Critiques & Controversies: November 2007 Archives

Political Writing Revisited


The other day I wrote a short review of Ralph Nader's book The Good Life in which I said that it was disappointing but unsurprising; however, I'm unconvinced that I made my main point about disappointment because it was so lost in digression. And so, I'd like to revisit that in a more focused way.

Explicitly, my disappointment in Mr. Nader's book stems from the difference between stated objective and actual accomplishment. At the beginning Mr. Nader makes a powerful point about the necessity and obligation of the ordinary citizen to participate in the political and social world around them. In short, the ordinary person in the street is called upon to contribute to change. This is a powerful, wonderful, much-needed message. The book goes on to detail why such change is needed. Unfortunately, in so doing, much too much is made of those who are to blame for our present situation--and that blame is always thrown at anyone who disagrees with Mr. Nader and most of the time there appears to be in the implicit assumption of malice, conspiracy, or both. For example, the Republicans are out to deliberately oppress and create an underclass of the ordinary working person. While it may be true that there are some Republicans who might positively delight in such a prospect, I seriously doubt whether that is the express intention of the majority of Republicans, even powerful republicans, as they go about their daily duties. Why not look at the households of famous Democrats or liberals who hire and mistreat illegal immigrants routinely? I'm sure that the number of these is approximately equal to the number of Republicans whose deliberate mission it is to create an underclass.

In all political discussion of the present day, there appears to be an at least implicit assumption of ill-will or malice. This may be the case with all political writing through time, but I don't get the same sense from writers of previous eras. That may be because what survives to come to us today, survives because it transcends the tropes and diatribes of the time. It may, however, be indicative of the time, I do not have the breadth of experience to suggest the truth of the matter.

However, I do believe that it is possible to urge people to action on an issue without spending time blaming one group or another for the present situation. What does it matter who is responsible for allowing parking lots to be built on the watershed that directly feeds into the Everglades. The reality is that they are being built and will continue to be so until action is taken to prevent it.

Any effective action is by its own nature bipartisan any way. Yes, some laws are passed by a party, but those that stay in place are usually passed by a majority in both parties. The situation we are in is the result of input from both groups--it implies at least implicit consent from one group or another despite griping. (This goes, of course, only for true legislation, not for legislation from the bench, which seems almost impossible to overcome by any means allowed within the Consitution,)

My point is that civic action is a duty of all citizens. Involvement in the the political life around us is required so that we can inform it. It is the realm in which religion legitimately and purposefully enters into the social sphere. It is the intersection of "in the world" and "Of the world." and as such, helps to define that world for better or worse. As we choose to remain outside that interaction, society is deprived of the proper formation of conscience. Thus, there is a purpose to peaceful prayer outside of an abortion clinic, but no purpose to violent bombing of clinics or assassination of doctors who perform abortions.

My disappointment with the book stemmed from the fact that I was hoping to read about individuals who were working for the good life implied by the title. Instead, I'm told about how messed up life is and how it is all the result of Republican scheming to maintain and enlarge the underclass while exploiting the world.

Why is it not possible to engage in political discussion with an assumption of good will (if perhaps bad reasoning, or poor thought) on the part of all of those engaged. Why do we find it so hard to refrain from maligning the person rather than dealing with the idea? I think this is in part the same phenomenon that occurs when we drive and there are not longer people on the road, but cars. In the same way when we address people who hold ideas and call them idiots, morons, whoremongers, or whatever terms we use, we have placed a child of God within the vehicle of idea and have condemned them both.

By all means, bring every weapon to bear upon bad thinking. Help to correct the immoral or incorrect assumptions or bad data or other source of error in the thought of a person holding an opinion that differs from one's own. But my plea to all politicians and to all who would engage in political debate is to debate the ideas. Do not tar with one brush all people who self-label. All Republicans do not want to exploit migrant workers and toss them out of the country. All Democrats do not want to open the borders to all and sundry and allow the terrorists to overrun us. Why do so many writers write as if it were so?

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As I view the situation there are problems with both liberal and conservative strains of thought. The problem with liberal thought is intrinsic to the philosophy, the problem with conservative thought is extrinsic, but so pervasive one might be led to conclude that it is an underlying principle.

The intrinsic problem with liberal thought is the Rousseau-derived absolute confidence in the ability of human reason to restore paradise and the assurance that human will follows human reason. The extrinsic problem in conservative thought is the underlying turf-rooted suspicion of absolute depravity and the Puritan assumption that the elect are identifiable by their lot in this life.

As a result conservative thought, particularly economic conservative thought, tends to overlook the plight of the poor and suggest that they shift for themselves. The suggestion that one might consider raising a minimum wage sends thrills of horror through them, convinced as they are of two things: economic disaster is immediately upon us, and those who are doing poorly are doing poorly because they don't care to work for themselves. The ultimate conservative economic statement comes from Ebenezer Scrooge--"'Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned-they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there." Which is not to say that every individual conservative holds to these lines of thought, nor even that it is a majority, nor even that the thought is held consciously--I don't think it is. But I do not among conservative thinkers a distinct lack of appreciation of the plight of the poor. Conservatism has been and continues to be the economic philosophy of the well-off.

