Generation after generation of politicians running as Washington outsiders have railed against the established system. Lambasting corruption and inherent evil has been an effective populist message for a long while. We saw it from one party in 2006 and 2008 and now, in 2010, we observe it in another. Every generation appears to have been sold the same basic message. But after each wave of reformers finds the going perilous and true change difficult, we engage in an equally long-running tradition, that of demanding why. Why is this institution so resistant to change and so stubbornly ingrained? Where does one even begin?
May 10 2010
Nine months spent in Washington, DC, has provided valuable insight. Beltway insiders and area professions are their own breed. As I’ve gotten my sea legs, more and more of their world makes sense to me. Once I arrived here that I was immediately given some particularly infuriating advice, namely that other people were just as smart as I was, if not smarter, and that I ought to get used to it. I think he assumed I was just like everyone else—the latest newcomer eager to play the game in a town with more than its share of naked ambition and power plays. Perhaps he was the latest candidate for burnout, having recognized that institutional idealism is often an exercise in minutia. Though my background and my academic career may be relatively humble, I am no stranger to elitism when I see it, and I am just as repulsed by it now as I ever was.
Jan 01 2010
In this New Year, I resolve to learn the balance between that which I can positively effect and that which I cannot. I make this resolution not in a desire to shirk my responsibility to my fellow person, but out of the understanding that life is too short to hold myself to a series of arbitrary, exacting rules that remove the joy of daily living. This goes beyond the familiar language of the Serenity Prayer and has application to every activist cause of which I espouse. Though we may be tough on the offenders, we are even tougher on ourselves, and that inevitably leads to burn out and soul-killing cynicism. There is no sin in recharging our batteries periodically or at least recognizing that the greater problems which face us will remain no matter how many hours we devote to their eradication or how intensely we seek to amplify the volume to raise public awareness.
For example, dietary laws were extremely important to the First Century Christians, and indeed in still so in many Jewish and Islamic circles (as well as some Christian ones). Moreover, the idea of unity with God by eating a meal was an integral concept within Jewish, Christian, and Pagan traditions. Those who had converted to Christianity from Paganism were uncomfortable consuming food that had been presented as a sacrifice to Pagan gods and asked for guidance. To this, Paul replied,
Someone may say, “I’m allowed to do anything,” but not everything is helpful. I’m allowed to do anything, but not everything encourages growth. People should be concerned about others and not just about themselves. Eat anything that is sold in the market without letting your conscience trouble you.
I’m not talking about your conscience but the other person’s conscience. Why should my freedom be judged by someone else’s conscience? If I can thank God for the food and enjoy it, why should I be condemned for eating it?
I understand the importance of social justice, particularly social justice through food purchase, which has driven a cottage industry. Organic food, for example, was hippie food first, then became yuppie food. Aside from the obvious, however, it is a curious quirk of humanity that we often cast aside one form of rote legalism for another form of it that closely agrees with our current sensibilities. I know of Atheists who are themselves converts from conservative Christianity and in rightly pointing out the restrictive elements of their upbringing, they then adopt a philosophy of their that is no different in its basic construction. We often focus on that which is intolerant, but living a life dictated too heavily by rules and restrictions doesn’t just eradicate freedom, it also removes the pleasure and fun of life. I firmly believe that life is to be enjoyed. Enough problems exist with our time here on earth than to be further dragged down and burdened by looking for problems. Furthermore, if we focus on law, we adopt a neurotic posture that revolves around ourselves first and foremost. If, however, we focus on unselfish love, then our concern shifts to other people.
This isn’t true just for that which we take into our bodies. Far too often the fear of climate change and global warming leads to its own a kind of legalism that assumes that through an well-intentioned obsession with minimizing our potential damage to the planet that we can somehow fulfill our obligations. Global warming or some form of environmental decay has led some to rush to turn off lights, micromanage the settings of thermostats, and turn noses up at products likely produced by objectionable means. This is, of course, not to say that aiming to be environmentally friendly and less conspicuously consumerist is not worth our time. However, when our lives become Sisyphean to no good end, then we ought to concede that it is our own salvation through works that is predicated on personal conduct that leaves no room for error. If I could teach any lesson to those of us who ascribe to an activist philosophy, that would be it.
