Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Building Toward Understanding, Part One: Clean Your Own House First

NOTE: This essay will be longer than usual, but still nothing approaching a novel.


In the comments section following Monday's self-revelatory post, the contours of what can potentially be a very productive discussion came into view. A libertarian from Florida made the point - and I agree with it - that government cannot be seen as a first responder or outlet with respect to various social ills in America. A progressive from Britain then made the point - and I agree with it - that there does have to be at least some balance between respect for private, individual charitable action and - on the other hand - built-in structural support for people who fall through the cracks.

As newcomers to this blog need to know, this and other essays won't try to argue for the superiority of one political or ideological position in comparison with another. As soon as one takes sides or makes a declaration of where s/he stands, perceptions begin to set in. The purpose of today's commentary is precisely to wean Americans of all persuasions away from either-or, one-or-the-other-type thought processes.

What we instead need in our society (and this would also apply for Brits and Germans and Japanese friends and Filipinos and Australians) is a both-and approach. Even the quickest and most simplified survey of human life should enable people with different mindsets to come to such a conclusion.

Human beings need to be nurtured by loving and morally-centered parents, but they then need to be allowed to grow and think for themselves.

Human beings need to be disciplined, restrained and judicious in the ways we carry ourselves throughout life, but we also need to be expressive, tender and caring as well.

We need to be generous, but we also need to protect our interests and be willing to say no at times.

We need to conserve resources, but there are times when we need to splurge or enjoy something pleasurable in order to alleviate stress or keep a marriage fun.

There are times when one has to play things by the book, and there are times when one has to break the rules (once in a while but surely not often, a big one) in order to make a larger point or achieve a greater good.

There are times to assert a masculine sense of strength and fortitude, and there are times meant for a feminine understanding of situations.

There are times when one must insist on a certain route or path, and there are times when one must step aside and not fight every battle, allowing certain skirmishes to be carried on by others (if at all).

One could make many more similar statements. You get the point: We are multi-dimensional organisms who need to attain certain degrees of balance, lest we lose the sense of equilibrium that's so essential to a healthy existence. (I'm aware of what's imbalanced in my life; I'm not that great about solving those imbalances, however. A work in progress.)

For every instinct we have, there usually - if not always - needs to be a tempering and countervailing inclination which prevents us from going too far down the other road. This realization comes not from the realms of politics or ideology, but from the larger experience of being human and navigating the choppy waters of a day-to-day challenge that always acquires new dimensions (albeit within old forms). This is all a way of saying that living a balanced life - and establishing good foundations for a healthy, integrated journey on this planet - should not be perceived as belonging more to one political philosophy than another.

This is where things get really tricky.

I would like to think that people of (almost!) any political leaning or ideological mindset want the best for society. There will always be fringe elements of various groups, or aberrant individuals who try to hijack or distort a given movement, but in the bigger picture, liberals and conservatives, progressives and libertarians, centrists and radicals, reactionaries and socialists, want their country to thrive.

Do we have different ways of conceptualizing and articulating the well-chosen path or the virtuous school of thought? Of course. Should that mean, though, that we doubt the sincerity of a person with diametrically-opposed views on the specifics of policy, law, the Constitution, and electoral competition?

It's always instructive and telling when a person on one side of the political divide makes a statement which doesn't fit with a larger mainstream perception. Bruce Fein, a conservative constitutional lawyer, had much to say about the Bush Administration's abuses of power. Noam Chomsky, an iconic liberal intellectual, very recently condemned the Obama Administration for its practices while talking about the legitimacy of the Tea Party perspective. When events like these take place, it's almost always the bloggers or tweeters on the other side who point it out:

"Look, fellow conservatives! Even Noam CHOMSKY agrees with us!"

"Here, fellow liberals! Even BRUCE FEIN sees the light!"

We know why we love to tweet about such occurrences: It's so rare when one of "them" understands "us" that the moment has to be marked and remembered. The conversion or the sympathetic presence of a long-perceived adversary (regardless of whether that person really was or is or should be viewed as an adversary) provides immense validation to our own political and intellectual architectures. It's powerful stuff, and I've participated in this process enough to know how intoxicating a feeling it really is. My massive ego drinks this stuff up. Darn straight it feels good.

