Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Politics: A Meditation

There's a kind of hush all over the country tonight, as political factions think up new ways to demonize each other with various forms of libel, slander, and name calling. And this is a process we take for granted, as the natural way things are done. After all, when it comes to politics, “opinion”, which sounds harmless enough, soon turns into some sort of tyranny once you add power. So even the mere voicing of an opinion can – and should! -- be seen as a potentially aggressive and rights-threatening act... and the person holding that opinion should be seen as a potential tyrant – as evil! I mean, how many people felt threatened by Karl Marx when he was browsing in the British Library... or Lenin when he was living in a garret in Zurich? So eternal vigilance is demanded! And generous use must be made, at all times, of emotionally-laden words like “fascist”, “Islamofascist”, “Nazi”, and so on... because, as we all know, reasoned argument and public debate on the real issues are things of the past. From now on, only emotional appeals will do – you know, the kind having to do with things like patriotism, money, war, coercion, and what not.

Yes, it is interesting how a society that prides itself on being founded on “ideas”, or “ideals”, has so thoroughly turned against reason and objectivity when it comes to discussing political questions. And it's not as if data were unavailable; this is not 1776. Every conceivable (and some inconceivable) political system has been tried somewhere in the world, many within living memory. The results are in, and in many cases are in plain sight for everyone to see. And yet there are still debates – not because people don't accept the data as much as disagreement as to interpretation. What, for example, caused the Great Depression, and what prolonged it (assuming it was, in fact, prolonged)? Fights break out to this day in economics and political science departments on this question. And there is not much more agreement as to what caused the current Great Recession... and none at all as to what should be done about it. Every side is, of course, concerned that the solutions proposed by all the others are agenda-laden and designed primarily to add to someone else's wealth and power, and not to alleviate the suffering of the ordinary citizen (or their own). This is on the strictly material side... but then we have the issue that every proposed solution is predicated on a given political point of view or set of values, and, if enacted, it will tend to promote and solidify that point of view and those values. So, if you don't like socialism, then don't support socialistic solutions, no matter how benign, well-intentioned, or "temporary" they may be; this seems simple enough. The bottom line is that no one is neutral, everyone has an agenda, and no one's agenda is to simply aid the average person and promote the general welfare and prosperity. And this, in turn, I suppose, is a symptom of the overall degeneration of our political life – that suddenly everything is “partisan” and no one can claim to have a coherent philosophy of government or a consistent and valid moral base for their positions. Everything is situational, and we have lost the concept of “short-sightedness” because all of the answers and “solutions” have that trait in common.

Another thing missing in all the debate is a vision – what sort of country do we want? Maybe the answer is, one like we had 50 or 100 or 200 years ago – well then, how would one propose that we get to that point, starting right now, today? See, no one who objects to “turning back the clock” ever offers any reasons why that's a bad idea; it's simply assumed to be bad, by definition. I suppose that the Nazis in Germany in the late 1930s accused the Jews of wanting to “turn back the clock” too; this term is not always wielded by “progressives” (although, lets admit, the Nazis were progressives of a sort as well). Or – perhaps what we want is a Utopian vision, one that is realistic and “works” this time, as opposed to the many hundred that have been tried and failed. In any case, the one thing that no one seems to want – something we can all agree on, in fact – is for things to stay exactly as they are. And this, at least, is an improvement over the impacted, petrified Soviet mentality that took over Russia after the Bolsheviks consolidated their power. America is, and has always been, the land of dissatisfaction; true conservatism – i.e., no change – is nigh unto nonexistent. People who call themselves conservatives don't want things to stay as they are now – they want to go back to some idealized past time, except this time make it better... the way someone who grows up in a dysfunctional family keeps seeking out situations that resemble that family in hopes that, this time, they can work through the problems and emerge victorious, because now they “know better” -- or have more power, or are less willing to play the victim, or something. And this, in its own way, represents as delusional a world view as that of the liberal humanist, who is forever trying to remake man – in his own image, or some chosen image... in any case, to not accept mankind and human nature as it is and work within those constraints. Conservatives are better, as has been pointed out by a number of commentators, at accepting “fallen man”; their notions of what is possible are not as grandiose at those of the liberals. But they tend to see the past with rose-colored glasses in the same manner as the liberals see the future, confusing nostalgia with reality.

