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Growing slowly

Evening Post & Mail
On radical youth, stodgy elders, and the good advice Americans have had 269 years to digest

In 1753 – nearly a quarter of a century before he took part in writing the Declaration of Independence, and a full 34 years before he signed the Constitution of the United States – Benjamin Franklin offered some poignant advice in his Poor Richard’s Almanack: “Sudden Power is apt to be insolent, Sudden Liberty saucy; that behaves best which has grown gradually.”
■ Considering how impatient so many people are in the present age, Franklin’s advice could use a modern-day signal boost. It’s not to say that people shouldn’t be impatient when their rights are on the line: Too much patience in the face of tyranny only gives the tyrannical more time to entrench themselves.
■ But Franklin’s advice does say something meaningful about how we, as a self-governing people, have to think about transitions like the handing over of power to subsequent generations. People are not born as responsible participants in a democratic society; they have to be trained, preferably first by loving families, and then by social institutions like their schools, churches, and scout troops.
■ Even then, many a freshly-minted voter still embraces radical views thanks to the passions of youth. What’s dangerous, though, is when people remain prone to those “insolent” and “saucy” habits because they refuse to take part in “growing gradually”.
■ Much has been written about political polarization, and much more will be written yet. It’s hard to tell sometimes whether the phrase “What radicalized you?” is really tongue-in-cheek or a statement of reality.
■ Growing so that we “behave best”, as Franklin put it, requires a commitment to remaining open to new and improved ideas along the way, while resisting the radical urges that arise out of passions. Nobody is fully equipped with wisdom at the age of 18, but nobody has all of the right answers at 78, either.
■ In a functional democratic society, no one gets to be satisfied with outcomes 100 percent of the time. Wisdom consists in learning to take satisfaction in a good process and outcomes that come closer to giving everyone 60% of what they want, rather than giving 60% of the people everything that they want. Adults have a deep and abiding obligation to learn that lesson and pass it along. Ben Franklin’s advice has had more than a quarter of a millennium to ring in America’s ears. We shouldn’t be found careless in ignoring it.
Poor Richard. If only we listened.
Poor Richard. If only we listened.
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Brian Gongol
Brian Gongol @briangongol

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