Episode 28: Advice from a Dead Guy

Last episode, we shed some tears with John Lewis, over the senseless death of his son in Iraq. We will visit John again in the weeks ahead. But for right now, we have other, happier, business to attend to.

The Last Chance Democracy Café
Episode 28: Advice from a Dead Guy

by Steven C. Day

With Winston’s permission, I want to share with you a letter he’s written to his one-year-old granddaughter, Emily, to be given to her on the occasion of her twenty-second birthday.

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Dear Emily,

Odds are good that I’ll be dead when you read this, which is alright. Dying is no disgrace. Everybody who’s anybody does it. Abraham Lincoln died. So did Babe Ruth, John the Baptist and Jack Benny. The Marxes all did their part — Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, Zeppo and, of course, Karl. Dead as a doorknob, every one. Roy Rogers died. So did his horse, Trigger.

They stuffed him afterwards, you know — the horse, not Roy.

This then, is my first piece of advice to you Emily: Don’t worry too much about death. Dying is easy. Living through George W. Bush winning a second term is hard.

There’s a small chance, of course, I’ll still be alive when you read this. I’ve asked your parents to give you this letter when you turn 22, which should be about the time you graduate from college. You just turned one-year-old and I’m 73, so that would make me 94 then. I’ll confess I sort of like the thought that I could still be around. It appeals to my innate sense of injustice: Every dedicated jogger and health food fanatic in my circle will be dead and gone, but there I’ll be, still chugging along, 60 pounds overweight and surviving on a diet of burgers, ribs, steaks and bourbon.

Come to think of it that could make a dandy parable for Bill Bennett to use in the next edition of The Book of Virtues. He could put it right next to the new chapter, “The Moralist’s Guide to Winning at Slots.” Of course, you’ve probably never heard of Bennett. Here’s my second piece of advice: Don’t bother looking him up. He’s old news even today.

There’s another possibility, of course. It may be that by the time you read this, not only will I have died, but I’ll have done so such a long time ago that you’ll have little or no memory of me. Just in case, I’ve enclosed a photograph of the two of us together at your birthday party last week. That’s you, wearing the red party dress, throwing the birthday cake at the old fart sitting next to you. I’m the old fart, your grandfather. You’ll be happy to know, you scored a direct hit.

Our family has a long and proud tradition of producing at least one genuine rebel every two generations. I was the last one, although my rebelliousness didn’t fully take form until after I retired from the bench. Unless I miss my bet, you’re going to be the next one. I’m convinced that your recent cake throwing caper wasn’t a fluke, but was a whisper of rebellious shouts yet to come. If so, then you and I will have a lot in common — two peas who choose not to fit into the pod. And it’s only fitting, therefore, that I should share with you a few of my thoughts on the fine art of being a royal pain in the ass to the powers that be (and a few other things, as well).

Emily, I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that when you look at the world around you, you’ll see a good deal that needs to be rebelled against. And, I regret to say, a big part of the blame for that probably rests with decisions we are making today. I can’t explain it, really. There’s no debating that people today truly and deeply love their children and grandchildren. Yet, when it comes to our actions, we seem to care more about our own comfort, than about your futures. We cut our taxes, especially those of the wealthiest among us, to an outrageous degree, then pass the bill onto you. We act recklessly and arrogantly in our dealings with the rest of the world, leaving you to deal with a legacy of hatred. We ignore the degradation of our natural environment and then drop the whole mess into your laps, possibly when it’s already too late to undo the damage.

Who could blame you if you were furious at us? Please do know, however, that many of us did try to fight for you. But in the end, it wasn’t enough and for that I am truly sorry.

But I’m not writing this letter to apologize. I’m writing it to preach. So here, for whatever it’s worth, is my grandfatherly advice to you.

Never hate. Just get pissed off a lot.

Never, ever, not even once in your life, refer to dead or maimed children as collateral damage.

Never buy an article of clothing that has the name of a store or other commercial enterprise on it. Only a sap forks over good money for the privilege of becoming a human billboard.

Try to have the heart of Gandhi, but the head of Machiavelli.

Be nice to your family, even if they don’t deserve it. As someone once said, you get to choose your friends, but you’re stuck with your relatives. Make the best of it.

It’s okay to marry a Republican if you really, really love him. But make sure he signs a prenuptial agreement that the children will be raised as Democrats.

Never forget this: In the long view of history, most of the things we spend our time arguing about won’t even make the footnotes. So in deciding which fights are most important, think about how you would want America to be remembered in some far distant epoch. Which issues, if it were up to you, would you want to have define us as a nation? Outlawing gay marriage? Banning flag burning?

