Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Center Cannot Hold

(in response to a friend)

You say that you want to remain skeptical of the beliefs that might motivate you to speak out on political matters. You are no more susceptible to political dogma than to poetic dogma. Nor are you more safe with poetic than political. If you're going to be a true skeptic don't believe it just because Walt and Emily say it.

Regarding policy I have to say that this race is not addressing those issues that I care about. Neither candidate is as good on policy as Dennis Kucinich. And I'm completely serious about that. I told everyone early on to consider Kucinich. He pushes hard and in the right directions. And regarding McCain/Obama: as politicians I don't see them as so different. As actors on the current stage I see them as diametrically opposed. How important is that? It depends.

We caught your pointed reference to the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Here's my point if you want to go with the Nazarene as a model:

Jesus saw someone being accused and oppressed. He said to the oppressors Lay off. You're no better. He said to the accused Find the strength to stop. There's judgement in both of those statements.

He didn't like to attack people. But he did attack assumptions and institutions. And individuals that stood up for that institution were made to feel foolish. Their goods were strewn on the temple floor. Their questions were ignored. Their bias was held against them.

If you want to argue that Jesus avoided political discussion, you have a great void of evidence in your favour. I'll not find many stump speeches on the mount in support of any candidate. But this isn't the same as staying out of politics. And you won't convince me that Jesus stayed out of social issues and steered clear of commenting on hatred and hypocrisy.

You quote Emerson saying the following of the soul:
It is not hot and passionate at the appearance of what it calls its own good or bad fortune, at the union or opposition of other persons.

I know Emerson has told me not to do this, but I disagree fundamentally with the idea of not disagreeing. (Of course, right?) But then I should probably read what else he said on the topic. Because we listen in order to understand. And we understand in order to act accordingly. And we act in order to connect appropriately. We have to understand disagreements in order to do all of that. It might be comforting to say that we can just get along without disagreeing, but there is a divine faculty that will fust in us unused if we swallow that bromide.

So I'll quote Yeats:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

The problem being that the best need more of that same rage.

To move over to another poet we can blame both fire and ice for harm. Both desire and indifference can do equal damage.

You set semi-racist McCain-voting in opposition to Obama-fawning and I read in that an important statement of your values. Which values you have made clear at several stages in this discussion and others. You have fought hard not to topple over for Obama. Because you don't want to stop considering. And that's what all these discussions do isn't it? It becomes a wholesale acceptance of a platform. It becomes the battle between us and them identical to good and evil. And so understanding stops. You're right. That is worth nothing. Here is why I ask you to reconsider the nature of the discussion and I ask you to consider contributing further.

Notice that very few of my posts are pro Obama. Because I agree that a presidency from each of them will be more similar than many of us would all like to admit. The troops might return from Iraq a little sooner with Obama. But they will simply move over to Afghanistan. And the middle east will no more be in hand because of pulling out or staying in. Either way it's fucked.

Health care will not become what Obama has on paper. And when a move towards government-provided preventive care is taken, it will be much smaller than the universal-ists have hoped for. And the closer it gets the more people will complain and blame the government, fairly or unfairly. Canadians cheer about their own healthcare system because it pisses off Americans, but they will also admit that the government often mucks up the system. Even when it is ensured that all will have equal access to some care, the quality of reasonably available care will remain inequitably distributed between the rich and the poor.

The financial crisis is the fault of both parties who were focused on the wrong regulations and who might have had good intentions regarding home ownership and economic stimulation. But the encouragement of indulgent consumption caught up with us. It wasn't a partisan event.

They will both treat the environment about the same. Neither will turn the country into a wind-power driven grid. They will both consider domestic drilling and neither will spend much time making sure the auto industry turns its back on oil.

If he wins am hoping that Obama will strengthen his stand against torture and keep his promise to stop it and to move away from the doctrine of executive power. But he never promised not to use signing statements. McCain did. Point McCain.

