s ills at the feet of “Johnny Foreigner” but that was then. The far more distasteful contemporary manifestation of that bigoted viewpoint is far less nuanced, not to say overtly racist. Hence the fake news posters put out by the Brexit party before the 2016 referendum showing queues of mostly non-white refugees crossing the Croatia/Slovenia border in 2015 but purporting to represent the unrestricted influx of immigrants from the EU into the UK.

The Tories over here are not immune to using the race card either with promises that Health Service waiting lists will be miraculously cured if only those pesky immigrants can be prevented from taking up `our` medical resources. Of course, the inconvenient fact that the NHS would collapse if all `immigrants` currently working in it and for it were to leave seems to have escaped such critics.

Of course, this is the besetting problem of fake news on all sides. It has completely debased the hard currency of factual information and that, my friend, is the real danger. `Taking Back Control` is perhaps the ultimate shibboleth. As far as the man in the street is concerned, the reality should be that Parliament still makes its own laws, pursues justice through its own courts, grows curly cucumbers, whether or not approved by Brussels, and otherwise exists on a daily basis in pretty much complete ignorance of the EU and its machinations. However, if we are told untruths often enough, as the 2016 Presidential Election and the Brexit referendum has shown us, then those who would shape political discourse for their own ends will succeed in reaffirming the views of those who are only too happy to be confirmed in their particular – and jaundiced – point of view.

Remember that quote from JFK ? Here it is in its entirety and I do believe it says it all.

“The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie–deliberate, contrived and dishonest–but the myth–persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought”

Wish us luck on December 12th. Until the next time,



Across the Pond

My Dear Plato:
Allow me to begin by informing our readers of my actual age; would that I were 76, but alas the truth is that I’m actually 79. I trust that this disclosure will not negatively determine how my thoughts are received. Senility may indeed be closing in, but as of now it remains but a possibility as I journey towards the inevitable.

I confess great pleasure at your gracious invitation to be a part of this experiment in mutual understanding between our two great nations: we whose common language and historical roots should make us culturally quite similar, though of course nothing could be further from the truth. We who in a former time were described by you folks as “over payed, over sexed, and over here” have long since developed into an altogether different sort of creature: a “new man” as it were: an American, with all of the vices and virtues adhering thereto, and which are daily displayed through global media for all the world to see and ponder.

One must ask the obvious question: what were the causes of this transformation, and why do they continue to exert such influence even though the original realities from which they sprang no longer exist? In seeking an answer, my dear Plato, it is well for us to remember that oft-repeated observation that, whereas for those of the “Old World” it is “Time” (or “History” if you prefer) which is the primary myth of social identity, here in the “New” it is the concept of “Space” which is the determining factor.

Until the treaty which brought the Revolutionary War (or War of Rebellion if you prefer) to a close, the thirteen original colonies were confined to a rather narrow strip along the Atlantic Coast and west to the Allegheny Mountains. But with Adam’s threat of further conflict if demands were not met, Britain reluctantly conceded the land to the northwest commonly referred to as “Ohio” all the way to the Mississippi River.

This land had originally been set aside for Native Americans by your good King George the Third, but even prior to the Revolution, George Washington and a number of other Founding Fathers had already laid claim to vast acreage of this “unsettled territory;” unsettled that is, by good white yeoman of Anglo-Saxon stock; and thus the concept of “frontier” came into being; a progressive movement westward across the continent which would not end until the close of the nineteenth century.

This mythic movement was a determining factor in how Americans view themselves and the world around them. On the more positive side, the frontier offered new beginnings for those in the grip of failure and frustration, thus instilling a sense of optimism and the idea that here, unlike the Old World, the individual could progress far beyond the limitations of background if determined to do so. What one did became the measure of a man rather than the social class into which one was born. Self-reliance, risk taking, and hard work: these were the virtues which the frontier instilled in the American psyche, and which even today inform how we like to think of ourselves.

But there were negative ramifications to the frontier as well, the primary one being that frontier land was already occupied by those whose culture was quite different from that of the so-called “Pioneers.” Further, it was assumed that the differences were such as to preclude any genuine and lasting co-existence. Thus there were only two options: assimilation on the part of Native Americans into the predominant White culture, or removal by force into more remote land to the West.

The former, though adopted by some tribes, was never truly given a chance as President Jackson’s policy towards the Cherokees made clear. The latter led to unending conflict which cleared ever-new land for settlement and culminated in the establishment of reservations into which the surviving native population was forced to enter. They remain to this day. To so relate to others, the “others” must not only be thought of as different, but also as “less,” and therefore fear induced racism became a fundamental aspect of the frontier, a racism aimed not only at Native Americans, but which also included Mexicans in the Southwest, and Blacks whose owners sought out new land upon which to work their slaves.

Racism, of course, is not unique to America, but its presence is ubiquitous in forming attitudes towards any whose “otherness” is determined to be a threat, be they from Africa, Asia, South America, or wherever. Other negative ramifications of the frontier include such matters as a propensity towards violence which views the military as the primary mover in international relations, a focus on gun ownership which your fair land (along with most others) finds to be totally incomprehensible, and a distrust of authority which in any manner may impinge upon “rights,” especially if that impingement comes from the Federal Government.

I believe it to be not too simplistic, my dear Plato, to say that the frontier was the determining reality in American self-understanding. But the myth of the frontier is just that: a myth. It no longer exists, though a number of efforts have been made to re-define it in other ways such as the “frontier” of global business, or the “frontier”of science and space, or even in the naming of a truck model as a “Frontier.”

But none of these efforts are sufficient to inform national identity, and thus the present crisis in this country concerning who we are, what are our values, and where should we go in the future. The frontier in terms of land has been gone for over a hundred years, yet it has not been replaced by any other formative myth. And so we flounder as can be clearly seen in our present political and cultural divisions which do not bode well for our Republic. As for the future, the “jury is still out,” as they say. I hope that when they return, the verdict will be a positive one.
With fondest regards to you and our readers,