But you know what? I'm 34. I've lived through lots of battles, and they've all left me profoundly unsatisfied, if not outright miserable. This necessitates further sharing of my own life story.

I shook Paul Wellstone's hand at the University of Washington in February of 2000 while working for Bill Bradley's campaign against Al Gore for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. That moment was great, but it was about the only enjoyable moment from that Bradley-Gore fight. I was interviewed during that campaign by Mike Allen of POLITICO, the same Mike Allen who just got profiled in the New York Times Magazine yesterday (April 21, 2010). Allen phrased his questions like a man who knew the answers he wanted beforehand; that was a telling look inside the mindset of a Beltway journalist.

I voted for Ralph Nader in the 2000 general presidential election and - not knowing 9/11 would happen - hoped that George Bush would take the presidency to teach the Democratic Party a lesson and make it much more liberal in the years ahead.

I watched MSNBC in 2004 as Chris Matthews laughed Howard Dean off the stage of American presidential politics following Dean's perfectly innocent attempt to rally the hearts of student volunteers who had just suffered a crushing and disillusioning disappointment in the snow-covered plains of Iowa.

I watched the 2006 election night results and realized that the Democrats would control the House for the first time since 1994. I hoped - one last time - that maybe, just maybe, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid would turn the Dems into a party I could actually admire and fight for.

I watched in 2007 and 2008 as Pelosi and Reid kowtowed to the Bush Administration on matters of civil liberties, war and peace, and (unfettered) free trade. My belief in the Democratic Party - which had been whittled down to virtually nothing - fully and finally died during the final years of the Bush (43) Administration.

Now, I've watched Barack Obama - who, for all his openly-stated centrist positions, was still a community organizer - erode our country to an even greater extent. Community organizers are people I've spent a lot of time with in my work, be it volunteer or paid, in Catholic Seattle. My mother knows many community organizers in Phoenix, and our shared experience of these people is that they have the interests of commoners in mind. They might not always produce the best outcomes, but they're trying to inspire involvement and create empowerment among the citizenry, the people at or near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

Say what you want about Obama; he's been a thoroughly horrible president. The only point I wish to make is that Obama's betrayal of the ethos and mission of a community organizer - namely, to give a voice to those at the bottom of a power structure - represents just the latest in a series of events which have affirmed the Democratic Party as anything but the friend of the poor and the vulnerable. I have, for many years, touted one political viewpoint over another, but all the while, I've never really had a political party or organization which has housed my views with sufficient amounts of legislative clout, real-world heft, or - most importantly - bracingly courageous honesty.

I would dare to suggest that my friends on the other side of the political and/or philosophical divide(s) would say the same thing.

The Republican Party is much less the prime mover in the realm of conservative and libertarian activism than is the Tea Party movement. The Republican National Committee's resistance to Ron Paul is as much of an indictment of the GOP as the Democratic National Committee's opposition to Ralph Nader is an indictment of the Dems. Alternative voices, anti-establishment voices - voices which basically threaten to overturn an enduring and deeply entrenched power structure in Washington, D.C. - are regularly muffled and marginalized by the Republican and Democratic parties.

What does this all mean? It's more material than this one essay can contain. (A "part two" will be absolutely necessary.) For now, though, just absorb what the following statement must mean to me: At age 34, I've seen the Democratic Party - which was always supposed to be "on MY side" - act in ways that have run counter to many if not all of my values, hopes and desires. I'm not enchanted with much of anything the Republicans have done, but the people and politicians who claimed to represent me and speak for me have not earned my trust.

What good is it, then, for me - a progressive - to tout all the instances in which a conservative criticizes a Republican or a libertarian criticizes a conservative?

What good is it, then, for me - a progressive - to identify acts of hypocrisy, excess, bluster, arrogance, greed, narrow-mindedness (etc., etc., etc.) among Republicans when the Democrats own all those same black marks in relatively equal abundance?