So is this a counsel of despair? I would rather characterize it as realism... but then, everybody with a political viewpoint considers themselves “realistic” -- no one sets out, consciously, to impose delusional and fantastic thinking on their fellows. Whatever has to be overthrown as part of the revolution... well, that was just standing in the way. And whatever has to be destroyed wasn't really important. This is the mind set. They all have a concept of the nature of man, and are all trying to facilitate the full flowering thereof... well, except the ones who just want raw power, or money, and use political ideas as a cover. But they are easily detected and exposed, right? Not so fast! How many people out there still think, for instance, that Bill Clinton has “beliefs” and “values” that go beyond his own gratification? And surely Hillary Clinton believes in “America” first and foremost, with her own aggrandizement of power ranking far down the list. Right. So we also have the problem that people are easily fooled by the ambitious and talented among the political class. We have traded the ancient concept of meritocracy -- leadership based on merit -- for a form of authoritarianism: A person is a leader, therefore he (or she) must have merit.

Take any given political, social or economic issue... take the sum total of all the current discussion about it from all sides... and subtract that component which can be characterized as “emotional”. What's left? The chances are, nothing at all. But wait – aren't discussions of this sort naturally emotional? Shouldn't we care, fervently, about seeing our values realized in the public, social, and economic sectors... and shouldn't we care when those values are threatened? Well, yes – except that emotionality and attachment never won a debate... not really. I mean, they may have appeared to, but that debate will only come back and be repeated on another day, ad infinitum, because it will never be settled. Does anyone really “know” how much government involvement in the economy is the “right” amount, for instance? No, because all anyone cares about is that the level of involvement at present is too much... or too little. And is anyone interested in gathering actual facts relevant to the issue? No, because facts are far less important than theory. “The way things ought to be” is always based on ideals, never on an estimate of objective results. Things that don't seem to work – that are, objectively, a disaster – are deemed to “work” because they are supposed to work – in theory. And things that shouldn't work, but do – well, they aren't really “working”; there's something wrong with the data, or people are simply mistaken, misled, deceived, etc. This is the way things are in the world of politics – and the more our society and its resources are taken over, and dominated, by politics, the greater a proportion of our time and energy will be taken up with this sort of thinking... until eventually it will all be politics, the way the black market tends to take over a significant part of the economy in a totalitarian system (except for the exact opposite reason). And yet it seems as if people want it this way; they don't want to be philosophical, or moral, or objective – only emotional. We make fun of denizens of the Islamic world because they are such “hotheads” -- so irrational, so impulsive, so easily misled. But we cannot claim superiority to them in any way – at least not in terms of the current scene. We have had principles of sound governance in our past, as part of our traditions... but that era (assuming it ever existed, and is not just another case of societal “false memory”) is long gone. As I've said before, if an impartial observer gazed upon the American political scene today, they would not imagine, in a million years, that we fancied ourselves in a direct line of descent from the Founding Fathers. It would be like considering the barbarian kingdoms occupying Rome in the Dark Ages direct descendants of the Roman Republic. And we are not alone in this. After all, China claims direct descent from Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution for what is, today, possibly the most aggressive and thriving capitalist economy on the planet. (I guess even crazy thinking is OK if it's crazy in the right direction.) But no – we no longer have any claim on founding principles, and very little residual claim on even the most basic structural elements of the Constitution – since those have been distorted way beyond recognition. Does anyone still think we enjoy a “balance of powers”, for instance? With an imperial presidency and a chief executive who can (unofficially) declare war on any other country, or non-country, at any time, and be answerable to no one... and who can also, as the spirit moves him, defy the Supreme Court and get away with it? No – we have descended into soft tyranny... but it's getting harder with each passing day. Every law that is passed is made up mostly of sanctions – i.e. of the “or else” part – what happens if you don't comply. And we wonder why our prisons are overcrowded! We have become a nation of lawbreakers – not because the citizenry have turned into scofflaws as much as the law itself morphing from an aid to peace and civil order to a noose around everyone's neck. And yet, again, this is what people seem to want, because it relieves them from responsibility – from having to make choices. We send our representatives to Washington and to state capitals with the express intention that they should spend every waking hour “making laws” -- and then wonder why the law has become oppressive! If you want fewer laws, what you need is fewer lawmakers – or much less time on their hands. So the bottom line is that when people vote for their “representatives”, what they are saying is, yes, we need more laws – more than we already have. What each of them is really saying is, I want more laws that favor me and fewer that favor other people. So one's vote becomes a slot-machine bet – you pull the lever and hope for the best. Maybe a wave of hard currency will appear out of nowhere and wash you out of the voting booth... but it's unlikely. Even the most “informed” voter – the most dangerous kind, perhaps – is only hoping for a level playing field; no one dares hope that the playing field itself will be plowed under and turned into something productive.

