03 January 2008

Am I a political junkie?

Andrew Tanenbaum writes, "Well, today's the day all the political junkies have been waiting for: the fabled Iowa caucuses...." Is he talking about me? Certainly I used to be one. That became apparent to me back during the closing phase of the 1992 presidential campaign, when I was doing a lot of travel for Friends World Committee for Consultation. One of those trips, just before election day, involved a retreat during which I had no easy access to radio, television, or newspapers. I definitely experienced withdrawal symptoms, followed by a welcome period of strangely unfamiliar peace and calm.

After that experience, I never again let myself get so completely hooked into the need for moment-by-moment access to political news, even during election season. And the nature of my interest has shifted, too. At one time I loaded all my hopes on the successes or failures of particular candidates--which of course added to my cravings, because each new poll would be another "hit." Of course I still care about the candidates, but now I'm just as interested in the overall levels of popular participation as I am in the fates of individual candidates. If there is such a thing as the crowd's wisdom, it seems more likely to be exercised if the "crowd" is actually involved. Even if the crowd seems subject to manipulation in any given race, the evolution of community identity seems to me to be a precious quality in the long run. This is one of the silver linings I see in the recent Russian electoral results.

Howard Zinn writes that elections are often a distraction to give people a sense of efficacy when the actual choice of candidates is drawn from a fairly undifferentiated set of elites, all of whom are committed one way or another to the protection of elite privileges. As analysis of the past, this is too often true, but is it relevant? Actual sea changes in politics come rarely, but they do come, so don't let cynicism make you a functional reactionary!

The New York Times recently editorialized that President Bush's abuses of power have been so shocking that "... the next president will have a full agenda simply discovering all the wrongs that have been done and then righting them." So what are the chances that any of the likely winners of the current U.S. presidential race will actually take on that full agenda? To put it another way, what are the chances that we'll elect a hero who will restore the Constitution and national honor on his or her own? I doubt that will happen. I put a lot more hope in an aroused electorate making it clear in many different ways that we want our country back.

Here's a conversational English lesson I presented my students just before the Duma election of December 2. Lots of idiomatic phrases--and some good discussion resulted, too.

An election-day conversation

Sam: “Hey, what's up? You're in a hurry....”

Vicki: “I've been planning to vote all day, but somehow I didn't get free until just now.”

Sam: “Come on, you're really that hot to vote? Relax! One less vote won't make a difference. We all know who's going to win.”

Vicki: “Right, I do know. If you don't vote, Mr. Apathy wins.”

Sam: “That's not what I meant, and you know it. Every candidate from the X Party has taken this county for the last thirty years.”

Vicki: “Yeah, we'll probably get the same mayor and the same sheriff. It's hard to take their challengers seriously. But the presidential race and the congressional race are really close. They're both up for grabs.”

Sam: “Don't make me laugh. There will be more than our two votes separating the winner and the loser.”

Vicki: “It's the principle of the thing. If enough people don't get into the habit of doing the right thing every time, we can totally kiss democracy goodbye. The party machines will run everything.”

Sam: “What do you mean, 'the machines'?”

Vicki: “You know, the politicians, their paid helpers, their fan clubs. The people who who show up at party meetings, who work the phone banks, who go door-to-door....”

Sam: “What's wrong with that? If they care, let them care. They're all the same, anyway.”

Vicki: “How do you know they're all the same? You're just letting the crowd think for you. It's not necessarily smart to assume the worst, but it sure is easy.”

Sam: “Right. You think that, when the dust settles and the results come out, we'll have a whole new world? Those guys say whatever they think we want to hear. Then, the day after election day, it's back to business as usual.”

Vicki: “And we'll have couch potatoes like you to thank.”

Sam: “Wait a minute. That's not quite fair. You were the one who brought up the party machines.”

Vicki: “It's not that they shouldn't exist. But it's not their job to run the country. It's their job to convince me to vote for their candidates. The only way they will know if they've made a good case for their candidates is if I vote for them.”

Sam: “Sure. They're just waiting to find out if Vicki showed up—along with her forty million friends.”

