Friday, September 7, 2012

It's a Bad Year for Humility

During last night's speech to the Democratic National Convention, President Obama said something unusual during this political season:
“While I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, ‘I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.’”
This kind of expression of humility has been mostly nonexistent in this season of political bombast. Nor do I expect that it's going to become a major campaign theme for the Democrats. In American culture, humility doesn't sell, and for the most part it's not greatly respected.

This is an odd admission for a political scientist, but I avoid most of the campaigning and political "argument" I encounter. I may have to get off FB until December, just to avoid the screeching graphic memes coming from both sides (I have FB friends who are both staunch liberals and staunch conservatives). The snark, the sound-bite insults, the flippant remarks made about the other side - for the most part, these make my stomach churn, and I turn away.

Why do I find this kind of bombast so dispiriting? First and foremost, because it is the enemy of peace. Political campaigns are conducted in the language of perpetual war. When Chuck Norris and his wife spoke of "1000 years of darkness", their hyperbole was notable - but only just. Most speeches - at both conventions - have said much the same thing, simply in more diplomatic language.

This is all nonsense, of course. Most of what the candidates talk about - creating 1 million new manufacturing jobs, or 12 million jobs, or whatever number they make up next - is mostly fantasy. Government does have a role in creating a good environment for the economy. But the economy does a lot of things on its own, and the ability of any given President to "steer" it is minimal. The marginal contributions they make are sometimes important - but that's it.

Of course, nobody is going to run a campaign talking about how the Presidency isn't as important as we think it is. And politicians are always tempted to say that they, and they alone, have the solutions to all of our problems (fascinating that Romney, to take one example, can in the same speech criticize Obama for believing that "jobs to him are about government" and then claim "I have a plan to create 12 million new jobs." Do these people listen to themselves?)

Modern political campaigns - maybe, all political campaigns - are predicated on a basic Manichean argument: the world is divided between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil. Our Side stands for Good, Their Side is inherently Evil. Chuck Norris was just being honest about it - but this describes the beating heart of nearly all campaigns.

The truth, of course, is that no party or politician has a monopoly on virtue. Purely unadulterated evil (the sort of psychopathy that says, I don't care about anybody at all and will cheerfully destroy you just for fun) is exceedingly rare. The truth is also that our society is far larger than one office, indeed far larger than the federal government. And everyone from St. Paul to Mohammed to Confucius to Lao Tzu knows that both good and evil reside in all of us - and that the greatest battle we fight is within.

It is unarguably true that our ability to discern Good and Evil is alway less than we think it is. The parable of the wheat and the weeds doesn't get much play most of the time. We have always been willing to inflict a little "collateral damage" in our zeal to kill terrorists, or to marginalize others' voices and choices in the righteousness of our cause, or to excuse our efforts as simply part of the "tide of history". In the name of righteousness, all sorts of evil has been done - not just in the past, but in the present. But we keep ripping up those weeds anyway.

It is no accident, I think, that cultural traditions most focused on peace - from monastic orders in the Western church to Zen Buddhist temples in the East - all emphasize humility. Without it there is no peace, because without humility we raise ourselves above others and feel justified in pushing them down when they resist. We go to war with righteous fervor, and destroy ourselves and own peace in fighting "the enemy".

It is no small irony that both political parties can argue about how many times "God" is mentioned in their platforms, yet neither seems to pay any attention to a great deal of what we think God has tried to say to us - whether we are Jewish, or Christian, or Muslim, or Hindu. There is no religious tradition on earth that does not view humility as a virtue, and there is no shortage of "followers" of each of those religions who treat it as a vice. Of course, atheists don't have any great corner on humility either.

So in this political season of political war and bombast, I find I cannot join the fight. Yes, I agree with some policies more than others, and I find some claims and statements more credible or agreeable than others. But with partisans on all sides out to wage a war of extermination, eager to attack the speck in their neighbors' eyes while ignoring the logs in their own, there is no space for peace. Perhaps like humility, peace too has been moved from virtue to vice, and war is now our preferred state. If so, where are the peaceful - or the peace-seeking - to go?

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