Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Rejecting the Politics of Rage

Between vacation and catching up from vacation, I haven't had a chance to post for several weeks, but not because my mind hasn't been on the political scene.  In fact I have found it difficult to think of anything else.

This near obsession goes well beyond simple interest in the election.  It touches something at the core of me, an ancient wound that has never healed.  Put simply, in my family growing up there was a chronic inability to achieve constructive dialogue.  Instead there was a hell of a lot of rage that eventually atomized my family into five angry, hurt, and lonely people.

I say "inability" because it was not for lack of trying.  Our parents simply lacked the requisite skill set.  This was hardly surprising, for in their own childhoods no one, as far as I can tell, supplied them with even elementary instruction.  My mental picture is one of visceral rage, a kind of wraith chasing my ancestors from one generation to the next, and finally entering, fatally, the home in which I grew up.

In the past year I've read countless op/eds attacking the various candidates with the temerity to run for president when, for various reasons, these candidates are quite clearly horrible people bereft of wisdom, principles or character--and willfully, culpably wrong, hell-bent on destroying the country.  That's the common thread.  A lot of it's kind of fun to read, or listen to, because commentators can muster devastating eloquence or side-splitting humor in their attacks.  But at the end of the day, the overall tone is the equivalent of "you f--ked my wife, you shot my dog."  The politics of rage have always been a feature of American life, and yes, I can identify times when it was just as bad or worse.  But so what?  Why do we ourselves choose to embrace it?  Why have we made it practically our drug of choice?

A lot of Americans, I know, are so disgusted with politics that they avoid it as much as possible  But for those of us who are interested in politics, we have transformed ourselves into political junkies, and every morning or evening or both, we faithfully tune in to our preferred radio or television talk show, listen to the usual commentators blat out utterly predictable observations and speculations and damnation, and get our talking points for the day.  Because when I listen to ordinary Americans engage in what passes for political conversation, it rarely rises above the level of dueling talking points.  Or more often, like-minded people trading talking points and, despite actually being in agreement, doing so at the top of their lungs.
Someone’s got it in for me, they’re planting stories in the press
Whoever it is I wish they’d cut it out but when they will I can only guess
They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy
She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me
I can’t help it if I’m lucky   
That, as many of you will probably recognize, is the opening stanza of Bob Dylan's "Idiot Wind." It's not about political talk per se.  It's about the way we have made a blood sport out of attacking celebrities.  But the final stanza is dead on point:
Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats
Blowing through the letters that we wrote
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves
We’re idiots, babe
It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves 
 Something in me simply rebels at this.  Yes, the politics of rage has its efficacy in terms of rallying those who agree with us, pumping us up to make sure we go to the polls and if possible put a political contribution on our credit card.

But here's the thing it does not do.  Unless you're already persuaded, it does not persuade.  Every time we attack Donald Trump, we attack everyone who supports Trump.  Every time we attack Hillary Clinton, we attack everyone who supports her.  This plainly forecloses civil discussion.

If everybody you know is politically like-minded, this isn't a problem.  But if you have friends, as I do, with divergent political views, it is.

Both Mr. Trump and Secretary Clinton are less than appealing candidates.  I cannot recall an election that involved candidates who were viewed on all sides as appealing.  Consequently it's easy to sneer at the candidate we oppose.  And it's natural.  It's how the political game is classically played.

But something about it is not good for the soul.

I will try to explain it this way.  I adhere to the Christian faith, and my faith teaches me that in God's eyes there is not a dime's worth of difference between the best of us and the worst of us, that Jesus of Nazareth writhed in agony on the cross because he loved all of us and thought that by dying for us he could redeem us.  I do not even need to believe that Jesus was the Son of God to be moved by the idea of a man willingly sacrificing himself for me, believing that by his death I could find forgiveness and release from every sin I've ever committed, and they are legion.

It is thus central to my faith that he died for me, and that what he basically demanded from me in return--and yet demands, if he was and is indeed the Son of God--is that I respect all human beings simply because they are human beings, made in God's image.

And more than that, I am commanded to love them.

And more than that, I am to heed the warning that I myself will be judged according to the standards by which I judge others.

And as an obvious corollary, to recognize that he sacrificed himself for Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton as well as me, as well as you, as well as every human being who walks the earth or has ever walked the earth.

Anyone who knows me can tell you that I cling to this faith by the tips of my fingers, that all that keeps me within the fold is a force opposite of the wraith I spoke of earlier.  It is a force that Catholics sometimes call the "hound of Heaven," trailing after me:  God intent on keeping me near him no matter how much I'm sick of the judgmentalism and weaponizing of Scripture that is an all too prominent feature of Christianity and makes me just want to get as far away from it as I possibly can.

So I am not speaking as someone who is deeply grounded in faith and coming at you from a position of profound spiritual wisdom or maturity.

All I'm saying is that my faith warns me away from the politics of rage, easy as it is to fall into, emotionally gratifying as it plainly is, and suitably edgy to make for effective op/eds.

Yes, it is my right, and as a citizen my obligation, to take a good hard look at both candidates and voice concerns and criticisms and to cry foul on the not infrequent occasions when any decent human being would cry foul.  But I can't do it the way the society around me assures me that it ought to be done.

I have to find another way.

I'm beginning to form some ideas about what this other way would look like--aided, in great measure, by people who have pondered this same issue much longer and more deeply than I have done.

I'll start to tell you about these glimmerings in my next post.    


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