It struck me as ironic to be thinking about John Smith on the Fourth of July.
When I was a child, I had a kid’s book in which certain words had been replaced by electronic buttons. Press the buttons, and various funny voices would say the missing words through a small speaker in the back of the book.
There may have been a whole series of these books, but the one I’m thinking about specifically is Pocahontas.
This is not an article about President Trump and Elizabeth Warren; we can be thankful for that.
In the book, every time the names of Pocahontas or her co-protagonist – John Smith – were to appear, there was a button instead. Press the buttons and the book would say the characters’ names.
For John Smith, it was a deep, confident, assertive male voice – John SMITH!
For Pocahontas, the voice was a soft, delicate, submissive female voice – Pocahontas … you could hear the lowering of the eyes in the inflection.
I’m not totally sure the implications of these inflections are historically accurate.
Ahh, that culture of ours. It sure gets to them young.
That wasn’t the John Smith I was thinking about though. Some people shoot fireworks on Independence Day and others read about obscure heroes. Whatever floats your boat.
The John Smith I was thinking about is perhaps the greatest American amateur wrestler of all-time – winner of two collegiate championships, four World Championships, and two Olympic gold medals. But that, for me, is not what makes him a hero.
Wrestling as a sport has been around for thousands of years. The modern version – generally called freestyle wrestling – has been around since the 1800s, and an Olympic sport since 1904. Freestyle wrestling differs from Greco-Roman wrestling – in which only the upper-body is used – in that you can both use and attack the legs.
For decades and generations, the way this was done was by wrapping your arms around an opponent’s knee and essentially tackling them to the ground – a “single-leg takedown.” Freestyle wrestling was a competition of who could accomplish, and who could defend, a “single-leg.”
Until the 1980s that is, when some kid from Oklahoma named John Smith said… Wait, what if instead of grabbing a guy by the knee, I grabbed him by the ankle?
I imagine the sound of pages shuffling in a dark, low-ceilinged basement ringed with gym mats, as someone frantically examines a rule book – Wait …I guess you can do that!
Smith unleashed his new move – the “low single-leg takedown” – on the wrestling world and effectively obliterated everyone – from fellow young Americans in the collegiate ranks to the most grizzled Soviet champions on the world level. It worked even after opponents knew it was coming, even after they started dabbling in it themselves.
John Smith is a hero because he disrupted a complex system by stepping outside of the box.
Broadly, that idea is that complex systems, such as a sport, simplify themselves. This happens through interpretation and gradual establishment of unwritten rules and dogmas. Eventually, the parameters of the system become much smaller than they originally were. Innovations can happen, but by people abiding by the parameters of dogma, this can only happen within the box, within the narrowed parameters.
When freestyle wrestling was created, it was created with a foundational structure – the rules of the sport. These rules were interpreted, and techniques created. These techniques were taught to each subsequent generation of wrestling, who then applied them in combat with opponents who had been taught the same techniques, who were operating within the same parameters.
Nobody ever thought about going for an ankle instead of a knee, so nobody ever practiced it, so nobody ever practiced how to defend it, so nobody ever thought about it.
John Smith found something allowed under the official rules, but unheard of and not considered within the unwritten rules and dogmas of the sport.
He disrupted a system which had simplified itself. Now the “low single-leg” is just another maneuver every wrestler uses.
This week, Democratic minority House leader Nancy Pelosi was asked if democratic socialism is “ascendant” in the Democratic Party.
She said no.
Of course she did. The political system Pelosi has operated within her entire career is a simplified system where politicians on both sides play by an agreed upon set of rules – promise whatever you have to, rip the other side however ostentatiously you want, but always further the interests of the donors and special interests, who are the same for both sides.
Small innovations can happen, but only within the framework. Take Obamacare, an attempt at a more inclusive healthcare system, but one which was built from the foundational pillar of guaranteeing corporate profits. Starting from that point, the “best” healthcare which could be built was still a disaster for the people.
Within this simplified system, and thus for Nancy Pelosi, the term “socialism” exists only as a Republican strawman. She said as much: “I don’t accept any characterization of our party presented by Republicans.”
Unfortunately for her, one only need to look at the mood of the country to see “socialism” is quite a bit more than a Republican strawman at this point.
Consider Bernie Sanders is statistically the most popular politician in the country. Consider last week’s Democratic primary election in New York, where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old democratic socialist, defeated 10-term incumbent and vice-chair of the House Democratic Caucus Joe Crowley.
Consider the 16 Democratic Senators who joined Bernie Sanders on his Medicaid For All Act in 2017, after exactly zero had done so in 2013. Consider that in the 2016 Democratic primary, six in ten voters said socialism has a “positive impact on society.”
And what of the recent New York Times article proclaiming “‘Yes, I’m Running as a Socialist.’ Why Candidates Are Embracing the Label in 2018”?
More and more, the ideas which might be described as “socialist” are gaining popularity.
If one was inclined to put faith, or even hope, in the Democratic Party, it would appear that the path to victory is clear – socialist, democratic socialist, progressive principles, policies, and proclamations as a disruption of an over-simplified system.
Alas, the bad news:
The prerogative of the Democratic Party is not so much to give people what they want, or even to necessarily win elections, as it is to ensure the continuation of the system in which they exist.
According to the official rules of the U.S. political system, the Democratic Party can be pretty much as socialist as they want. But within a reality compressed by dogma, Nancy Pelosi could no more admit her party was inclined towards socialism than she could fund a campaign with small donations, or fly to the moon on a dolphin.
At this point, Democrats like Pelosi, Schumer, the Clintons, and so on, probably feel a bit like a burly, hairy-chested Soviet wrestler in 1988. They know they’re about to get flipped over by the ankle, they just can’t really do anything about it.