Sunday, October 28, 2012
Questo misero modo
tegnon l’anime triste di coloro
che visser sanza ’nfamia e sanza lodo.
Mischiate sono a quel cattivo coro
de li angeli che non furon ribelli
né fur fedeli a Dio, ma per sé fuoro.
I have rarely employed this blog for political discussions, not because I have no opinions on such matters (people who know me well know that I am, in fact, stridently and perhaps tiresomely partisan), but because this particular space was intended to be, for the most part, reserved for joy, and there is, for the most part, precious little joy or for that matter integrity in the political sphere. But at a certain point it becomes dishonorable to keep silent. I have minimal influence on others and most of what I say here may largely be preaching to the choir, but it must be said nevertheless. I will try to be brief.
It may be surprising that someone like myself, who has no religious beliefs, would adopt the essentially Manichean attitude expressed in Dante's condemnation of those "who were not rebels, nor faithful to God, but who were only for themselves," but I have strong views (though not theological or metaphysical ones) about what is right and wrong, or what, if the terminology pleases you, constitutes Good and Evil. Put simply, compassion and honesty are good, cruelty and lying are evil. In spite of that, I have modest expectations of others, including those who take it upon themselves to lead us. I worship few idols, in politics or elsewhere, and I don't necessarily expect to find perfection or even idealism in public life. It's commendable when one finds a relatively selfless politician, but I don't regard it as necessary. A certain amount of self-interest, in our leaders and in ourselves, is not only forgivable but normal and probably inevitable; it is, in fact, largely how political systems work, by balancing the competing needs of factions that are looking out for their own interests and implicitly doing harm to the interests of others. Saints, when you find them -- and there's that theological language again -- are deserving of recognition, but they are also rare, and expecting sainthood is not only naive but dangerous; history is littered with the victims of self-declared purists.
But if corruption is our natural state (I do not exempt myself), it is nevertheless the case that there are degrees of that particular vice, and that there is a difference between those who through frailty or selfishness allow their motives to become mixed and those who deliberately, relentlessly, systematically manipulate public life and consciously sacrifice the general welfare for the inordinate benefit of a few, or who use fanaticism and bigotry as the tools with which to consolidate their power and privileges. As someone whose own ideology is solidly on the left, I have at times taken issue with the policies of the current administration, but I refuse to be reduced to the trivialization of declaring whether I "support" President Barack Obama's presidency or whether I think his motives and methods are largely "good" or "bad." Like everyone else I have my impressions, but they are ultimately of no importance (and in any case, too complex to be reduced to a simple "yes" or "no"). What is important is that a choice must be made -- by me, by everyone else -- and that how that choice is made will have profound consequences.
That our country's political system is, and has been for many years, a dysfunctional nightmare, is not in question. The size of the country, the vast opportunities it offers for corruption, and our sordid history -- never healed and all-too-often barely acknowledged -- of conquest, genocide, slavery, exploitation, racism, and fanaticism, are all inimical to the spirit of a democratic polis. Even the letter of democracy -- the principle of universal suffrage -- has been increasingly threatened by efforts to suppress the vote. (Always, that is, the vote of certain people, though we have even seen serious suggestions that the right to choose US senators should be taken away from the electorate and returned to the state houses, where it resided before the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment). The fog of disinformation and outright lying perpetrated by right-wing cable outlets and websites has served to confuse and mislead a population already long divided along regional, racial, and social lines, and has encouraged a fatal cynicism about the potential positive role of government and law in promoting the general welfare. Congress, the body that in effect invented the country and which was intended by the Constitution as the ultimate legal embodiment of the sovereignty of the people, is now perhaps the most universally despised institution in the country, on both the left and the right. None of this will be set right in this election, or, most likely, in our lifetimes.
But there is a difference between illness and death, and in a little over a week we will learn, assuming our creaky electoral machinery doesn't simply freeze up entirely, whether we intend to leave open the possibility that "government of the people, by the people, for the people" is a goal worth striving for that might at some future time actually be achieved, or whether we will simply surrender ourselves once and for all to the barons of neo-feudalism and the armies of hatred, fanaticism, and greed that have gathered around them. There is no middle ground.