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Perishable Thoughts —
Politics And Cynicism

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, November 24, 2008

We have had the opportunity to run several pieces that included letters from Tom O’Brien of C&D Fruit and Vegetables. You can see some of those pieces below:

Pundit’s Mailbag — Flavor Consistency

Pundit’s Mailbag — Temperature Monitoring

Pundit’s Mailbag — Green Acres Is The Place To Be?!?

Pundit’s Mailbag — Kudos To Wegmans And An Industry Willing To Work Together

So we were pleased when our piece, Great Expectations For President Obama, inspired Tom to send us another note, this one with a quote included:

The men and women in agriculture spend every year hoping for a better new year and changing some of the attitudes of government and customers, but we never lose track of the fact that without hard work and innovative thinking hope and change will never become a reality.

I will support our new President and will work harder to make my employees and customers successful, which will be the reason my company will be successful.

But it is scary when we must deal with Washington, which is filled with people making laws that have never had a real job, never ran an honest company, never met a budget, never worried about health care, or retirement … the many things that most Americans do every day.

My fear is we have become a nation of professional politicians with a “me” mentality.

— Tom O’Brien
President
C&D Fruit and Vegetable
Bradenton, Florida

P.S. In relation to the above I submit the following “Perishable Thought” for your consideration:

As Oscar Wilde said — “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.”

Me thinks Oscar spent most of his time in Washington D.C. and Hollywood and never got to meet the hard-working people in between.

It is quite a cynical quote. We thought we would be cynical and question whether Oscar Wilde actually said any such thing. We asked Pundit Aide-de-camp James Elmer to find out more:

Researching this quote turned up many variations of it, attributed to several prominent individuals, although none in any scholarly work or context. In this book, recommended to me by none other than trusty Carnegie research librarian Leigh Anne on my last visit, The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When, by Ralph Keyes, 2006, we find this interesting paragraph which begins with one of the quote variations I found:

“AMERICA is the only nation in history which, miraculously, has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.”

In a 1945 magazine article, (“Merry Christmas, America!”, The Saturday Review of Literature, December 1, 1945, Pg. 9) Danish writer Hans Bendix said his aunt told him French Premier Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) made this observation about America.

Bendix’s article seems to be the only source for that attribution, which now appears in many a quotation collection. (This saying has also been attributed to Oscar Wilde, Henry James, H.L. Mencken and John O’Hara.)

Judging from France’s often stormy alliance with America during and after World War I, Clemenceau might well have reached such a conclusion. It “sounds like” the irascible French politician. However, as a young man, Clemenceau spent several years in the United States. He married a local woman, and considered America his “second country.”

Whoever was the first to say this owed an intellectual debt to Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (1688-1744), who concluded that societies progressed in cyclical stages from barbarism to civilization, then back again.

Verdict: Author unknown; possibly Georges Clemenceau.

Hmmm, what does Wikipedia have to say about Giambattista Vico? We found out:

Giambattista Vico: relying on a complex etymology, Vico argues in the Scienza Nuova that civilization develops in a recurring cycle (ricorso) of three ages: the divine, the heroic, and the human. Each age exhibits distinct political and social features and can be characterized by master tropes or figures of language. The giganti of the divine age rely on metaphor to compare, and thus comprehend, human and natural phenomena. In the heroic age, metonymy and synecdoche support the development of feudal or monarchic institutions embodied by idealized figures. The final age is characterized by popular democracy and reflection via irony; in this epoch, the rise of rationality leads to barbarie della reflessione, or barbarism of reflection, and civilization descends once more into the poetic era. Taken together, the recurring cycle of three ages — common to every nation — constitutes for Vico a storia ideale eterna or ideal eternal history.

James Elmer did some more snooping around for us and came up with this:

An even earlier version of this quote appears in “Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography” from 1943. However, it is hard to make the case that Frank Lloyd Wright inspired, or actually was the source for the spoken quote, referred to by Bendix in the 1945 article as having been heard by his aunt from Clemenceau. Though, of course, a case could be made that Clemenceau was a witty Frenchman.

This is what Wright said in his book:

“A witty Frenchman has said of us: ‘The United States of America is the only nation to plunge from barbarism to degeneracy with no culture in between’.”

This quote can be viewed here:

Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography (Google Books)
By Frank Lloyd Wright
Published by Pomegranate, 2005
561 Pages, Pg 395

This quote can be purchased here:

Frank Lloyd Wright: An Autobiography
By Frank Lloyd Wright
Published by Pomegranate, 2005
561 Pages

For ourselves the quote reeks of arrogance. Yes there are degenerate people, but we do not think the country is degenerate.

Ronald Reagan was so successful as a conservative politician because he subscribed to an unusually optimistic brand of conservatism. He always saw the Golden Age not as a historical artifact to be located in ancient Athens or Rome but, rather, as an idea located in the future.

President Reagan was fond of quoting Thomas Paine: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” He even used it in his acceptance speech at the 1980 Republican Convention in Detroit.

The statement is actually not true. It is certainly not a very conservative thought. But it is, in essence, a very American attitude.

Barack Obama, in highlighting a slogan such as, “Yes, we can,” tied into the American weltanschauung, a can-do attitude that has made American ingenuity famous around the world.

That Americans do not choose people like themselves to represent them is actually not surprising. Alexander Hamilton predicted as much in the Federalist Papers, particularly Number 35:

The idea of an actual representation of all classes of the people, by persons of each class, is altogether visionary. Unless it were expressly provided in the Constitution, that each different occupation should send one or more members, the thing would never take place in practice. Mechanics and manufacturers will always be inclined, with few exceptions, to give their votes to merchants, in preference to persons of their own professions or trades.

Those discerning citizens are well aware that the mechanic and manufacturing arts furnish the materials of mercantile enterprise and industry. Many of them, indeed, are immediately connected with the operations of commerce. They know that the merchant is their natural patron and friend; and they are aware that however great the confidence they may justly feel in their own good sense, their interests can be more effectually promoted by the merchant than by themselves.

They are sensible that their habits in life have not been such as to give them those acquired endowments, without which, in a deliberative assembly, the greatest natural abilities are for the most part useless; and that the influence and weight, and superior acquirements of the merchants render them more equal to a contest with any spirit which might happen to infuse itself into the public councils, unfriendly to the manufacturing and trading interests.

These considerations, and many others that might be mentioned prove, and experience confirms it, that artisans and manufacturers will commonly be disposed to bestow their votes upon merchants and those whom they recommend. We must therefore consider merchants as the natural representatives of all these classes of the community.

Well Alexander Hamilton was slightly off; instead of merchants we typically choose lawyers to represent us in government. But the point was correct.

The people who serve are chosen because their specialized skills make them effective advocates for the interests of the people. The people thus have a continuing obligation to make their interests and opinions known to their representatives.

This process is often messy, but the effort itself is an expression of hope, and we choose an optimistic American stance over the cynicism expressed , even if just allegedly, by Oscar Wilde.

Many thanks to Tom O’Brien and C & D Fruit and Vegetable for sending us this thought-provoking quote.

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Perishable Thoughts is a regular section of the Perishable Pundit. If you have a favorite quote that you would like to share with the industry, please send it on. You can do so right here.

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