It is a fact of human history that when we encounter a thing for which we have no word, we appropriate the word from those who do. It can be the word for an object or a practice, a color or a concept. An interesting thing about this phenomenon is that it does not necessarily occur in the manner that a clash of cultures usually does.
Historically, the backdrop for culture clash often has been invaders imposing their lifestyles on the conquered. Language, religion, customs and even dress are likely to change. This is why so much Latin went into the German dialect that became English, and why the Angles and Saxons adopted so many of the ways of the Romans. When, however, the victors are only mightier than the vanquished, but not more advanced otherwise, certain influences will flow in the opposite direction. This is why so much Classical Greek went into Latin, why so much of Greek thinking went to Rome.
The mighty, sometimes, are civilized by the meek, the restless made less so by the settled. The Hamites of the Nile Valley, the Semites of the Mesopotamian Valley, and the eastern branch of the Indo-Europeans (the Indo-Iranians or “Aryans”) of the Indus Valley all benefited from the civilized, indigenous peoples who inhabited those valleys first.
Why, in the world, am I even writing about this? It is because of an ancient word that confronts us every day, even more so during an election season. The word is “pundit”, conveyed to us through the Indo-European language known as Sanskrit, spoken by the Indo-Iranians who settled in what is now India. I say “conveyed through” because the Aryans had no word for who a pundit was or what a pundit did. The word is from Dravidian, the language spoken by the people who inhabited the land in which the Aryans were newcomers.
To be a pundit, originally, was to be a sage, a wise one. Many who have been given that title today don’t bother to even attempt to live up to its original meaning. Lacking all irony, some even manage the opposite. Wise or not, our pundits, for months now, have been telling some of us to expect the worst on election day. That advice, of course, is only for those of us who believe “the worst” entails a Republican takeover of the Senate. I’d like to think they are wrong, but the last time I convinced myself of that, I turned out to be the one who was wrong.
It was election night, 1980. During dinner at a restaurant with a friend, a busboy came out of the kitchen and announced Ronald Reagan had been elected President. I was stunned. It never had occurred to me this country could elect Reagan, even after he had impressed me with his convention speech four years earlier when he had lost the Republican nomination to Gerald Ford. That speech made me wonder how in Hell had that party chosen Ford over him. Still, I never imagined, four years later, that the country would choose him over Carter. Politically, my eyes were opened that night, and I’ve tried to keep them open ever since. I believe that is why I could look at John Kerry in 2004 and know he would never be President, that the country would – as crazy as it seemed – actually choose the man foisted on us by the Supreme Court four years earlier. I believe that is why, while watching the 2004 Democratic Convention, I saw the keynote speaker could be the country’s first black President – if such a thing were to ever happen.
So, here we are, three days until we find out if today’s “pundits” are correct. This time around, we don’t have the seeming wizardry of someone like Nate Silver, whose crunching of numbers in 2012 was so precise it made political prognostication look easy. He was widely dismissed by those who fervently believed Romney would defeat the President’s re-election bid, just as I had not believed in the ascendancy of Reagan.
For me, there will be only one consolation if the pundits are right this time. It comes from a wise man who said something that made me and many others in the room gasp audibly when he said it. The late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of India, during a videotaped lecture, made the statement (quoting philosopher Joseph-Marie de Maistre, I’ve since learned) that “every nation has the government it deserves.” To hear someone suggest such a thing, particularly at a time when apartheid was the way of life in South Africa, was unnerving. Unnerving, but true nonetheless, as it will continue to be no matter what happens in three days.