Saturday, October 04, 2008

feasting without grace

Last week, David Leffler of Staring at Strangers posted a portion of a Peggy Noonan article from the Wall Street Journal. The article was entitled: "A Hope for America." I did a drive-by "flip and glib" on his comment page, and went my merry way.

When I arrived at work on Monday, a copy of the Noonan article was sitting on my office chair -- a gift from a fellow attorney. We will call her C. C and I have shared many a tale together -- some humorous, some emotional, some so jarring that you wonder if you will get through the next day.

We have very little in common when it comes to politics and religion. But the two of us will discuss any topic without impugning the honor of the other. That is why she wanted me to see the article.

Noonan sets the tone with this observation:

All this is part of the mood of the moment. It is marked in part by a sense that our great institutions are faltering, that they've forgotten the mission; that the old America in which we were raised is receding, and something new and quite unknown is taking its place; that our leaders have gone astray. There is even a feeling, a faint sense sometimes that we have been relegated to the role of walk-on in someone else's drama, that as citizens we are crucial and yet somehow...extraneous.

But we are Americans, and mean to make it better. We long to put the past few years behind us, move on, and write something good on the page we sense turning.

And that was before the financial institutions started wobbling. She goes on to the observation that C had highlighted:

And so I came to think this: What we need most right now, at this moment, is a kind of patriotic grace -- a grace that takes the long view, apprehends the moment we're in, comes up with ways of dealing with it, and eschews the politically cheap and manipulative. That admits affection and respect. That encourages them. That acknowledges that the small things that divide us are not worthy of the moment; that agrees that the things that can be done to ease the stresses we feel as a nation should be encouraged, while those that encourage our cohesion as a nation should be supported.

We can fight honorably and in good faith, while -- and this is the hard one -- both summoning and assuming good faith on the other side.

About the same time David posted his take on the Noonan column, I posted another red-blue-yellow electoral map -- without the yellow, which led to a lively series of comments about civility in American politics.

My initial response to the comments was to put today's acrimonious American politics in its historical context. American politics have always been nasty and personal -- sometimes breaking out in civil war. But that does not excuse the behavior. Why can C and I have a civil conversation about politics, but I will not even bring up the subject with others?

Here is an extreme example. I am a member of a Mexicio message board. In the eight months I have belonged to the board, any slight political comment will occasion the most irrational and personal outbursts making the poster sound as if he has missed at least three days of medication. And these are people who are otherwise quite calm and rational.

I have noticed that even in the more genteel world of Mexican bloggers that political references are almost always ensconced in protective fluff to avoid giving offence. I know that I do it. But I wonder why?

We feel free to talk about our various faiths -- and everyone is respectful. We talk about places to live, sights to see, eateries to enjoy -- and we all have a lively discussion without managing to break the crockery.

Over ten years ago, Peggy Noonan wrote in Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness:

Young black men will save our country. I'm not sure completely what I mean by this but--they're tough and smart and know how to survive...

I remember reading that paragraph at the time -- knowing that it was true, and, yet, not knowing why it was true. I still believe it.

And I think she is just as correct about the need for political grace. Senators McCain and Obama have tried to make this campaign a more noble campaign than some have been in the past. Unfortunately, to little effect.

But I know that political grace can exist. C and I have it. And I would invite each of us to put that same philosophy in effect. Maybe we need to ease into it.

I leave the last word to Peggy Noonan:

To me it is not quite a matter of "rising above partisanship," though that can be a very good thing. It's more a matter of remembering our responsibilities and reaffirming what it is to be an American.

Even an American in Mexico.


Anonymous said...

Steve, it is my opinion that when we have an entrenched position about subjects that are difficult to discuss, there is almost no way to have a real discussion unless we are willing to consider that we might be wrong and are willing to listen to another viewpoint.

It is the prosletyzers (religious, political, and otherwise) who cannot be counted on to be respectful of the thoughts of others and participate in an exchange of thoughts without attacking the viewpoints of others. When we remember that we know very little individually and respect the universal intellect that we can broaden our individual understanding. Kathe

Islagringo said...