And we vote in order to secure our “rights” -- as if they were things that could be turned on and off by a given president, or session of Congress. But when it comes to “rights” -- we either have them or we don't, and the government has nothing to do with it. Now, when it comes to freely exercising those rights, that's a different matter... but you do see the distinction, I hope. Of course, no one can agree on what “human rights” are in the first place – do they even exist? And if so, what is their origin? And what are they, exactly? How many are there? Are they all contained within the Bill of Rights? And so on. Again, it's all emotion, all politics. “Rights” are those things I claim when I feel I've been treated unfairly. It seems so much more noble to talk about “rights” than just about “wants”. How many protest signs start with the words, “I want”? But that's what they all mean, isn't it? Are we, in principle, any better than a bunch of two-year-olds? Not really. In fact, we're worse, because at least two-year-olds don't throw tantrums about their “rights”.

So how, after all, do we manage to climb up out of this mile-deep pit of politics – this stew of dissatisfaction? Are we like those poor wretches in the Dore engravings of the deluge, each trying to stay above water by climbing on the person next to them? Who will rescue us, since our “leaders” are all caught up in the same whirlpool? There do seem to be some people who are standing placidly on the sidelines, smugly viewing the spectacle – but we can expect no help from them. They may not have entirely created the situation, but as long as they are profiting from it they will allow it to persist and won't lift a finger to change it. And perhaps we are, in fact, caught up in a great cleansing – a deluge for our time (in which case, where's Noah, and where can I buy a ticket for his ark?). Where, indeed, can we stand – there being no island, no rock, and not even a lighthouse to guide the way. The irony is that, while we may not be in a cultural Dark Ages (though some would argue with that as well), and we are certainly in a golden age (or sorts) of technology, we have become as philosophically and morally benighted as any past civilization of which we have knowledge... and social and economic collapse is following right behind. This is, of course, no coincidence, since interconnectivity almost to the point of gridlock is one of the prime characteristics of our world – and yes, we have technology to thank for much of this. The downside of the “global village” is that it is, indeed, a village – with all of the dysfunctions and annoyances that villages have always been prone to. The village gossip has morphed into the media and the social work industry... the village bully has morphed into things like “spreading democracy” through military force... the village idiot has morphed into George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. And so on. Just because things are “writ large” doesn't make them better, or more acceptable – if anything, it adds to the danger and the oppression, not to mention the coarseness of existence. Again, when we decide, as a people, that politics is not the main thing, it's the only thing – we can't very well be surprised or upset at the result. If politics is merely an expression of human nature, it at least seems to express all of its worse aspects. So when we forego reason and objectivity in favor of emotion on a mass, or group, level, we have, in effect, thrown out all that is potentially noble, inspirational, and constructive and retained the mean, the carnal, and the impulsive – and the destructive. We have become, in effect, philosophical and moral vandals – not even understanding the significance of that which we willingly deface and destroy. The few who see it and urge restraint are overridden and marginalized... persecuted... even killed. One is tempted to simply turn and walk away, and leave it to the forces of darkness... but there is also the compulsion to keep that one candle burning. Who knows who might see it through the smoke, and across a sea of ignorance?

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