Readers of a certain age will recall the wonderful 1971 movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Although I have criticized wishful thinking in earlier posts, at least as it relates to critical thinking and decision-making, sometimes engaging in wishful thinking is all that keeps us going in tough times. Who hasn't identified with poor Charlie Bucket in feeling that life's pleasures and luxuries remain out of reach, and then fantasized about what it would be like to get them?
As great art often does, the movie provides ample material for viewers to make up their own minds about the meaning. Like a good legal argument, it is not necessary to drag your audience by their noses. Often it's better to lay the foundation and let the jury draw their own conclusions. People are pretty good at seeing where the dots lead. Also, we trust our own decisions far more than those thrust upon us by others.
So it is in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory that we are treated to a series of vignettes. The lucky children who have found one of the "Golden Tickets" are invited on a tour of the chocolate factory. In their explorations the character flaws of one child after another are exposed, and with them those of their parents as well. We are left each time contrasting in our minds not only how Charlie acted differently than the naughty child but wondering how we would have behaved in the same situation. That's what creates dramatic tension in any movie: what would we do if confronted with the same temptation, challenge, or decision?
We see gluttony, and greed, and selfishness, and otherwise harmless vices like gum-chewing or TV-watching turned foul by obsessive overconsumption. For me, though, the scene and song that best exemplify the challenges of our modern times is delivered by spoiled and insatiable Veruca Salt in "I Want It Now":
I want the world
I want the whole world
I want to lock it all up in my pocket
It's my bar of chocolate
Give it to me
I want today
I want tomorrow
I want to wear 'em like braids in my hair
And I don't want to share 'em
I want a party with room fulls of laughter
Ten thousand tons of ice cream
And if I don't get the things I am after
I'm going to scream!
Do you know who this sounds like to me? About half of our members of Congress at any given point in time. Whenever I hear a politician recommending the Senate do away with the filibuster so that they can just plow ahead with their priorities without debate, I think of Veruca Salt. The filibuster requires 60 of the 100 Senators to agree to end debate and vote on a matter, which means on controversial matters the party in the minority can often hold up votes.
I think of Veruca Salt in part because I hear the selfish, greedy voice insisting "I want it now!" I am also struck by the apparent lack of reflection by politicians on why it is that compromise seems impossible. And most troubling of all, I am amazed that those calling for eliminating the filibuster do not seem to think past the immediate gratification to the already demonstrated unintended consequences. Namely, the reins of power will switch to the other party at some point, and what then?
To be fair, there were loudly dissenting voices when Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D, Nevada) first exercised the so-called "nuclear option" in November 2013 to eliminate the filibuster on all presidential nominations except Supreme Court nominees. The visibly shook minority leader Mitch McConnell (R, Kentucky) noted on the Senate floor:
You’ll regret this, and you may regret this a lot sooner than you think.
Sure enough, after Trump's 2016 election, the then Republican-controlled Senate was able to approve Trump's appointees without being bothered by the filibuster, conveniently eliminated by the Democrats. And in April 2017, Mitch McConnel was in a position to invoke the nuclear option himself, in removing the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations as well. This led to the appointment of Justice Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
With escalation came not reflection, only bitterness. "Wait until we get our hands on the majority again, and just see what we'll do!" Keep in mind, the Senate was designed to be the more level-headed, deliberative house of Congress, able to keep the populist passions of the House of Representatives in check. The rules requiring super-majorities for legislation or other actions are intended to prevent tyranny by a bare majority. So when frustrated politicians today call for the final elimination of the filibuster for all legislation, we may forgive their frustration, but not their stunning ignorance: of history (and bleeding, fresh history at that), of consequences for short-term actions, and of what tomorrow will certainly bring.
Would that such persons suffer the same fate as Veruca Salt, which moviegoers will recall was to be graded a "bad egg" and sent to the garbage heap.
It is not just children and Senators who fall prey to temptation and behave badly. In this week's Moral Letter 047 On Bosses And Underlings, we explore what happens to some bosses when they obtain wealth and power. What do you think the Stoics think about someone who values a person for their possessions?
It seems like many politicians view themselves as entertainers first, and legislators or representatives a distant second. After all, you must be popular to be elected, the thinking goes. But some politicians seem unable to cast off the quest for publicity and get past the business of entertainment on to governing.
We touch upon the value of entertainment, including words used to entertain, in this week's other Moral Letter 048 On Word Games And Worthy Matters. Philosophy provides answers to many of life's questions. But to benefit from more than superficial wit, we must confront our nature and our desires and spend time on serious matters as well.
Even if you are well-meaning and hard-working, it is hard to make good decisions. The reason for this is that we tend to believe what we want to believe, and so we seek out information to confirm our existing views. I discuss this in another post this week If You Ask The Wrong Questions...
If you want to improve your decision-making, try actively seeking out information that conflicts with your current view. It may be uncomfortable at first. But you may find it is far less painful than going through life spoiled and insatiable.