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Sharp: the Story of a Political Awakening Pt.1

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November 9, 2012 in Politics


Ray Chilensky

A State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hand even for beneficial purposes-will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.
John Stuart Mill, 1859

When I was five or six years old my grandpa gave me my first knife. It was an old folding knife with a two-inch blade. My grandpa had carried it in his pocket for years but had finally replaced it with a new one and passed the old blade on to me. I was so proud of it that I showed it to each of my three brothers one at a time and then went looking for anyone else that I could show it to. My mother was hesitant about a boy as young as I was having I knife but, seeing how much I cherished it, she gave me a long and heartfelt admonition about how dangerous knives were and I was allowed to keep it.

At the time I really didn’t understand why I loved that little blade so much. I had plenty of the trendiest, most popular toys of the day. My treasure trove of toys included Micronaught action figures, a large toy construction crane made by the Tonka company when they still made their toys out of metal and, (best of all) an extensive collection of the old, twelve-inch tall G.I. Joe action figures along with a shoe-box full of tiny guns and other equipment that went with them. But that knife was different; it was not a toy. It was a tool.

Even after the initial novelty had faded, I was proud of that knife. While I had been allowed to keep it, I had never been allowed to carry it on a daily basis. It occupied a place in a small metal toolbox that had been another gift from my grandpa. The knife shared the box with a Canadian quarter that, to me, was exotic because it was from a country other than the United States, an arrow head I had traded away a cap-gun to obtain, a small white rock that I just thought looked cool, and few other objects that my young mind attached importance to. The box’s contents were my private treasures; things that held a value for me and no one else. It was a value I couldn’t articulate then and would have difficulty explaining now.

Most of those treasures were lost over the next few years as my interests changed and I began to look more critically at the world. That little knife stayed with me, though. I continued to cherish it; taking it out occasionally just to look at. I wondered how it had acquired each of the scratches on the blade and pondered why the wooden grips on the handle were so worn and smooth. Grandpa had carried that knife for years and it had served him well. I would imagine him using it on the farm he once owned, or at the Ohio Valley steel mill at which he had worked years before my birth. So much of what Grandpa was seemed to be imprinted on that simple device of wood and steel. He had given me many other gifts, some expensive and some not, but none helped him live his life like that little pocked knife had. It had not just come from him; it was, in a way, part of him.

A couple of years later I started to carry the knife every day. No one had given me permission to and I had not asked. One day, I had just decided that it was wrong to leave something that had once been so well used to waste away unused in a box. Over one summer I had used the knife for all the various tasks that are mundane and simple, but would be impossible without a cutting tool. By the end of that summer the edge had dulled.

I took it to my grandpa and asked him to sharpen it for me. Instead, he rummaged in a tool box for a wet-stone and a bottle of three-in-one oil and then showed me how to sharpen the blade myself. I worked for a few minutes and then asked him to inspect my work. He ran his thumb along the edge and shook his head. “You let this get pretty dull,” he said.”It’s going to take some work to put the edge back on it.” Those probably were not his exact words, because this all occurred over thirty years ago. The next words he said never left me, though. “If you’re too lazy to sharpen a knife, you’re too lazy,” he said when my face had showed my displeasure at having to work longer to restore my knife to functionality. “A dull knife ain’t good for anything,” he added.

I returned to the wet-stone and began to hone the edge. As I slid the edge over the stone as if I was attempting take a thin slice off of it, grandpa’s words kept running through my head. A dull knife ain’t good for anything. As I heard the grating sound of steel on stone and concentrated on keeping the right angle on the blade, the simple but profound truth of those words crept into my perception. I suddenly understood why that knife meant so much to me. It had purpose. It could shape twigs into skewers for roasting hot dogs, it could skin freshly caught fish, and cut the twine off of hay bales. It had thousands of uses and therefore it had value that far exceeded its purchase price.

I thought then of my purpose. Actually, I asked myself if I had a purpose. Sadly, though, my honest answer to that question was no; I had no purpose that I knew of. I went to school, I read voraciously, and I drew fairly decent pictures, but I had no particular reason to do any of those things. I had not yet found a purpose to give my life value.

I spent my teenage years and my twenties struggling to find a purpose. Somewhere along the way I lost track of what purpose meant. I mistook aspiration for purpose. I aspired to make my living drawing comic books and spent many years in vain efforts to do so. I aspired to work in law enforcement and was confronted with my own mediocrity and unsuitability for that profession. I survived in jobs varying from fast food to security guard. I had no purpose in attempting those jobs; no goal that had meaning for me. I worked without direction or purpose because I felt I had to do something.

In my late twenties, I began to see that the United States had lost not only its sense of purpose; but that we had lost our sense of morality first. We had forgotten that there is such a thing as righteous anger. We had allowed ourselves to be convinced that the choice between good and evil is ephemeral, and that morality is subject to the expediency of the moment. Without moral clarity we became hesitant to make difficult choices, or any choices, because without such clarity our purpose is unclear; there is nothing to strive for and no goal in sight. We became unwilling to act in our own interest, to support the interests of our allies, and sometimes, even to effectively defend ourselves. I realized that my own lack of direction mirrored that of my country.

In time, my lifelong interest in history and politics became more than a passing interest. In my late thirties, I entered university, majoring in political science and history. I immersed myself in the currents of the past as they flowed forward to form the present. I studied the institutions mankind creates to govern itself and the theories that shaped those institutions. I wanted to know, above anything else, why my generation, myself especially, had such a singular lack of vision and purpose.

Why had my grandpa’s generation, and those before it, had such a clear sense of purpose, not just personally, but nationally? I looked at my nation and saw a dull knife; something that was once sharp and useful that was now blunted and useless. As a student of history, I could look back and see a time when the United States was sharp and useful. It had been the bread-basket of the world, the arsenal of democracy, and the land of opportunity. The United States had been the hand that fed the hungry, the shield that protected the weak, and the sword that struck down the wicked. Our leaders were not perfect, and our mistakes were many, but we had purpose. That purpose was not to make men free, but to allow men to make themselves free. In an act of supreme vanity, I made that purpose my own. I made the freedom of each and every person on the planet my personal responsibility.

My foray into higher education did show me why my generation lacked the drive and purpose that previous generations possessed. Our educational system, from the primary school to university level, had systematically destroyed it. The false and dangerous idea of moral relativism had become a central part of education in America. If one is taught that morality is relative, and if there are no longer any moral absolutes, then how could a purpose, any purpose be worth accomplishing? If no absolutes existed, then why even try to achieve anything? Anything that was accomplished would be without any real meaning. It would be hollow.

Our children are taught that no principle is worth fighting for; that compromise, even if a given compromise is clearly against their own personal or national morality, is preferable to conflict of any kind; rather that conflict would be political, economic, or physical. Our sense of morality; of what is right, has been systematically eroded and we now find ourselves infected with crippling indecisiveness. Without the anchor of morality a society loses its will to act, to build and, eventually, even to survive. Mired in moral ambiguity we are confronted with the immorality of inaction and with the slow but sure killer of any civilization: stagnation.

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