In this sense, the intrinsically flawed philosophy of liberalism offers seemingly better recourse. The problem here is that the recourse depends both upon the strength of the idea and upon an assumed willingness to see the idea through to completion. Liberal thought is the supreme philosophy of incompletism. There is the assumption that because government is established for the common good it is, within a society, the source of all good and what good may come should come through the government. In a sense, the liberal mindset establishes the prisons and the workhouses that the resentful conservative supports and pays for.

These two strains of thought working in tandem do and have done absolutely nothing to relieve the true desperation of the poor. Over the last hundred years or so fewer of the poor die from hunger, malnutrition, and other woes visited on those who do not have enough to eat (at least in industrialized nations), but the number of poor and their condition has neither diminished nor has there been any sign that it ever can be diminished. The welfare state grows larger and larger, and still the poor are poor and remain visited by non-economic manifestations of poverty.

The solution may not be in raising minimum wage or in any sort of governmental assistance, but it certainly does not rest in refuting and refusing all such helps and providing no useful suggestion about how to address the problem. More often than not, a conservative thinker will suggest why a solution is not viable without suggesting anything that is more viable. For example, alleviating poverty through an individual response to the poor. How is this to be organized, on what basis can we rely upon it to happen, what will be done to encourage and foster this response? On these question the conservative thinker is silent. On these same questions the liberal thinker, ever-ready to contradict his or her own Rouseauian roots doubts the capacity of individuals to address the problem. Not only do they doubt the capacity, but the willingness, and therefore the solution must be forced upon everyone through governmental interference.

What is needed in the realm of economics is for both sides to come to the table and admit their failings. Each needs humbly to approach the problem and seek viable solutions that may be organizationally or even governmentally mediated, but not institutionalized. In this sense "the thousand points of light" is the right view of how to approach many of the problems of poverty. Mother Teresa's approach to the alleviation of the strife of the poor was not to seek more money and set up a foundation that would dole out food or money or both to the poor, but to help each one with human hands and human heart. I don't know for a fact that she ever lifted anyone out of poverty, but she taught each person that she came in contact with what it was to be loved whether rich or poor.

The solution to poverty is in God's hands. But a first step is for everyone to see what it looks like and experience it first hand--frequently. When we understand that poverty is not a disease and not infectious, we might begin to have a better appreciation for how to begin to combat it, or at least the effects of it. As it stands, we remain opposed (rightfully so) to the forced reapportionment of goods that we work hard to obtain, while providing no other recourse for those who cannot fend for themselves. The hard reality we need to face is that for every child we pray or argue away from the hands of the abortionists, we incur an obligation to assure that that child will have at very least all that he or she needs to thrive and become a productive citizen. There is a cost to doing what is right, sometimes a painful cost, but that is our sacrifice offered up to God. In the words of this morning's morning prayer:

"We have in our day. . .
no holocaust, sacrifice, oblation, or incense,
no place to offer first fruits, to find favor with you.

But with contrite heart and humble spirit
let us be received. . .
so let our sacrifice be in your presence today
as we follow you unreservedly;
for those who trust in you cannot be put to shame.

And now we follow you with our whole heart. . . ."

Next stop--liberal and conservative social thought (maybe).

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An Harmonic Convergence


Reading a number of things at once sometimes leads to some interesting observations that might not come from reading any one of them separately or from reading them sequentially.

Saturday the bookgroup decided to read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. I duly went out and bought this book because I felt that it was one that I was likely to want to refer to in the future. It is certainly getting a lot of play in business circles and I thought it might be useful to have on hand. (I'm not usually one to read books that are popular in business circles, but this also seems to be about memes and the effect thereof on people--and that is of intense interest.)

Also to hand as a result of a visit to the library yesterday is Ralph Nader's The Good Fight. Subtitled, Declare Your Independence and Close the Democracy Gap, Mr. Nader's thesis is that we are slowly abdicating our form of government from a sense of helplessness and the futility of it all. (For example those among us who would argue that our vote "doesn't make a difference" because ultimately it doesn't boil down to one vote.)

It occurred to me that it would be possible that the "futility" argument could become a particularly virulent (and fashionable) sort of meme that would lead to a crisis of voting and governmental participation. While I wholeheartedly agree with folks who point out that when the choice is between Giuliani and Clinton, there is not no candidate to vote for, does that mean necessarily that I must or should not vote.

No. Once again, I'm led to the conclusion that we must vote. We must exercise the franchise each and ever time, even if voting means writing in the name of a person we liked but who didn't make it through the primaries. Even if it means writing in, time and again NONA. Even if it means, eventually, getting involved ourselves--on a local, state, or even national level.

If the way of life we celebrate today, given to us through the actions of many noble people who lost life, limb, family, and property while fighting, is to continue we are required to take action. Each of us is required to exercise that franchise in whatever little way we do, because THAT is the meme we want infecting future generations. Not angst, trial, apathy, and cultural anemia, but a strong statement that we believe in our present way of life and we will, in our own small way, honor those who came before by exercising to the fullest the freedom they bequeathed us.

Shalom to all on this Veteran's Day celebration. May the happy memory of those who gave their lives, literally or through their toil in the defense of our country, remind us always to be respectful of what they have secured for us. And may those who passed away in battle or as a result of war rest in peace and rise to the resurrection dawn assured of their place in heaven by their sacrifice for others. As we remember those who died, let us offer some suffrage that they might see God's glory and dwell in the light of the beatific vision.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Critiques & Controversies category from November 2007.

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