[Excerpt from a story by Alex Nibley from the ebook Beyond Politics by Hugh Nibley]
Hugh Nibley was a paradox.
As I wrote in the book we wrote together, Sergeant Nibley PhD: Memories of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle, he was a scholar who didn’t believe in war, but who never expressed any regret for having enlisted, even though it meant enduring a long parade of horror that included a front row seat watching the worst of human frailty up-close and personal from the beaches of Normandy to Dachau.
He often quoted Joseph Smith’s pessimistic appraisal of mankind’s inability to govern itself. But he also participated in the political process with the same commitment and energy he gave to the military, another institution for which he had scant regard.
He had no patience with jingoism; but he always flew the flag on holidays.
In the most Republican county of the most Republican state in America, he was (usually) an outspoken Democrat. When Democratic campaigns asked him to put a yard sign on his lawn, his standard response was, “You better give me two so I’ll have a backup when the first one gets stolen.”
On any given day he could express opinions that were anywhere from the extreme left to the far right. Though he generally leaned left, his closest friends — and the ones with whom he actually discussed politics most — tended to be far to the right. And they enjoyed their clashes of ideas; they were robust, energetic comparisons of ideas and ideals, with little resemblance to the name-calling schoolyard squabbles that usually passes for human self-governance.
I remember well when I was first becoming politically aware at the age of twelve in 1968. Dad spoke out strongly against the election of Richard Nixon, wanted very badly for him never to be the president and made no secret of his opinions, which he conveyed often with his inimitable acerbic vitriol. He had a lot to say, and none of it nice, about the man who even before he became president was known as “Tricky Dicky”. But the memory that is strongest in my mind is when, soon after Nixon won, I was astonished to hear Dad say, “The office itself often has a salutary effect on the man who fills it. I believe the presidency has the potential to have that kind of effect on Nixon, and we should certainly now support him and give him a chance to succeed.”
In our family prayers there was always mention of political leaders and their need for special divine guidance.
By today’s political standards, Hugh Nibley was difficult to define. On our blog, HughNibley.net, a reader recently commented on a posting pulled from a 1983 interview, “I had no idea [Hugh Nibley] was such an idiotic liberal.” But he has also been attacked in public as overly conservative. Often those who admire him are those who are furthest from him in political philosophy. He laughs at humanity’s puerile exercise in running things on their own, like teenagers left alone in the house for a weekend, but he was not nonpolitical or apolitical any more than he was a pacifist in World War II, though he hated the war and the military. He neither avoided politics and what he considered his duty as a citizen to be involved, nor did he back off on beliefs he held when he came under attack.
For me, as an observer of both politics and my father, it raises difficult questions. In a world that seeks above all to divide everything into neat sets of polarities in opposition to each other, he doesn’t fit any category easily. We like things either Red or Blue. It makes it so much easier to know what name to shout in triumph and which to shout in derision. But one thing I learned early on was that my father was not interested in easy answers. I learned this because this guy who was supposed to know so much, the guy people came to see at our house on pilgrimages from all over the world to get the answers their questions, rarely in his life ever gave me a straight answer to any question.
“What about this, Dad?”
“Well, the early Fathers thought this, but Aquinas said that. You can look it up here.”
“Dad, it’s in Greek.”
“Yes, but it’s very easy Greek.”
One incident stands out in my mind, and only in the light of the acrimony of our recent ultra-polarized politics have I come to understand the lesson of the time I discovered my father was the world’s worst politician.
Beyond Politics is now available on the iBookstore