Hear, hear! I have become so politically numb over the past 8 years or so. It's like nobody listens to us, the general public that they are there to serve. I have two friends that I know are going to vote for one party. B and I will be voting for the other party so our votes will be cancelled out. Even so, I'm still going to vote even though it means a trip to FedEx in Cancun and a mailing charge of $23.

Islaholic Trixie said...

You never cease to amaze me. When I first opened your post, I thought, "Not another political post." Then I began reading it.
I visit an Isla Message Board that is all about politics right now, and let's just say that I don't share the same political side as most posters on that board. So I just sit back and read, without posting responses, because I know I will probably get slammed for being from the "other side."
Another well thought out, awesome read Steve!!

Calypso said...

For nearly half my working career (not a long one in total by American standards) I worked within corporate America. As I matured through the process I was amazed by the fact that the higher up one seems to get the less they had on their desk – to the point where the corporate giants had the cleanest, most virgin-esqe desks of all.

This got me to thinking; I figured this essentially was due to the fact that people at the top really didn’t do a whole lot. Now I think the role of President of the United States fits the top rung of that mold. At the end of the day this figure head doesn’t have a lot to do with anything.

They do shoot the messenger in this case.

Why we all get huffy with an opposing opinion of which one of these two (or four) people will in the end shake some hands and kiss some babies is beyond me too.

There are a lot of people involved in running a countries politics. When it comes down to choosing between two people, and I considered my own life in this regard, I can’t take their power too seriously.

I think the current problems being experienced by U.S. citizens and thus around the world is fundamentally a product of thoughtless greed and selfishness.

It seems like the better people have it the more self centered they become.

Maybe what’s going on now will wake people up to the fact that those in control don’t really give a hoot about anyone but themselves. Then just maybe they might start letting go of the idol worship for these "leaders" and start taking back their lives; developing some responsible behavior that includes real concern for the whole of us? What do you think?

From Mexico where I feel safer.

Unknown said...

Excellent post, Steve. This morning I ran across an article originally posted on, What Would Jesus Do ...about the bailout? Apparently there is a right wing group that is upset that the mortgage bailout may benefit a few Latin households who may or may not have illegal status. Sad commentary on the partisan and religious attitudes taht are dividing and not uniting Christians.

Unknown said...

Here is the link for the article on What Would Jesus Do..About the Bailout?

Felipe Zapata said...

The United States is indeed coming unglued. The underlying reason is that Americans are spoiled rotten. The last generation to know true hardship has almost entirely gone to its grave.

That generation´s children (my generation) are mostly spoiled. Their grandchildren, however, are totally insufferable.

This is the basic problem, and all others (and there are many) spring from this one way or another.

And young black men will save our country?! Sure, like the bang-up job they´ve done with Detroit, Atlanta, the District of Columbia, sub-Saharan Africa and Haiti.

Jonna said...

Bravo! Absolutely Steve, I agree wholeheartedly. What I mourn most is what seems to be a decline in civility. Many complain about the decline of the family and all the moral values stuff that to me has come to mean a front for a lot of us vs them, hateful beliefs. I am just sad to see the huge divisiveness that splits our homeland.

It irritates me no end that every political belief and discussion must be labeled as liberal or conservative and thoroughly attacked by the other side. That's not discourse, it's more like rooting for one team over another for no better reason than it is OURS. No thought involved, just pick a side and blindly agree with all the talking points. Bah! I'm sitting this one out for the first time in my voting life. I'm disgusted with the lot of them.

Steve Cotton said...

Kathe -- I long ago discovered that I always had a better grasp of ny own views by talking with people who do not agree with me. We develop our intellectual through exercise, not sitting on the couch hearing our own words spouted back to us.

Wayne -- Something odd has happened to the political system. When I was growing up, my dad could drive over to our state senator's house (usually to return his escaped Shetland pony) to discuss any issue. Try doing that today at any level. Most politicians are far too busy fund raising to have dinner with a constituent. Or they are simply too full of themselves to care. But we really do not need them to lead our lives. (See John's comment below.)

Isaholic Trixie -- Thank you. I know what you mean about predictability in political blogs. There is little variation. And certainly little grace.

