By Wole Akinyosoye
The mediaeval poet, Geoffrey Chaucer ascended into immortality not only for the lyrics of his verses but also for their timeless candor. Among the many verses I have come to admire in his vast repository of mediaeval insights, are the lines ascribed by Chaucer to the poor Parson, in the General Prologue to his best-known work, The Canterbury Tales.
The Parson was an epitome of honor, who took quite literally the charge by Christ on walking the narrow path. Much like Saint Peter that trod the unpaved streets of faith before in Jerusalem and Judea, Chaucer’s Parson ‘knew how to have sufficiency in few possessions.’
He was also cerebral; an exemplary clergyman, who walked the precepts of the Holy Book; of him the medieval poet wrote these immortal lines:
He took those words out of the gospel
And this metaphor he added also to that
That if gold rust, what must iron do?
For if a priest, on whom we trust, should be foul
It is no wonder for a layman to go bad.
If gold rust, what then would iron do? That timeless cadence from a character of the ancient bard strikes fresh chords as democracy now unravels in the United States of America. Those lines resonate as tempers flare to dangerous levels Left and Right in the American political spectrum.
The American democracy was an enviable example to the world In spite of its many obvious contradictions. Democracy in America built a solid reputation that repudiates perpetuity as a credible tenet of power. That system has often made African politicians look like a brood of trapped beings in the lower wrung of evolution. We have come to believe that whereas power could roam here naked and in perpetuity, it must subject itself to mild behaviours and due process on American soil. We believed what we had perennially read, heard and saw about tamed power in America, where elections are not harnessed by the whims of incumbency, and to be fair, they are reputations justly earned by America.
America learned to abide by the rules set for itself on democracy long before it came into global reckoning. Since 1788, the wheels of presidential elections have smoothly run in a four-year ritual; the elections are held as and at when due, even as hell literally froze over. Abraham Lincoln was re-elected as president in November 1864 even as cannon balls flew in the heat of a Civil War in America. In 1916, as the World War I raged and the global destiny lay in the trenches of Europe, America made for the polls to re-elect Woodrow Wilson, the idealist professor of history from Princeton. Even in 1944, as it buries its youth in cold trenches in Europe and the Pacific during World War II, America adroitly kept faith on its pact with elections to re-appoint Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Not surprising the nation becoame the gold standard, a beacon of democracy, for its long unbroken pact with elections and peaceful transfer of power.
Though it has also fostered some theatres and mindless regicides in its long history, to its credit America has yet produced a Robespierre or even a Cromwell, whose iconoclastic rage would have turned the system on its head, and that must be a reason why it stands apart from the world, and why the nation glitters still like a city set upon a hill, in spite of its many warts and pimples.
If gold rust, what then would iron do? That ancient quip of the bard surmises the dilemma on the pall cast by Donald Trump on the recent elections in America. But just a cursory knowledge of Donald Trump since 2017 teaches that no one should be surprised at these assaults on the system from this set of guardians at the portals in America.
First, the 45th President of the US built this huge, some say terrifying, power base by amplifying the fault lines in America. The president flourished by doubting most of the country’s democratic precepts. He built the solid lily-white base out of pandering to the fears of White America; that diversity is bad and pandering to humanity is patently weak and harmful to the white future. The race trolling and dog whistling since Donald Trump declared for presidency in 2016 thrive on fear mongering, alternative facts and mendacious posturing. He built a solid powerful base of followers unmoved by reason or facts; that sees in him a racial knight in shining armour. Most of those fellows live for him, they swear by him and worship the grounds he trod.
Second, one should not be surprised at the assaults on the system under its present guardians, especially from the Republican Party of Mr. Trump. Ronald Reagan, the other president the American Right and Donald Trump love to swear by also had an ardent cult of followership, but never such an uncritical cult as one now of Donald Trump. Remember, back in 1985 as the Iran-Contra Affair frothed in Washington and there were whimpers and dissents even among Reaganites, Ronald Reagan too could smell his own vulnerability as the vulture gathered at his base, some high profile supporters openly owned up that the president had betrayed his oath of office by lying to America. President Reagan would climb down from the high horse to own up his failures in a primetime address to the nation sometimes in 1986. Now it seems an eternity when a president could be held accountable to the truth in America. Now no Republican that ever swore by Ronald Reagan and worships at the feet of Donald Trump would imagine the president could ever falter, or own up to infallibility, however obvious.
Though the 2020 election results are telling that President Trump would cease to occupy his seat by noon on January 20, 2021, though they indicate the Republican Party, the president’s party, gained more seats in the Congress and is holding onto most of the governorship seats from the elections it claimed have been stolen, believers in alternative facts are holding to the contrary. But President Trump who made no secret of his creed that an election he does not win is an unfair election has ruled the election unfair and the cult believes the president was right to the very base.
Not since 1860 when the presidential votes were called for Abraham Lincoln has America got this close to the precincts of hell. It is creepy how history repeats its play on race and bile, as if it was 1860. Then, like now a part of America felt compelled to embrace the past, it saw a bleak future in a society where Black is treated as a human and not just three-fifth of a man. Then, like now, the elections in November 1860 favoured the fellow who counselled unity and common sense, who called out America to embrace the better angels of its nature. Then as now, the sabre rattlers are seeking to make ‘America Great Again.’ They saw a bleak future in a racially inclusive society, devoid of slavery and oppression; they believed the elections had dealt racism a fatal blow and torn the fabric of the American state.
The 1860 election eventually led to a civil war but America retains the sanctity of that election. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln assumed the chair of the president, and turned out as the greatest president of America till date. It also turns out the nation he kept united by his adroitness has been a great gift to humanity, which is why the global sadness is profound over this turn of events in the United States.
If gold rust, what then would iron do? It is unlikely the Trump base, sold to the boogie on alternative facts, would introspect on the rhetorical quip from a 14th Century bard. But even in times like this, humanity lives in hope that America would ultimately embrace the better angels of its nature. The implications are dire to the world if it goes otherwise.
Mr. Akinyosoye is a commentator on public affairs