Monday, August 1, 2016

Presidential Races: Who Do I Really Want to Be?

I've written recently about why I hate watching politics in Presidential election years. Now that we've gotten past both major party conventions, I expect things to get worse, not better. Choosing a President every four years brings out the worst in us.

I won't make comparisons to past years, or suggest that this is getting worse over time, because I really don't know. I have a general gut sense that every election cycle is worse than the one before it, but I can't tell if that's really true or not. I don't trust my memory of past elections, because I know I will remember the parts that fit the narrative I want to tell. So I'll leave it to someone else to see if there's a trend line here.

As I've been assiduously avoiding the conventions, I've been trying to figure out what it is about this whole mess that bothers me so much. I think I may have stumbled on an answer. I'll probably come up with a better one in future years, but this is the best I have right now.

Let me start with a basic premise: the experiences we undergo, the things we invite into our lives, the streams of information and conversation we pay attention to, all have a tendency to take us either closer to or further away from our "best selves". I know this concept has been cliched and corporatized, even mocked Stuart Smalley-style, but the basic idea is there. We all have, to borrow Lincoln's phrase, "better angels of our nature". We also have demons. Nearly every culture across human history has some way of expressing this basic truth, whether it's through Yin and Yang, or Paul's struggle against himself ("I do the things I don't want to do"), or the Tao, or the inner Jihad of Mohammed.

So let me begin from this point: the things I do, the choices I make, the conversations I have, should push me towards being a better person rather than a worse one. If I'm lucky, those same conversations and choices will help those around me be better, too - not to become better people (certainly not to be more like me!) but to tend towards better versions of themselves.

What does a better version of me look like? This should not be a surprise. Virtue suggests we should talk less and listen more. We should be more sympathetic towards others, not less. The virtues of justice, patience, kindness, humility - these are not new inventions. In the words of the Colossians, we are to "seek the things that are above." (3:1)

Here I begin to see why this year's Presidential campaign is so difficult for me, and why I am avoiding it as much as possible. And since I'm talking out myself here, I'm going to frame this in the Christian tradition, which is the one I'm most familiar with and the one in which my faith lies.

In their letter to the Colossians, Paul and Timothy lay out what "seeking the things that are above" means:
But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. (3:8-9)
Or this from the Gospel of Luke:
 ‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. (6:27-28)
Does this sound like politics today?

These are not obscure, cherry-picked verses from odd corners of Scripture. They are, as almost all clergy will agree, at the heart of the Christian gospel. To reject these things is to reject Christ.

Both major candidates claim the mantle of Christianity, as do a great many of their followers, supporters, and staff. Yet anger, malice, slander, and abusive language are everywhere. No one wants to do good to those who hate them.

Trump stood in front of microphones the other day and claimed that he wanted to hit speakers who criticized him. How this man can claim to be a Christian I have no idea.

When someone stands in front of a microphone (whatever the color of their skin) and yells "All Lives Matter!", that's not meant as a philosophical statement. It's meant with anger and malice, which is why the crowd roared. It was not delivered in love, but in hate.

Political operatives will say, too bad - this is the way the world works, this is what it takes to win elections. I'm not an expert in political tactics, so I can't say whether that's true or not. What I can say is that, for me at least, the process of experiencing an election makes me a worse person. I would go so far as to say that it has that effect on a lot of people, perhaps on all of us. If that is true, then we are degrading ourselves as a people every four years (to say nothing of what happens in between), and doing so with great gusto and delight. It's not clear that there is any political outcome in the near term worth such degradation.

People will say, "this is necessary," but all that really means is, "I can't imagine it being any other way". Leadership does not have to be divisive, and we don't have to reward the loudest and angriest voices. What would a different kind of conversation look like? I recently came across this interview, which offered interesting insights:
Trump: Tribune of Poor White People
This is from a source and a point of view I wouldn't ordinarily listen to, or even hear of. It's not a perfect piece, but it's a good reminder that the "other" people out there are people who think of themselves as good, who are trying to make it as best they can in the world, and who need to be listened to and taken seriously - especially because they are poor. Most of Jesus' ministry was directed at the poor and the powerless; we should do no less.

This kind of cross-boundary dialogue is not typical. What I see instead are liberal friends insulting conservatives as morons, idiots, and racists, and conservative friends insulting liberals as traitors, liars, and thieves. I see everyone issuing existential threats about what terrible things will happen if "they" win - as if "they" were an alien invasion, not a fellow group of human beings. Elections are not opportunities for discussion or even debate, but simply shouting matches where we remind people on our side of all the great reasons we have to hate the people on the other side. As the subject of the interview linked above puts it, "The November election strikes me as little more than a referendum on whose tribe is bigger".

After the election, though, we all still need to live together. We aren't voting on whether to divide up like Slovakia and the Czech Republic, where we get to go our separate ways. If we want any of the things we claim to want - peace, prosperity, justice, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness - we have to work together to secure these things. Yet our process of transitioning from one government to the next makes working together impossible. Small wonder that we're not getting what we want.

Conservatives: the answer to the brokenness of politics isn't "defeat all the Liberals".

Liberals: the answer to the brokenness of politics isn't "defeat all the Conservatives".

The only real answer to all conflicts is the hardest road. As Abraham Lincoln reminded us, the best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend. Or perhaps we should remember the words of Lao Tzu many centuries earlier:
When two great forces oppose each other,the victory will goto the one that knows how to yield. (Tao Te Ching, Ch. 69)
So there it is: I hate watching politics because the more of it I experience, the worse I become. I strongly suspect that is true of most of us. This is not to say that I can't make distinctions among candidates, or that when the time comes I won't cast my vote. But I can wait until November to do so. In the meantime, if I really want to make the world a better place there are so very many other things to do than pay attention to, much less engage with, the sewer that is our political process.

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