I'm tired of tweeting about how the so-called "other side" is bad. I want my values to be represented, which means that people who agree with me need to be pushed out of their comfort zones and into a posture where we - as progressives - tweet more about Democrats' failures than Republicans' missteps.

I'm tired of comparisons between Democrats and Republicans, between liberals and conservatives, and trying to defend "my side" against the opposition when "my side" really isn't on "my side" in the first place.

Richard Rohr - my favorite Catholic priest and the spiritual teacher I admire the most in contemporary American Christianity - said at a 2006 lecture in Albuquerque that "liberals think they can convince conservatives by giving them enough information." Rohr has stressed that liberals all too frequently try to overwhelm ideological opponents with enough statistics and "facts" that the other side will give way, an approach he viewed as hopelessly futile and doomed to failure.

He's right.

I have my information, you have yours. I have my media outlets and trusted sources, you have yours. A liberal will have his or her preferred TV programs, magazines and blogs. A conservative will occupy separate corners of the multimedia and journalism universes. A progressive will tout one study, a libertarian the next. A socialist will trumpet one set of economic indicators, a Chamber of Commerce Republican another.

Enough. I'm tired of it, and what's more, our country is groaning and creaking under the weight of the hyperpartisanship that is generated, multiplied, and further entrenched whenever competing sides launch their own stacks of information and their own exposes at the opponent across the way.

Government is in such a sorry state - and our country finds itself in a generally unfavorable position - because both parties have kicked the can down the road and failed to make responsible adult choices about budgetary restraint, federal overreach, and the plight of the poor. We all have our own spins or slants on the matter; we all have our own studies, assemblages of information, and panels of experts to cite in all of this. Yet, in a country that's rather polarized - look at the results of our last three presidential elections - does any one of us really think that we'll be able to secure such an overwhelming national mandate that we don't have to debate or reckon with others in an attempt to pass meaningful legislation and create substantial positive change?

The Democrats - with a 59-41 advantage in the U.S. Senate - have been extremely impotent and ineffective. Should we think that the Republicans will move the needle even further in the other direction? Moreover, should any of us view it as a primary goal to either work for or against such a goal?

We have to dialogue and come off our respective perches at some point. We have to emerge from our separate cocoons of thought and hash out some hard-won but legitimate compromise, the way adults do in the workplace and the way married people do in the home. Give a little, get a little; protect what is non-negotiable but give up the things that are optional.

The fusion between good libertarianism and good progressivism, which was mentioned at the beginning of this essay, requires a separate post in the coming days. For now - and in conclusion - just realize that whether government is big or small, the most important thing is that government be made BETTER. That's a goal which transcends political labels and ideologies. We all need to improve ourselves in order to create a better and more thriving America (and world). Therefore, since we know our own political philosophy better than others', why don't we develop the habit of identifying the weaknesses, hypocrisies and outrages in our own party or among our own crowd? I can't reform a conservative nearly as well or as powerfully as I can reform a liberal. I can't understand the nuances of libertarian thought nearly as well as I can identify a progressive sensibility and then pronounce what I so clearly and fervently advocate.

A certain man named Jesus - yeah, that one - said something about removing the plank from one's own eye before focusing on the speck in the eye of another. This idea is found in the expression "Clean up your own house first!"

Americans have to learn to do this, and pull ourselves away from the "food fight" political model in which we spend our time trying to justify how bad the "other side" is, how much worse "THEY" are than "WE" are.

Once we take this important and essential first step, we can then move forward and attain the balance our political and intellectual (and spiritual) lives so desperately require.

Please, friends, no matter where you lie on the political spectrum, you need to tend to your own party or movement first. Understand the tensions and conflicts with your own "in-group," and then the debate across party lines and ideological barriers can take place in earnest.

In part two, we'll look at how that cross-party debate can happen in a meaningful way.