So I have to say that while Obama is intelligent and charismatic and symbolic of important change, the values of no single individual will rely on his presidency. He will not change any minds about race. He will not simply BE the argument against racism. But when we look at the current stage… at the campaigns that are running right now…

To say a little bit about my contributions and my need to speak out.
Notice that my posts really don't say anything about Obama saving us. About Obama's victory being important. In fact the posts that are in support of him are more in support of the people who are attributing their new confidence to him. I'm really just bashing McCain. And more specifically his judgment and the values that choose and allow the tactics that we see.

About three years ago you and I had a discussion about race and discussions in the classroom. I remember getting somewhat energized in that discussion telling you to implicate your students' indifference. I told you to tell them that they had no business not caring. I used the story of my professor Ralph Williams who started his class on Primo Levi this way:
You may ask what business do you, a goy, have teaching this class on the suffering in Auschwitz? This last century has been my century. I will live the majority of my life in this century. And I must say that when I look at the world and at my own country's behaviour over my lifetime I can't say that I'm extremely proud. After reading Levi's words and and learning from his perspective, I see that he understood of the hatred and the violence that this came about. And as a chemist he sought to understand how outcomes could be avoided. So I say to you: What business would I have not teaching this class?

And that's only a slightly stronger accusation than I would make about your bowing out of the discourse. To be clear:
1) There is no moral or ethical obligation to address the race or the candidates.
2) This political discourse need not be the center of social movement.
3) Political discourse in its simple delineations often does a disservice to the issues as they deserve to be considered.

But here is what I ask you to remember as you retreat: this race has gotten people to care about things that you also care about, and to admit things for which you have a bitter distaste.

Here is what I ask you to consider: that the tactics on one side of the race have encouraged racial divisions and have given many people the comfort to call for continued disrespect for the old categories and even to rally behind newly charged differences.

Here is what I simply ask: Does it not frustrate you that Colin Powell had to remind everyone that Muslims are not evil? That in these times yelling Muslim and sending an email about someone's middle name are enough to be called an accusation? That a candidate can be accused of caring "too much" about race issues?

When we hear paranoid and ridiculous arguments about the New World Order gaining strength from the UN and the Vatican we chuckle and move on, ignoring the prophets because we know they have no case and their delusions are clear. But then we hear paranoid and ridiculous arguments about the oppression of the white male. So then Joe The Plumber represents the country. And a candidate is not only OK with this, he has framed an issue this way and used it to seek an advantage. Have you seen the "I'm Joe the Plumber" ad? C'mon. I still chuckle. But it's harder to move on because a lot of people are buying it.

As I write, Steve Clemons is talking on Washington Journal saying that we should stop attacking the morality of positions. We should instead attack the soundness of commentary. There's something nicely staid about that philosophy. And it's a lovely way to conduct an exchange. But what's wrong with attacking an opposing morality? What's wrong with rattling a political cage and trying to take down one side's credibility before taking down their argument?

So Casey -- I'm not saying that you need to talk about politics. I'm not saying that you're letting us down. I'm not saying that you can't do good away from political discussion. I'm not saying that political discourse is the necessary end of moral expression. But I hold firm that it's not a dead end. And it's not a hindrance. And it doesn't have to be a distraction.


Casey said...

You say:

"And that's what all these discussions do isn't it? It becomes a wholesale acceptance of a platform. It becomes the battle between us and them identical to good and evil. And so understanding stops. You're right. That is worth nothing."

That's really important to me -- reading that, it felt like you had understood my hesitations. I'm probably going to do a few more posts as a result of this exchange, but I will say here that this post (for me) has been the response I've been, unconsciously, and perhaps annoyingly, seeking.

Look for my post about the "supplemental" nature of the American literary tradition... I'll try to get to it tonight.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Nice. Seriously - I see the points. And I too am much much more anti-McCain than pro-Obama who, truth be told, was my fourth choice, and well behind my number one, who was also Kucinich... Dude! You're the other one!

But this? "But he never promised not to use signing statements. McCain did. Point McCain."

Really? You think this is the statement he'll stand by?

fenhopper said...

True. I probably gave that point way too easily.

But I guess it's for the sake of taking them on their word for something -- even if just to show that I'm listening.

And even if I remain skeptical regarding all promises (and of course I am) I have to rate promise one tiny point better than refusal to promise.

Casey said...

I just had a Eureka moment -- more, still more, forthcoming.