“But your Internet friends aren’t really atheists at all,” Mr. Magundi told Brielle. “They say they’re atheists, the way they might say they’re Steelers fans, but they don’t believe what they say. When they insist that the Bible, alone among ancient texts, is without literary merit—when they insist on spelling ‘God’ with a lower-case g, though they still capitalize ‘Woden’ and ‘Kukulkan’—then I know that they’re not atheists at all, but believers in a state of desperate rebellion. An atheist would judge the various books of the Bible the way he judges Gilgamesh or the Bhagavad Gita; he would treat the Christian God the way he treats the Greek Apollo. He would not insult a being he did not believe in. Your friends are desperately trying to convince themselves that God does not exist the way a five-year-old desperately tries to convince himself that Santa Claus does exist. There are thoroughgoing atheists in the world who exhibit none of these peculiarities; they do not rebel against God any more than they rebel against the Easter Bunny. The so-called atheist who is in a state of constant rebellion actually clings to belief in God with more tenacity than a revival preacher.”
“I suppose that’s why you shouldn’t discuss politics in mixed company,” Mrs. Bowman said.
“But there is one political discussion you can always have without risk of giving offense,” Mr. Magundi remarked. “We can always say that all politicians are venal liars, that they are all looking out only for themselves, that they don’t care about their constituents at all. You will get nothing but agreement from everyone in the room, whatever other political beliefs and fanaticisms may divide them. It is as neutral as saying that the weather is rainy today, or that the leaves are beginning to turn.
“And isn’t that a dreadful calamity? Why are we so thoroughly convinced that the representatives we have chosen for ourselves are bad choices? Aren’t we reflecting very poorly on our own performance at the voting booth? Why do we not automatically leap to the defense of the men and women we ourselves have elected? I myself will start the conversation: I believe that the city councilwoman from our district is industrious, intelligent, and incorruptible, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.”
“I think it should be harder to get a license,” I was saying. “There are too many bad drivers on the road. Driving is a privilege, not a right.”
“That is the legal theory under which our licensing system operates,” Mr. Magundi responded, “but as a moral principle it is completely wrong. You and I are among the fortunate few who live within an easy stroll of public transit. If everyone had that choice, your principle would be sound. But in fact most Americans live in places where it is simply impossible to get to work without a car. As long as our economic system demands that everyone must be gainfully employed; as long as we build suburbs with zoning laws that actually prohibit businesses within walking distance of residences; as long as we refuse to provide transportation for those who cannot or will not drive—while these things are true, driving is a necessary prerequisite to making a living. And making a living is a necessary prerequisite to living at all. If one cannot live without driving, then, morally speaking, driving is a right, not a privilege, and no legal theory can supersede that moral truth.”
“So why is it so hard to tell whether you’re on the left or on the right, Magundi?” Mr. Bates asked, for once with no sign of hostility.
“Because I’m not—and that, incidentally, makes me one of the privileged and powerful among us ordinary citizens.
“I will tell you what the difference between the left and the right is. The right believes that the golden age is in the past—that we can solve our current problems only by returning to the wise principles and moral behavior of days gone by. The left believes that the golden age is in the future—that we can solve our problems only by moving away from the darkness and superstition of the past and forward to a society based on enlightenment and benevolence.
“Nature has somehow provided that there will always be roughly equal numbers of people who believe in the golden age of the past and the golden age of the future, and these people will reliably vote for the parties that represent their prejudices. But there is also a third group—those of us who believe that, in this fallen world, there never was a golden age, and there never will be a golden age. We are free to decide that this policy or that policy is likely to be to our advantage, however temporarily; and so we may swing wildly from left to right, according to the conditions we see in the world, or according to the personalities of the politicians, or according to what we ate for breakfast. As voters, therefore, we are the ones who actually choose the leaders for the rest of you.
“So if you are a politician on the left or the right, my advice to you, since I am a member of the only group of voters who can actually decide the election, is to give me a splendid pancake breakfast, with the best sausage, none of that frozen stuff, and fresh strawberries for the pancakes.”
“But I’m just not sure the government is that smart,” Mrs. Bowman concluded.
“I think you’re right,” Mr. Magundi agreed. “The conspiracy theorist pays his imagined enemies the extravagant compliment of supposing that they are almost as clever as he himself is. That is probably why I can never be a proper conspiracy theorist: I have difficulty believing that people in positions of great power are even remotely near to being as clever as I am. The only really intelligent people I know all ride the Red Line streetcar to work every morning, which people in positions of great power would not do. Or at least that’s what they would like you to believe.”
“But I don’t see why everyone seems to have forgotten that he was a communist,” Mr. Bates was saying. “Sorry if I can’t join the party.”
“I think it’s a little foolish of us to assume that a man was exactly the same when he was young and angry as when he was old and presumably wiser,” Mr Magundi replied. “But no matter; I agree that the tributes of the past couple of days have mostly missed the point. The single thing that made Mandela a great hero, the George Washington of his country, was the fact that, when he died, he was not president. It would have been terribly easy for him to say to himself, ‘At this time of transition and crisis, the country needs strong and stable leadership. It is necessary for the good of the people that I should remain as their leader.’ Like George Washington, he must have seen with absolute clarity that, if he stepped aside, he would be succeeded by a pack of the usual political idiots. How could George Washington look ahead to a Jefferson administration with anything but dread? How could Mandela sit still for Mbeki?
“Yet, when the decision came, he was wise enough to see that the democratic principle was more important in the long run than the question of which idiots would be elected in the short run. He could have been Fidel Castro or Robert Mugabe, but instead he decided to be Cincinnatus.
“Our own Washington had plenty of less-than-admirable qualities. He was a greedy real-estate speculator; he could be imperious and aloof; his administration was full of bickering. Even as a general he was perhaps more lucky than clever. But he proved that he loved his country more than he loved power. Nelson Mandela did the same, and he will be remembered the way Washington is remembered. And his faults deserve the same sympathetic oblivion we grant to Washington’s.”
“So she asked me to ask you,” I explained, “because she thought you might have an interesting opinion on the difference between strategy and tactics.”
“It’s very simple,” Mr. Magundi said. “‘Strategy’ is the business of deciding how many people must die to reach our objective. ‘Tactics’ is the business of figuring out exactly how to kill them.”