Both of these are, of course, proposals to amend the Constitution of the United States. And I have to wonder: Do these people have any sense at all of the degree of the blasphemy they’re committing? Make no mistake — the Constitution of the United States, and most particularly, the Bill of Rights, represents something sacred — our nation’s greatest achievement. Not just the fact we adopted them. The fact that for over 200 years we’ve actually lived them, not perfectly, but, most of the time, remarkably well.

No other nation in the history of the world had done that before. And if 1,000, or even 10,000, years from now, human beings, having perhaps migrated to the stars, look back at the great events in the history of our race, I have no doubt that the Constitution of the United States, and in particular, the Bill of Rights, will still be celebrated as being among the key events in the advance of human kind.

That’s the heritage bequeathed to us by those who came before. A heritage we will be throwing away, like yesterday’s newspaper, if ever we allow the small minded to amend the Constitution, so as to turn it into an instrument that restricts, rather than guarantees, the freedom of individuals. Fight them, Emily. Whatever else you do, fight them on this. And if, God forbid, we, in my day, fail to stop them, then in your day, fight to undo the damage.

Don’t take any shit from anybody. But be very careful how you define shit.

Don’t spend too much time thinking about sex. Sex can be wonderful. But, if at the end of your life you were to add up all of the hours, you’d almost certainly discover that you spent a lot more time washing dirty underwear than you did copulating. So keep it in perspective.

Always use an environmentally friendly detergent when washing your dirty underwear.

Respect your elders. Respect your youngers. Respect your contemporaries. In other words, try to respect just about everyone. The old song that says “What the world needs now is love sweet love” is a crock. What the world needs now is mutual respect. You don’t kill people you respect. And you don’t scoff and walk away when people you respect are going hungry, lack shelter or are otherwise suffering from the brutality of poverty.

Never spend more than five seconds in any one station at a salad bar. Take my word for it — the survival of Western Civilization doesn’t depend on whether you take three or four pieces of broccoli. And for all you know, the guy having the embolism behind you out of frustration over the delay, might just be a good Democrat. Save his life! Move along!

Anytime someone tells you that he or she is smart enough to decide when to start a war preemptively, run like hell.

Believe in God, or don’t believe in God. And if you’re a Christian, believe in a New Testament loving God, or in an Old Testament vengeful God. But whatever you believe, don’t be too certain you’re right.

Never forget this: The only thing predictable in war is suffering. Starting a war to achieve political ends, is like starting a forest fire to take down one sick tree. You may well get your tree, but you’ll get a lot of other things too. Once started, war takes on a life of its own, going places the original combatants never dreamed of. Do me a favor, Emily, and sometime, when you get a chance, read Barbara Tuchman’s book about World War I, The Guns of August.

As Tuchman demonstrates, at the beginning of the Great War, no one expected it to turn into the lengthy war of attrition it became, ultimately wiping out much of a generation of Europe’s young. As Tuchman noted, quoting D. H. Lawrence, “All the great words were cancelled out for that generation.”

But somehow humanity never learns. And so even as I write, the United States finds itself embroiled in a hopeless morass of our own making in Iraq. You have me at a disadvantage here, Emily. Presumably, you know, or at least can know, from history, how the war ended — how many Americans and Iraqis ultimately died in a vain tribute to the neoconservative crusade. All I can know in my time, is that the number is already far too high.

There are, of course, just wars. But they are rarer still than snowball fights at the equator.

Don’t be afraid to go to jail for a righteous cause.

Getting back at a former boyfriend isn’t a righteous cause.

Spoil your children a little.

Forgive freely. It costs you nothing.

Protest injustice. But don’t spend too much time participating in demonstrations. There’s only so much they can accomplish. It has been argued, in fact, that the anti-war protests of the Vietnam era may actually have lengthened the war by polarizing the population on the issue. So, by all means, get out there and protest. But, after you put away your protest signs, remember that the real work of organizing, political action and advocacy will have only just begun.

Subscribe to a daily paper, but question everything in it.

Never confuse revenge with justice. They have nothing to do with each other.

Beware of faux populism. Wal-Mart has done immense damage to our culture — not only by destroying the downtowns of hundreds of communities across America, but also by busting the wage scale almost everywhere it goes. It’s also become one of the biggest political contributors in the country, with 85 percent of the money going to Republicans. Detesting Wal-Mart isn’t just appropriate; it’s a clear sign of sanity.

