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Loving the terrarium

Letter from John Mattingly

Politics – December 2004 – Colorado Central Magazine


I read your Letter from the Editors last night on my way to sleep. It kept me awake. Really liked the piece, the twist at the end, and especially the reference to cheerleading choruses.

Other insights were on target as well. The one about how we are awash in information systems and yet chose the most superficial debris on the beach is so, so true. OK, OK, I can only confirm that I agree with you by reading your own piece back to you, which you have already read.

We have thought about moving to BC or New Zealand or some playground in Europe. But it is hard for me, because for all the complaining I do, I love this country. Or, maybe I should say, I love the terrarium in which I live and I am grateful that the professional politicians haven’t yet broken in my glass container.

I feel a funny commitment to protecting my terrarium, to sticking it out and being a part of the critical mass that might tip the balance. So I’m not leaving.

I had a couple of thoughts while reading the piece and felt compelled to share. Excuse the extravagance. A couple of elected positions are on my résumé — the school board and a corporate board. I campaigned with all the usual stuff, Time for Change, Make a Difference, I know What I’m Doing, and wrapped it up with a pledge to be Responsive and Available to the People who elected me.

Boy, was that last promise a mistake. Once I got close to the place where decisions were actually made — that is, where the power resided — I realized that this was a game with dimensions I had no way of seeing from the outside. (And these were very small power chambers, nothing like the national system, but analogous nevertheless.)

Everything I had said to get elected suddenly seemed irrelevant, and everything I really needed to say to my constituents seemed impossible to communicate. The constituents do not, and cannot, understand the game because they have not been given a full set of rules, and furthermore, the constituents do not have the time, or, I’ll venture to say, the inclination, to become sufficiently informed to be part-time players. When it came time for re-election, I tried to speak to the real issues, to try to be a real bridge between the game and the people, and, of course, I was defeated by a landslide, only to be gratified years later by people telling me that something I had said now seemed to ring true, though at the time it seemed offensive.

Most people in the U.S. are, I believe, content to let professional politicians take care of things. They don’t want to know. It’s like gays in the military and the ministry. Don’t ask.

As long as the glass of my terrarium don’t get broken, its OK to fog the outside so I can’t see clearly what’s going on outside. But, of course, all this international adventurism has put too many people on edge. I took a manuscript to the post office the other day and had to open it for inspection, And don’t dare make a joke about the explosive potential of words on a page or you might get 10 years’ hard labor. The rest of the world is capable of throwing rocks at terrariums, and that is why this election is important.

If Bush has done any good, it is that he has shown us, mostly with his pathetic extemporaneous speech and reckless actions, that politicians can be dangerous. You see, as I said, I agree with you. Keep it up.

John Mattingly