Friday, September 25, 2009

Sound and Fury

This morning I almost drove off the road laughing at a piece on National Public Radio about a theatrical production called "Say It Ain't So Joe". This show is based on the vice presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden and puts their debate into song. The lyrics come almost verbatim from what they each said during the debate.

Once I recovered from laughing I thought about how so much of the political culture in America right now seems more theatrical than practical. I'm not mocking the millions of sincere souls who attempt to work the levers of democracy everyday to advance their aims. However, one has to admit that amongst the meaningful efforts at civic engagement and good governance there is a lot of just plain silliness that goes on. For example, perhaps someone should do an opera called "Pulling the Plug on Grandma" next.

Pondering this reminded me of a fascinating story from the childhood of Baha'u'llah that He has preserved for us in His Writings.

"When I was still a child and had not yet attained the age of maturity, My father made arrangments in Tihran for the marriage of one of My older brothers, and as is customary in that city, the festivities lasted for seven days and seven nights. On the last day it was announced that the play "Shah Sultan Salim" would be presented. A large number of princes, dignitaries, and notables of the capital gathered for the occasion. I was sitting in one of the upper rooms of the building and observing the scene. Presently a tent was pitched in the courtyard, and before long some small human-like figures, each appearing to be no more than about a hand's span in height, were seen to emerge from it and raise the call: "His Majesty is coming! Arrange the seats at once!" Other figures then came forth, some of whom were seen to be engaged in sweeping, others in sprinkling water, and thereafter another, who was announced as the chief town crier, raised his call and bade the people assemble for an audience with the king. Next, several groups of figures made their appearance and took their places, the first attired in hats and sashes after the Persian fashion, the second wielding battleaxes, and the third comprising a number of footmen and executioners carrying bastinados. Finally there appeared, arrayed in regal majesty and crowned with a royal diadem, a kingly figure, bearing himself with the utmost haughtiness and grandeur, at turns advancing and pausing in his progress, who proceeded with great solemnity, poise and dignity to seat himself upon his throne.

At that moment a volley of shots was fired, a fanfare of trumpets was sounded, and king and tent were enveloped in a pall of smoke. When it had cleared, the king, ensconced upon his throne, was seen surrounded by a suite of ministers, princes, and dignitaries of state who, having taken their places, were standing at attention in his presence. A captured thief was then brought before the king, who gave the order that the offender should be beheaded. Without a moment's delay the chief executioner cut off the thief's head, whence a blood-like liquid came forth. After this the king held audience with his court, during which intelligence was received that a rebellion had broken out on a certain frontier. Thereupon the king reviewed his troops and despatched several regiments supported by artillery to quell the uprising. A few moments later cannons were heard booming from behind the tent, and it was announced that a battle had been engaged.

This Youth regarded the scene with great amazement. When the royal audience was ended, the curtain was drawn, and, after some twenty minutes, a man emerged from behind the tent carrying a box under his arm.

"What is this box," I asked him, "and what was the nature of this display?"

"All this lavish display and these elaborate devices," he replied, "the king, the princes, and the ministers, their pomp and glory, their might and power, everything you saw, are now contained within this box."

I swear by My Lord Who, through a single word of His Mouth, hath brought into being all created things! Ever since that day, all the trappings of the world have seemed in the eyes of this Youth akin to that same spectacle. They have never been, nor will they ever be, of any weight and consequence, be it to the extent of a grain of mustard seed. How greatly I marveled that men should pride themselves upon such vanities, whilst those possessed of insight, ere they witness any evidence of human glory, perceive with certainty the inevitability of its waning. "Never have I looked upon any thing save that I have seen extinction before it; and God, verily, is a sufficient witness!"
(Baha'u'llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 165)

I wonder how much of what we watch on the news or read in the papers is "akin to that same spectacle" described by Baha'u'llah from that day in His childhood. How much energy is expended in pomp and posturing that does little to advance civilization or the soul? How much human striving is dissipated in the sound and fury of partisan bickering which bears nothing but bitter fruits? It is true that the absurdity of some of what passes for politics today is comedic, but it is also a bit tragic. We need more statecraft than stage craft, more problem solving than play acting. The needs of the hour demand it. Will our leaders deliver?