Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
— Henry VI, Act 1, scene 2
Yes, I used to know my Shakespeare, back when I believed such ‘fancy’ stuff like that made a lick of difference in this world. I was younger then. Bright eyed and bushy tailed. Hopelessly naïve. The real world had not yet set me on the more adult path of bitterness, despair and pitiful, pitiful acceptance of the ho-hum humdrum.
But I do remember this particular passage. Not so much the words themselves as the sentiment, the conceit. I am reminded of it often these days, watching in disbelief the antics of the low grade politicians that call themselves ‘conservatives’.
When the realization of their victory begins to sink in, whether in its inevitability running up to an election or in the hazy daze of their improbable win, we like to take comfort and soothe ourselves in the belief that, well, it won’t be so bad. They were just saying all that to get elected. Once in office, reality will set in. They’ll have to compromise. After all, we didn’t elect a king! This isn’t Russia. Is this Russia? This isn’t Russia.
It is the lowered bar of expectations. Not a question of how good they will be but how bad they won’t be. By anticipating the worst, we are, if not pleasantly surprised when that doesn’t come to pass, relieved at least that the world didn’t blow up or the institutions of governance remain functioning even at a diminished capacity. The sun still rises and the birds continue to sing.
The one big difference, however, between our modern day conservatives and the Bard’s heroic man who would be king, Hal, is that the fictional prince actually cleared the bar, spectacularly so, much to the woe of Hotspur and, ultimately, the French at Agincourt. This story shall the good man teach his son/And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by/From this day to the ending of the world/But we in it shall be remembered/We few, we happy few, we band of brothers… And gentlemen in England now-a-bed/Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here/And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
By the time Prince Harry became King Henry, his sordid youth, his delinquent past, those low expectations served only as a counterweight, a compare and contrast to the glorious achievements he would attain once he stepped out from behind “…the base contagious clouds…” that did “…smother up his beauty from the world…” and broke “…through the foul and ugly mists/Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.” Hoo-rah! Long live the King!
Conservatives these days never intend to clear that bar. They simply bull through, knocking it off its posts and insist on lowering it ever so slightly, incrementally so, to make another anemic attempt to hoist themselves awkwardly over it. We can survive the occasional misadventure but a steady stream of deliberate failures weakens us little by little, bit by bit.
In this rigged set-up, only the politicians and leaders who aim higher and exhort us to believe in the possibility of positive, inclusive change are the ones that flame out spectacularly. We expected so much. They promised us the moon but failed to deliver. Sure, we might be better off than when we started. But you promised us the moon.
Our conservatives suffer under no such illusions of grandeur. We expect the worst and appreciate it when that doesn’t actually come to pass. Oh well, we shrug. It’s bad, sure. But it could’ve been a whole lot worse. We sink back into a funk and seem content when we’re informed that we no longer want politicians who offer up grand visions or designs.
From Hal to Homer we’ve traveled. Homer Simpson that is, not the Odyssey Homer. “Trying is the first step to failure.” It is the mantra of the conservative movement. Hey. We can’t do anything for you. Stop thinking we can. Elect me. So we do and the sad fact is, we are never disappointed.