Have you noticed people use numbers in very limited ways, a grocery store, a sporting event or a political contest? If I tell you that a 10 ounce can of beans costs 48¢ per can but that an 18 ounce can is spotlighted on sale for $1.18 per can, you will laugh at the store’s ploy. When you hear that a batter is currently 3 and 2, with 2 outs, in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tied game with one man on base, you want to see that next pitch. Illinois has 104 counties. In the election for governor in 2010, the incumbent lost 100 counties and gained majorities in only 4 counties. He remains the lawfully elected governor. You shake your head without questioning the numbers of actual voters in each county and the total number of candidates for that office.
Words have meaning, often precise. Numbers have value. Because numbers are tossed around in political campaigns like dollars, because they are used to confirm or question received opinions, does not negate actual values. Rather it led Mark Twain to quip that there are three kinds of lie: lies, damned lies and statistics.
A 2 by 4 is not a 2 by 6, and neither measures quite its definition in dimensional lumber. Financial indebtedness may be unfortunate and moral equivalence may be politically expedient, but moral bankruptcy is inexcusable in individuals or political parties and deadly in states or nations. A nation’s treasury does not exist to be plundered by a mob, a party or a cabal. A people’s historic aspirations may bend and twist in an atmosphere of deceit but history teaches us that those aspirations likely return, sometimes with a vengeance.
A ‘conservative’ today is not likely to be the Burke ideal of one who understands that human perfectibility is not possible, that no single person, institution or government can comprehend this world in its entirety and so insists on thoughtful, deliberate and incremental actions to preserve genuine personal liberty. To the contrary, American ‘conservatives’ delight in righteous certitudes, answers without questions, and demand sweeping changes as they whisper – or shout – fears of ‘not white’, ‘not rich’, ‘not us’. “React to gain power” has become their mantra instead of “Govern to conserve.”
A ‘liberal’ in this country today has likely shed his radical perspective along with his belief in progressive redemption for packaged cliches. In the fear of losing whatever they have, ‘liberals’ cower behind their cliches ceding social justice to chance. A ‘liberal’ who advocates real progress in social policy may be as rare as dinosaur eggs.
The two major political parties campaign to the ‘center’, presumably those voters for whom pragmatism trumps ideology, and govern to ideologues. (http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/12467-five-easy-post-election-predictions-no-matter-who-wins) The real distinction in party has become the speed with which respective knees hit the carpet when big money comes to call. In these circumstances liberty succumbs to the definitions of the mob, justice whores itself to the highest bidder, rancor increases and vengeance seems fate.
If words give rise to ideas which can enslave or liberate us, numbers provide weight and keep us rooted. To use either without precision and accuracy invites that very bankruptcy which destroys. Yeats sang this to us:
- Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
- Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
- The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
- The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
- The best lack all conviction, while the worst
- Are full of passionate intensity.