In my own life, it is a big temptation to rush to judgment towards those I deem not conducting their own affairs in the manner in which I demand they should. In particular, among online activist forums, a kind of extreme skepticism takes hold among participants. It stems from a collective understanding of just how easy it is to pull the wool over the eyes of the ignorant and the ill-informed, and with it comes understandable feeling of despair that nothing one can possibly do will change that fact. Still, if we adopt that stance, we are assuming that people are forever prisoners of their fate and that they can never change for the better. Even though many may never revise their beliefs and may cling to that which we deem unenlightened and maddeningly stupid, we must never forget that there is always a chance that some may see the light. Perhaps it is we who must modify our expectations and take a more realistic position regarding our poor power to add or detract to the tally.
A year or so ago, I taught an online course of American History to technical college students. My students were predominately working class, blue collar toilers who were seeking to further their education by means of attaining certification to achieve a specific higher paying vocation. They were far from the typical college freshmen of which I had once been. With my middle class education and background, I recognized quickly that it was highly unlikely that I would have ever befriended even one of my students, nor gravitated towards the same things as they in my own life. At the beginning of the course, the views of many of my students were identical to those that Progressives often lament or caustically dismiss as hopelessly backwards or offensively naive.
Yet, after I was fortunate enough to really engage and reach my students, I noticed many of those old prejudices were being openly challenged and few were resisting this exercise in liberty and personal freedom. I never sought to change anyone’s mind, but what I did note with much satisfaction is that until that instant, no one had ever bothered to expand and broaden their understanding beyond soundbytes and inexact, hackneyed rhetoric. Once the complexities of human nature and historical reality became known to them, one could almost observe the metaphorical light bulb going off. It was a thrilling thing to observe for me, the instructor, and after I took some degree of pride in my hard work, I recognized again how much class differences and economic disparities go into forming a concept of identity and system of belief. Many of those who may have thus far taken a completely opposite political stance to mine never had the opportunities I had. What I often find most frustrating among those who consider themselves worldly and intelligent are that they are usually the most stubbornly intractable regarding entertaining the notion that they could be wrong or that their own personal canon of wisdom might not be as airtight as they claim it is. Those who, like my students, almost have a hero worship of the educated are much easier to enlighten and empower, though with that blank slate comes its own set of responsibility and ethical conduct.
Jesus spoke to those who felt as though they knew-it-all,
Then he said to them, “I can guarantee this truth: Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
This is not to imply that I am infantilizing my students in some kind of exercise of mock pious Paternalism, but rather to note how much easier it is to open the minds of those who have not kept theirs resolutely snapped shut. We are never too smart, nor too old to learn or to be taught a lesson. Elitism begins to creep in whenever we act or think otherwise. Elitism is a enemy of Progressivism as sure as any of the well-documented offenders that never leave our radar screens. Constructing hierarchies of influence locks out those who wish to belong and want a spot at the table. Who cares if they don’t fit the profile up front! So what if they can’t write a brilliantly crafted blog entry or propose some pithy statement in comments! If we, myself included, were a bit more patient with each other and embraced the idea of a loving family rather than as an outlet for people who desperately want their own views to be validated in a public forum, then we might be making some serious progress. No one doubts how desperately we seek and need a community and how many of us find it within activist political circles, but the shortcomings and the problems cry out for reform just as badly as any number of the worthy causes we demand be addressed.
This then, is my greatest New Year’s Resolution,
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.” “Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”
Apr 22 2009
Saving the Earth is not an ego trip. Saving the Earth is not something you do so that you can say you planted more trees or created more hybrids or wrote more academic papers or bombed more SUVs or fed more hungry people or arranged more peace deals or wrote more grants or have a purer method or better ethics than the next guy. Saving the Earth is not something you do so that you can stand in judgment of the human race and ask it, “so what have YOU done?”
No, saving the Earth is actually saving the Earth, and understanding it requires a degree of humility that seems at some point to be beyond the current reach of mainstream environmentalism, which wishes to simplify the act of saving the Earth to that which is politically and economically expedient. Saving the Earth, however, must be something that actually saves the Earth, not something which makes us feel like we’re doing it when we’re not.
(crossposted at Big Orange)