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Modern Life: The genius of America

The fact that our American democracy has lasted for nearly two and a half centuries a justifiable source of deep national pride. Our way of life is the envy of world. It’s easy to conclude that our success can be transplanted to other countries. If a nation is ruled by despots, we’re certain that a democratic revolution is the key to escaping the tyrant’s grasp.

Occasionally the United States has attempted to install democracies in other nations. But few, if any, have been successful in the long run.

If the simple idea of democracy was enough to guarantee the success of a struggling nation, then the success of our country would be replicated throughout the world. To state the obvious, this hasn’t happened.

There is a genius in America that is not widely understood in the rest of the world. Over the last decade or so, I fear that even we are losing sight of the cause of our greatness.

The solution is not found in more stern-faced flag waving, or in insisting that personal religious beliefs can be successfully morphed into civil law. It’s both more simple and more complicated than that. The genius of America has always been our ability to reconcile two irreconcilable traits: a strong and stubborn sense of individuality, coupled with the ability to find compromise in our differences to achieve the greater public good.

Individuality and compromise are, at best, uneasy bedfellows. In America there will always be tension between holding fast to our individual beliefs and coming together as people of goodwill to find ways to solve problems that leave all parties with a sense of mutual success.

But despite the inevitable tension, somehow in America we’ve made it work—from Washington all the way down to the neighbor over the fence. The American ability to reconcile what on the surface is irreconcilable is the genius that continues to make us the beacon of hope in a darkened world.

Others have tried to copy us and failed. My concern is that today we are failing ourselves.

Last October Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the court’s most reliably conservative voices, spoke about leaders of both parties who seem incapable of compromise, and the impact of their impasse on those they govern. “We have decided,” he said, “that rather than confronting the disagreements and the differences of opinion, we’ll just simply annihilate the person who disagrees with us. I don’t think that’s going to work in a republic or in a civil society.”

And yet the articles of faith of modern politics continue to harden in the concrete of public discourse, as practiced by both sides of the political spectrum: Compromise is weakness. Complexity confuses. Preach unity, but promote division. As a citizen, you are not only entitled to your own opinion, but to your own set of facts. Since opponents are by definition immoral, the use of immoral tactics to defeat them is morally permissible.

And finally, the bedrock belief that has now been preached for a generation by many modern journalists in their cynical effort to increase their own audience: Journalistic objectivity is impossible. Any journalist claiming to be objective is lying, and therefore cannot be trusted. Give your trust to those you can rely on to reinforce your own opinions, instead of seeking a wider view of the complex challenges facing us.

It seems to me that we are best served as a society when we can display the genius which has made us the greatest nation on earth for nearly 250 years. We are individuals, yet part of a whole. We enjoy working alone, but we understand that we must work together or we will likely fall. And we must be able to collective agree that people with whom we disagree are not necessarily stupid, blind, or morally corrupt.

It’s that house divided thing suggested by Abraham Lincoln back in the day. But then again, Abe was always pretty old school. These days I wonder if he’d get airtime on either Fox News or CNN. All that compromise talk doesn’t really play to the base, y’know?

Krauthammer: Why do they even play the game?

WASHINGTON — In mathematics, when you’re convinced of some eternal truth but can’t quite prove it, you offer it as a hypothesis (with a portentous capital H) and invite the world, future generations if need be, to prove you right or wrong. Often, a cash prize is attached.

In that spirit, but without the cash, I offer the Krauthammer Conjecture: In sports, the pleasure of winning is less than the pain of losing. By any Benthamite pleasure/pain calculation, the sum is less than zero. A net negative of suffering. Which makes you wonder why anybody plays at all.

Winning is great. You get to hoot and holler, hoist the trophy, shower in champagne, ride the open parade car and boycott the White House victory ceremony (choose your cause).

But, as most who have engaged in competitive sports know, there’s nothing to match the amplitude of emotion brought by losing. When the Cleveland Cavaliers lost the 2015 NBA Finals to Golden State, LeBron James sat motionless in the locker room, staring straight ahead, still wearing his game jersey, for 45 minutes after the final buzzer.

Here was a guy immensely wealthy, widely admired, at the peak of his powers — yet stricken, inconsolable. So it was for Ralph Branca, who gave up Bobby Thomson’s shot heard ‘round the world in 1951. So too for Royals shortstop Freddie Patek, a (literal) picture of dejection sitting alone in the dugout with his head down after his team lost the 1977 pennant to the New York Yankees.

In 1986, the “Today Show” commemorated the 30th anniversary of Don Larsen pitching the only perfect game in World Series history. They invited Larsen and his battery mate, Yogi Berra. And Dale Mitchell, the man who made the last out. Mitchell was not amused. “I ain’t flying 2,000 miles to talk about striking out,” he fumed. And anyway, the called third strike was high and outside. It had been 30 years and Mitchell was still mad. (Justly so. Even the Yankee fielders acknowledged that the final pitch was outside the strike zone.)

For every moment of triumph, there is an unequal and opposite feeling of despair. Take that iconic photograph of Muhammad Ali standing triumphantly over the prostrate, semiconscious wreckage of Sonny Liston. Great photo. Now think of Liston. Do the pleasure/pain calculus.

And we are talking here about professional athletes — not even the legions of Little Leaguers, freshly eliminated from the playoffs, sobbing and sniffling their way home, assuaged only by gallons of Baskin-Robbins.

Any parent can attest to the Krauthammer Conjecture. What surprises is how often it applies to battle-hardened professionals making millions.

I don’t feel sorry for them. They can drown their sorrows in the Olympic-sized infinity pool that graces their Florida estate. (No state income tax.) I am merely fascinated that, despite their other substantial compensations, some of them really do care. Most interestingly, often the very best.

Max Scherzer, ace pitcher for the Washington Nationals, makes $30 million a year. On the mound, forget the money. His will to win is scary. Every time he registers a strikeout, he stalks off the mound, circling, head down, as if he’s just brought down a mastodon.

On June 6, tiring as he approached victory, he began growling — yes, like a hungry tiger — at Chase Utley as he came to the plate. “It was beautiful,” was the headline of the blog entry by The Washington Post’s Scott Allen.

When Scherzer gets like that, managers are actually afraid to go out and tell him he’s done. He goes Mad Max. In one such instance last year, as Scherzer labored, manager Dusty Baker came out to the mound. Scherzer glared.

“He asked me how I was feeling,” Scherzer recounted, “and I said I still feel strong ... I still got one more hitter in me.”

Asked Baker, demanding visual confirmation: “Which eye should I look at?”

Scherzer, who famously has one blue and one brown eye, shot back: “Look in the [expletive] brown eye!”

“That’s the pitching one,” he jokingly told reporters after the game.

Baker left him in.

After losing her first ever UFC match, mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey confessed that she was in the corner of the medical room, “literally sitting there thinking about killing myself. In that exact second, I’m like, ‘I’m nothing.’” It doesn’t get lower than that.

Said Vince Lombardi, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” To which I add — conjecture — yes, but losing is worse.