John -- Truer words have not been spoken. I have noticed in the recent Wall Street bailout that everyone is very quick to point fingers at everyone else. The root problem has been our individual greed fueled by the desire of having political power use its talisman effect in our favor. And, like a Tolkein tale, we lose our power and our soul in the process. I am all for personal responsibility -- a personal responsibility based on a recognition that God created us all and wantes us to care for one another, just as we care for ourselves.

Laurie -- Nothing shows how far we have come from God's vision than crises like we are going through now. What government does or does not do will not excuse each of us as individuals from acting to help one another. Your mission of feeding the poor in Honduras is exactly what needs to be done.

Michael -- You hit the issue directly. Greed and self-interest seem to be the driving factors behind every bad decision we make personally -- and certainly politically. No one wanted this result, but we certainly wanted what caused it. Federal laws that loosened credit (starting in the 70s) were designed to open up the access to people with dodgy credit histories. We wanted everyone to have access to the Golden Goose. And we Boomers raised a generation who believed that money did not grow on trees, it magically appeared out of ATMs -- our own private printing presses. Every party ends. And then comes the hangover. People with an entitlement mentality are not the best debaters.

Jonna - Thank you for the kind comment. The more I have exchanged varying viewpoints on the blogosphere, I realize there is some hope that civility can be be returned to political discussion. Philip Yancey once said that whenever he encounters another person with a viewpoint with which he strongly disagrees, he reminds himself that the person is thirsty -- just like him -- and me.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm not sure this isn't a non-sequitur, but I'm going to post it anyway.

Last week while reading the New York Times' coverage of Congress' failure on Monday to pass the bank rescue plan or bailout, this sentence really struck me as an inadvertently very sad commentary on the state of politics today in the USA.

"What followed was a remarkable stalemate on the House floor, with top lieutenants in both parties clutching lists of votes, as they clustered in the well and made unusual forays into what is normally enemy territory across the aisle."

I was appalled to find that republicans and democrats could so casually be referred to as "enemies." Because if this is so, well, then how can a pair opposing "enemy" teams hope to govern a country? Between them, did the Allies and the Axis govern Europe? No. They destroyed it.

The sooner we all realize that we (all of humanity) are in this together, the sooner we will solve some problems.

At the same time, we can't imagine that government can solve all the problems. Nor can business. Nor can religion. Nor can anarchy. But the attempt by any one of these groups to solve all the problems inevitably will create new, and frequently, more noisome problems.

I think we as Americans are too fond of the 100% solution, which leads us to extremes. And to thinking that our elected representatives are somehow enemies merely due to their party affiliation. Sadly, it may well be that those elected representatives also regard themselves as enemies, which might go a long way toward explaining why congress is so ineffective.

Kim G
Boston, MA

Steve Cotton said...

Kim -- You are not off point, at all. And your point is well-taken. One adage of democracy is that people get the government they want -- and deserve. I am not certain that is true, but we certainly do get the government that we elect. The root cause comes down to the public wanting two simultaneously impossible goals: (1) wanting the government to provide boatloads of bebnefits and (2) wanting everyone else to pay for it. And we then have leadres who tell us that we can have both -- as witnessed by this election where the pandering is in high gear. I will predict by the middle of next year, whoever is elected president will be one unpopular fellow.

Anonymous said...

Calypso y Michael D are right on. We have had too much for too long. It's unthinkable that the govt should let bad things happen. If we all took the best financial and physical care of ourselves that we can, and helped a neighbor in need, most other things would fall into place.

I am totally sick of hearing about the poor babies who are up to their neck in credit card debt and how we must help them. This is not a new problem, people have been abusing c cards for years. Now it has caught up to them and we must all pay.

And 'preditory lending' is hardly a new practice either. If you're dumb/greedy enough to be a sucker, there always has been someone there to take advantage of you.

A massive, very painful one-time correction is the only way to right the ship. If we continue this policy the next time we have to repair the results of greed/stupidity at many levels, it will really be expensive.

Steve Cotton said...

muy contento -- Nationalising failure appears to be our new modus vivendi.