Today's Ben Franklin

I spent the last week in London, doing the usual tourist spots. After a while, the historic spots seemed to fold into one another - it was simply impossible to comprehend the age of some of these monuments. Westminster Abbey is so old that it contains a replica of an original memorial statue is older than the entire United States. There are holes in the walls from World War II bombings, and bones under the floor older than the Magna Carta. In the British Museum, I found the Elgian Marbles endlessly fascinating: hand carved pieces of limestone, with exquisite detail, all older than Jesus and Muhammad.

But the most interesting spot was more off the beaten path. There is a tiny house just off of Trafalgar Square, with original wood floors and walls and staircases from the early 1700s, that once housed Benjamin Franklin for 16 years of his remarkable life. It has been kept in pristine condition, and the tour guide assured me that the only real change made since Franklin lived there was replacing the windows that had been blown out during the Blitz.

The breadth of Franklin's life work is overwhelming, and well worn for anyone who has taken middle school history. Bifocals, the Franklin Stove, the Declaration of Independence, and most famously the kite experiment. He was a scientist, a politician, a philosopher, a writer, and one of the most important figures in American history.

At the end of the tour, there is a little questionare sheet that poses a strange question: who is today's Ben Franklin?

I was stumped. There is simply no modern politician who boasts as impressive a resume as Franklin. It seems obvious, of course, that no one would be able to approach his accomplishments given that we live in an age that can severely limit creative output. We did not have the luxuries and distractions that Franklin had, and we waste a considerable amount of time in general (I am super guilty of this).

But I thought some more about the question. Would a modern day Ben Franklin even be able to exist in today's political arena? Truthfully, the scientific endeavors would be a detriment to his hypothetical political career. For whatever reason, most Americans like their politics with a side of religion, hold the science. There seems to be more political capital gained by eschewing what is new and groundbreaking and sticking to what is known and safe - that's basically the philosophy of the Republican Party at its core. Whether it's George W. Bush opposing stem cell research, or the constant furor over evolution in text books, or the opposition to nuclear and wind and solar power in favor to good old fashioned coal, there is a constant backlash against science in the political arena.

New ideas are treated with skepticism until it is clear they will be politically advantageous. Benjamin Franklin thought up insane new ideas, like harvesting energy from the environment. Tim Pawlenty thinks that scientists don't know if homosexuality is a choice or not. Republicans seem to reject all science and logic, all the time, except of course for the Space Shuttle program (the most cowboy-esque of the sciences).

If Ben Franklin wanted to run for office today, he would have to put down the test tubes and pick up a Bible. He'd have to cut his hair and lose weight Mike Huckabee style. Of course, Franklin was never president for a reason - maybe he knew he was too weird to hold high public office.

The biggest issue with presidential campaigns is the constant microscope under which these candidates find themselves. It forces reasonable people like Mitt Romney to abandon his fairly stellar health care program and attack "Obamacare." It forces Tim Pawlenty to attack his fellow candidates and then back down meekly. It forces Michele Bachmann to pretend her husband isn't gay. It forces the moderate Republicans to cozy up to the Tea Party, and forces the radical Republicans to never budge from their positions even in the face of overwhelming logic (cough John Boehner cough). Republicans will not change their minds, because then they are just like the flip flopping Democrats they love to attack.

While in London, I spent about 3 hours in one of my favorite places: the Churchill War Rooms. Basically, during the Blitz Churchill ran the entire war from a tiny bunker underneath a nondescript government building a few blocks from Big Ben. The roof was reinforced with steel and poured cement, but the feeling was that the whole network of tiny rooms and pipes and winding hallways was about one direct hit away from collapsing.

The War Rooms now feature a fairly sizable museum devoted to Churchill's whole life, spanning his unhappy childhood to his journalism career (!!!) to his political failings to his triumph in WWII and his immediate defeat as Prime Minister. He also lived an incredibly full life, is an icon and a badass and has some terrific quotes attributed to him - much like Ben Franklin.

One quote, in letters 8 inches high on a big glass wall lit in neon pink and yellow, resonated with me: A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject.

Of course, Franklin had a more succinct summation of politics.

"The first mistake in public business is the going into it."

No comments:

Post a Comment