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15/May/2006 | 02:02

Our Common and Continual Mischiefs

I've got this quote lodged in my head lately. It's not a song lyric or something Morgan Freeman said in a movie; it's a philosophy that seems to have been lost over the years since the quote was born.

Context is a driving factor in the adoption and evolution of language: the idiomatic is rooted in context, dialects are almost meta-contexts, and phrases that find themselves in the same context frequently can suddenly adopt additional standard meanings. Context drives and shapes meaning in living languages. The more I thought about it, the more I could see that the quote might have a different meaning out of context. Without any labels or encapsulating concept, what would it mean to different people?

More importantly, I knew the true context of the quote and wanted to see if the answers people might give would have a reflection on the actual meaning.

I placed the quote in the hands of my friends and asked them a simple question:

"What is this person talking about?"

I didn't inform anyone of the other participants' hypotheses, and I made sure to prefix the quote with the comfort that there were no "wrong" answers. I specifically asked them not to use Google or any other search engine or reference material, and I'm pretty certain they obliged me, as no one got it "correct".

First, the quote:

"It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another; foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passion. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another."

Second, the replies:

Finally, the context:

In 1796, George Washington was completing his second term in the office of the President, and when faced with the decision whether or not to run for a third, he declined. In his farewell address to the country—which was actually a letter[1] published in The Independent Chronicle and The American Daily Advertiser, not given as a speech—he outlined his reasons for not running again, acknowledged his debt to the country and its citizens, and spoke of the wisdom he had gained during his years as the infant nation's President.

What was on George Washington's mind when he penned this part of his farewell address was not religion or foreign occupation. George Washington was warning the country, its citizens and leaders, about what he believed was a much greater threat to the nation he fought for and led.

Let's put the quote back into context.

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party, generally.

[. . .]

It serves always to distract the Public Councils, and enfeeble the Public Administration. It agitates the Community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms; kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

George Washington was asking us to be wary of letting political parties become entrenched into the function and design of the state; while it is in our nature to describe ourselves with popular labels and identify with them, do not let your political, social, and moral leanings become determined by the agenda of another group with whom you identify, lest you be left at the whim of those in power above you.

As I say more abrasively, "Party lines are for people who can't think for themselves." I'm not nearly as eloquent as Washington was, and I suppose my point differs a bit from his.

Don't Breathe or You Might Skew the Statistics

What have I proven here? Nothing. I write this under no pretenses of having discovered anything of utility or practical significance. The results of my wildly unscientific poll are completely interpretive and with a set of flaws nearly as large as the country's current political party climate itself.

I do, however, find it interesting. Clearly, it interests me enough to write about it here. Of the responses I got, 40% associated it with religion in some fashion. That's a fairly significant segment of the response pie, and worth pondering. Does it say something negative about religion, or does it imply political parties are indistinguishable from religion when removed from context? Both? Could correlations and relationships be drawn between the answers I received, irrespective of the quote and its "correct" context?

In reality, yes and no to all of the above. As a distraction, yes, these are all valid contemplations—but as the sample set lacks any sort of quantitative value, it's factually meaningless. I sampled ten people I already knew, and no more, which doesn't provide enough data to dissect deeply into the subject matter. What's more, they're my friends, and not random samplings.

It's interesting think about, as long as you don't take it out of context.

[1] The full text of Washington's farewell address can be read here:

http://www.earlyamerica.com/earlyamerica/milestones/farewell/text.html

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