  1. I wrote a long reply, but it didn't take, so here I am again, in what will likely be a shorter, more concise thought:

    You said this, which deserves a response: "does any one of us really think that we'll be able to secure such an overwhelming national mandate that we don't have to debate or reckon with others in an attempt to pass meaningful legislation and create substantial positive change?"

    I understand that the context was to say that we need to compromise. Got it, and understood. But I would also like to use this to point out that we should move toward a national system that is less centralized. The great progressive dream is to make states to be little more than political subdivisions with little to no sovreignty in order to make Washington more and more powerful. Progressives hate "states rights" and the 10th Amendment. But why?

    Isn't a Federalist system whereby states retain control over social services and other domestic matters while Washington controls matters of State and Defense and ensures free trade between the states. You know, in line with the Constitution?

    It should be easily understood that people congregate by political beliefs. Like minded people tend to find themselves around others that think similarly. In other words, I don't think we'll ever reach a national consensus on controversial matters, but local consensuses are much easier to forge. Let Texas run Texas in accordance with the People's wishes. Let Washington (state) do the same. People can vote with their feet, if they wish.

    This nation is being torn apart, mainly because the federal government has determined that it will pass bills that nearly half of the country hate. But why? Why should the federal government be involved with most of what it is involved with at all? Wouldn't the nation be happier in aggregate if states were truly allowed to govern themselves without the interference of the Leviathan? Wouldn't America be less prone to the divisions that tear us apart if local solutions were forged by neighbors working with neighbors instead of the massive one-size-fits-all bureaucratic state?

    Thanks. That's all for now. Good post, again.

  2. John,

    What you talk about will be addressed soon... perhaps not entirely in the next post, but certainly in the next three posts.

  3. Hey Matt. :)

    I'm not quite sure why different sides need to have different media outlets? Well, I sort of understand that - but why don't people read out from their natural political/social "homes"?

    It also shouldn't be impossible to see through slanted bullshit, whatever side it's on. I do agree that it's hard to find truly trustworthy sources, however, and that everyone reads them through their own slant and perspective. What worries me is how many people don't seem to be aware of that and of their own biases.

    Presumably progressives want to make Washington more powerful in order to do things they see as good, not just to be more powerful in itself?

    But I don't see why, as you say, John, local coalitions couldn't be built - maybe the solutions would be even more effective? Is there something that prevents that happening at local/state level? I don't have an agenda on this, I'm just interested.

    I find the constitutional stuff really quite interesting. We don't have a written constitution, although I think Gordon Brown would like one. (I'm not sure I would.)

    Interestingly enough, here, devolution to regions/cities/countries was undertaken by Labour after 1997 - for example, the Scottish assembly, which has real powers to influence Scotland - many policies are different in Scotland and England such as free care for the elderly, no student tuition fees, etc etc.

    The EU dynamic here is interesting too.

    Not pointing that out to say that Labour is perfect or anything, just interested that the left/right demarcations can be so different between countries. The climate change issue is another one. There's a general tendency for the right to be a little more suspicious of climate change science here, I guess, but every mainstream party leader is committed to "tackling climate change" in different ways, and one of the ways in which their sincerity is judged is what they personally are doing in their own households and lifestyles.

    I suppose people do naturally congregate by similar beliefs but it would be nice if dialogue could be open, friendly and constructive between people on different sides of the great divide.

    Although, that divide is only one faultline. I understand conservatism as a way of thinking and an ideology, and admire it - whether or not I agree with the way our Tories are interpreting it at the moment - but I can't find anything to admire or discuss in the policies of a party like the BNP.

    Sorry, that was all a bit long and rambly. :)

  4. Jewell,

    Local coalitions can be built. And are constantly. But the Consitution has something called the "Supremacy Clause" which essentially means that if the federal government speaks on something, it overrides any state laws on the matter. So as the federal government seeks to control more and more of the policy decisions in this country (unconstitutionally, in my opinion), the states have less and less authority. And the 10th Amendment gives the states all powers not specifically granted to the federal government. The federal govenrnment is destroying our Federalist system of government, which is the cause of much consternation to people like me, who believe in the Constitution and the 10th Amendment.