But none of that means that in any particular case, when, say, a customer slips and falls in a store, it’s necessarily Wal-Mart’s fault. It may be. But it also may be that the customer simply wasn’t watching where he was going. Always rooting for the little guy against the big guy, regardless of the merits of the particular controversy, is faux populism, and it undercuts the credibility of the progressive movement.

Never take the insurance option on a rental car. It’s a rip-off.

Spoil yourself a little.

Try to avoid running up too much credit card debt. If Jesus were alive today, he’d pass right by the money changing tables and head directly to Bank One, Chase, Citibank and MBNA.

Never forget this: Freedom of speech is supposed to belong to everyone, not just to the wealthy. Right now, especially when it comes to economic issues, only one viewpoint is generally heard — the voice of the “greed is good” set. True, the rest of us have the constitutional right to scream into the wind: We just don’t get to be heard.

Freedom of Speech isn’t just a philosophical concept, or the embodiment of a poetic truth. It’s the juice that runs democracy. And when only one side gets to be heard, democracy doesn’t work.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist or an anti-globalization protester, to recognize the overwhelming power exercised by corporate money in the America of 2005. Corporate America owns the major news media lock, stock and barrel and is feeling increasingly free to use that ownership to control what news and commentary flows to the public – even in broadcasts traveling over the public airways. Protesting voices grow quieter every year.

Maybe all this will have changed by the time you read this. I hope so. We have now finally taken a few baby steps in the direction of building an alternative progressive media. But if not, fight for your share of the microphone, Emily. Fight for it like it’s your birthright, because it is.

Never talk during a movie, even an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.

Tip restaurant servers at least 20 percent. I have it on good authority that good tippers get an automatic pass into heaven.

If you possibly can, sponsor a child through an organization like Save the Children. By that single act, you guarantee that your life will have had meaning.

If you have a son, and he wants to play with a doll, let him. Don’t worry; it won’t turn him into a sissy. And if he wants to play with toy soldiers, let him do that too. It won’t make him a warmonger. I played soldier all the time as a child and I grew up to be four-fifths of a pacifist. And while we’re at it, try not to obsess too much over whether this or that thing you do is damaging your children. Love your kids with all your heart and do your best to keep them safe. Beyond that, it’s mostly just background noise anyway.

Watch It’s a Wonderful Life every Christmas. Cry like a baby every time.

Plant at least five trees during your life.

Donate blood. You get to save lives and score a free snack at the same time. Where else can you find a deal like that?

Never forget this: For a wealthy society, like ours, to allow millions of children to live in poverty, sometimes even going to bed hungry, is a sin. Somehow, we’ve allowed all of the morality to be stripped from our economic worldview.

John Edwards, the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 2004, has spoken repeatedly of there being two Americas. That state of affairs was certainly well in view last Christmas. You see, a funny thing happened during the Holiday shopping season. Some merchants, those carrying stocks appealing to highbrow/high dollar tastes, did a smashing business. On the other hand, department stores, and other merchants, appealing to the middle class and the poor, had an off-season. Two Americas: One with money to blow and the other barely getting by.

No surprise, really. A report from the Census Bureau, released earlier in 2004, demonstrated that the income gap between the rich and the rest of us has been growing over the last two decades. In 1973, the wealthiest 20 percent of households claimed 44 percent of total U.S. income. By 2002, their share had jumped to 50 percent, while every other group lost ground.

This growing inequality in the American economy is even more dramatically demonstrated by the distribution of wealth. As recently as 1976, the top one percent of households held a little less than 20 percent of the nation’s household wealth. Today that figure is in the range of 40 percent.

And it doesn’t take Albert Einstein to figure out that with increasing wealth comes increasing power. So year by year, our political process becomes ever more dominated by, and obsessed with the interests of, the wealthy.

How I would love to know today, what you’ll know 21 years from now when you read this letter. What’s become of this gross economic inequality? I can think of only three possibilities: First, the upward redistribution of the nation’s wealth may have continued unabated, which will mean that the United States has lost any semblance of being a functioning democracy, and has, instead, gone the way of plutocracy whole hog. Second, perhaps progressives finally got their act together and took back the country. Or, third, the excesses of greed eventually brought the economy tumbling down into another Great Depression, or similar economic catastrophe.

Whichever of these has proven to be true, Emily, stay in the fight for economic fairness. It’s the only road that will lead us back to greatness.

I could go on and on. But I’ll stop here.

Emily, I hope I lived long enough for you to know me. But if not, at least I lived long enough to know you. So even if you have no memory of me at all, know this: Your grandfather loved you and was proud of you.

And just one other suggestion: When someone offers you advice, always take it with a grain of salt.


The Dead Guy

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When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at [email protected].

© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001

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