Sunday, March 17, 2013

On Re-Forming

Reform. The innocent word pops up at every changing-of-the-guard, the most recent of which being the election of Pope Francis. Will he reform the church? Ought he? Amidst the endless blabber and inane speculation, I ask, what does it mean to reform? We're rather liberal in our use of this little word, most often meaning simply to improve. This is of course not quite right and even progressives and reformers will admit that not all change is for the good. So perhaps we mean just, to change.

Yet many degrees of change present are possible. I may change my shirt, or my hairstyle, or where I live. I may also, though, change my philosophy of life. My mood changes as well. Can my character? Ought it? Curious that we don't use reform with reference to ourselves anymore. We used to. "He's reformed," they would say of a man after he served his jail sentence. There was in that use a sense of the gravity of the change. He's re-formed. He's a different man. They acknowledged the change as significant and, in this case, desirable.

Today, reform is used almost exclusively to refer to institutions and societies, not men. Society, we readily say, is a wreck. It's the politicians, the bankers, the immigrants. It's unions, it's the Tea Party, it's this or that president. Something's wrong with themSociety needs reform, that is, change by law, by fiat. We, however, are ourselves perfected, or perfect in imperfection. Never simply imperfect, though. Do we no longer think of changing ourselves? That we can, or ought to? Or do we simply glory in our noble, raw forms?  We educate minds, we rehabilitate physical health, but we don't reform. Maybe we don't re-form because we don't form, but how can we reform society if not ourselves?

So we'll reform society. We'll to reform "healthcare." We'll reform "education." We want the pope to reform the church. The president wants to "fundamentally transform" the nation. We have great expectations yet we casually speak of reform as if we're remodeling a living room or patching a few roofing shingles, hammering out a few kinks. Individuals who would not tinker with their stoves and who refuse to change themselves champion reform of nearly everything else.

Now reform might technically be the proper word, but what I think we mean is reconstitute, that is, to change the rules, to change the agreement and the system. We want to shuffle the deck for a new deal. We want to constituere, to set up, to decide anew. Re-form indeed. And we say this casually. It'll take just a few more laws, a little managerial tinkering, a little more authority in the right hands, and, naturally, more funding.

So near, so simple. Only it's not, of course, because we're still talking about changing people.

Sometimes reform is needed, but it's a grave thing, best started at home, and wherever, best without the conceit that one can both reform and conserve.

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