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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Safety Net: Washington displayed integrity in face of power

Friday, February 23, 2007

My oldest daughter has suddenly renewed interest in several old favorites, the "Jurassic Park" books and movies, so for the past week we've been watching the movies in turn. Last night, Feb. 22, we were watching "Lost World," which is a very appropriate movie to watch on George Washington's birthday -- mainly because it reminds me of the book.

Those who are familiar only with the movie version might find the connection strained, but the movie veers well away from the events and ideas of the book; and, the book does have a Washingtonian hook. For those who are unfamiliar with the series, "Lost World" continues the adventures of scientists and kids thrown into the mix with cloned dinosaurs on a remote island.

The passage that relates to George Washington is brief and indirect, but it's one of the most memorable for me. One of the main characters, Ian Malcolm, has time for a moment of reflection between encounters with murderous velociraptors. He decides that even though the species would be violent in any case, the raptors on the island are wildly out of control. The problem is with their heritage: They haven't got one.

As cloned beings, none of the raptors had parents to teach them how to be raptors. They simply follow whatever impulses their genetic makeup has endowed them with, including a voracious appetite for humans.

Malcolm's judgment may be clouded some by the fact that he happens to be one of the humans on the menu, but I've always thought the point was valid nevertheless.

George Washington has long served as the great civilizer of this country. He's not a "founding father" only because he helped sire the nation but also because he has for most of its history been held up as the best example of the best of human behavior.

Marshall Police Chief Jim Simmerman recently told me about an interesting early work by a young Washington. By the time he was 16 he had penned "Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." The list is published in book form but a version can also be found on the Web. It's more interesting, instructive and entertaining than you might think.

Most remain good advice today, like "bedew no mans face with your Spittle, by approaching too near him when you Speak," "Put not off your Cloths in the presence of Others, nor go out your Chamber half Dressed" and "Being Set at meat Scratch not neither Spit Cough or blow your Nose except there's a Necessity for it." And people generally do a pretty good job complying with those rules, however degenerate we might think our society.

Others are more difficult and less strictly observed, like "Show not yourself glad at the Misfortune of another though he were your enemy" and "Use no Reproachful Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile." And I'm not sure it's humanly possible to adhere to "Be not Curious to Know the Affairs of Others neither approach those that Speak in Private" -- we are social animals, after all, and the affairs of others are intricately intertwined with our own.

Reading the whole list through, in fact, not only reveals good advice but a sense of impossible standards. The Web site introduction notes that the list may strike modern readers as "fussy." Most are almost excessively precise, attempting to arrange appropriateness of the smallest gesture or expression.

The introduction also indicates that there's no certainty Washington composed the list himself but may have been copying it as a penmanship exercise.

In any case, it is just a list. And it may be more of a curiosity than a practical guide (though we all might well take many of the rules to heart). What's most interesting to me is not whether Washington followed the list faithfully but that he seemed as an adult, as a "founding father," to have become an example of the spirit behind the rules.

Following rules blindly is no real achievement, but understanding the practical value of courtesy and the inherent worth of virtue is what elevates Washington in our eyes. He may have slipped up on occasion himself, inadvertently loosing a belch at just the wrong moment or absentmindedly picking his teeth at table. I trust he did, or else he wasn't one of us mere humans.

A recent news story tells about the recovery of an original draft of Washington's speech upon resigning his commission in the Continental Army.

William Wan wrote in a Washington Post column that "It was a speech so moving the crowd wept." He notes its historical importance, establishing as it did the precedent of civilian authority over the military.

Possibly the most important aspect of Washington's resignation as commander of the Continental Army was as a display of integrity in the face of power. Washington's early list of rules suggests it frequently, but his ability to live in the spirit of those guidelines when great power was in his grasp is a better example and a better story than that cherry tree incident of old history books.

Those poor raptors ravenous for poor Ian Malcom did not need a list of rules so much as a parent to embody them, to show them how to live well. Same goes for us humans.

The 110th and last in Washington's life of rules:

"Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience."

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The Safety Net appears every other Friday.

Safety Net