Vicki: “I'm not just one of forty million. Look at it this way. Every election, each side gets a predictable number of votes. That's their core support. Unless their candidate is a total slug, they can count on that vote. The difference between winning and losing is convincing undecided voters. And that means us--people who aren't born politicians.”

Sam: “Exactly: I'm undecided. I can't decide who to vote for because I don't believe any of them.”

Vicki: “You 'don't believe'--or you haven't paid attention? Making a decision implies using your brain.”

Sam: “OK, OK, you've made your point. I get it. Let's go over to the school and get it over with--on one condition.”

Vicki: “Great. Name it.”

Sam: “We go get some coffee right after we vote. Then you can tell me more about what a huge difference my vote made.”

Vicki: “Excellent! The point is, no matter who you vote for, and no matter who wins, every vote is a vote for our country.”

As I've implied before, I have some additional hopes and expectations for a very specific segment of the U.S. electorate: evangelical Christians. For this community, of which I'm a member, hero-worship has been a terrible, costly, and arguably demonic temptation. Political operatives who basically despised us apparently used a tempting collage of redemptive story lines and faux morality to seduce far too many of us into a politics of total ethical bankruptcy whose victims range from millions of Iraqi civilians to millions of American mortgage holders. From now on, brothers and sisters, read the ACTUAL Bible, not the cooked books of political religiosity.
"I can't stand your religious meetings. I'm fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I'm sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I've had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That's what I want. That's all I want." (Amos 5:21-24, The Message.)

Righteous links: Two of the sites I'm following for Kenyan election news: politics.nationmedia.com and BBC's Kenya in Crisis. Here's FUM's statement from yesterday. ~~~ Tom Engelhardt on "the American welcome wagon of the twenty-first century." ~~~ Al Gore as Baptist of the Year? Monday Morning Insight's coverage here. Nice teaser: "Regrettably no Baptist has received less applause from Baptists than Gore, a shameful but not unexpected reality from a people snarled in religious fear, suspicious of science and stuck in the rut of spiritualized reading of the Bible." ~~~ SpeakingTruth.org is a site for posting Friends-related audio media--music, sermons, a mix of highly inspiring and utterly frustrating contributions. Sounds like Friends! (Thanks to Alivia Biko.)

Intensity department:

Freddie King - She put a whammy on me по soulpatrol


Cat C-B (and/or Peter B) said...

Thank you for the Kenya update links, Johan. Your perspective on politics and world events is a good deal better informed than mine, and I'm grateful to have a pointer on where to turn for news.

It is very hard to wait, and worry, and pray.

Johan Maurer said...

I see that Mary Kay Rehard is trying to consolidate news sources in one place--here it is.

Derek Lamson said...

Hey Johan,
speaking of news out of central africa... here's some good. It ain't de blues, but it's pretty sweet. Produced, arranged, performed and recorded by Burundian Evangelical Friends.


Anonymous said...

You spend a lot of time in Russia. I would like to know if you have read the popular Russian religious text The Way of a Pilgrim and its second-half or sequel The Pilgrim Continues His Way and what you think of them overall.

The Way of a Pilgrim - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

They are obviously not Quaker texts but Russian Orthodox. Nevertheless I would find your opinion interesting.

Your blog entry triggered this question because it made me remember a portion of the book in which excessive engagement in political affairs and political talk, as opposed to prayer, is suggested to be an indication of insufficient commitment to God.

For those who have a copy of this text, I refer to the chapter containing the fifth meeting or fifth narrative, in the section where the pilgrim goes to Kiev to make confession and is rebuked gently by the father to whom he confesses.

I struggle as you do with news junkieism. It draws me away from more important things. I sometimes wish I could ditch the computer for a while. But my job requires it and the temptation is always there. Unfortunately I usually yield. It is as if I am a smoking addict who is required by work to smoke a cigarette or two each day while attempting to quit the habit itself.

Johan Maurer said...

Derek--thanks for the link to the CD Baby download track. I downloaded the MP3 and am enjoying it, but I'm not getting any audio out of the right channel. Is that a problem with the original recording? My other MP3s are playing fine.

Concerning The Way of a Pilgrim--I read it many years ago and enjoyed it. Your mention of it just now drove me to my bookshelf where I snagged my copy of the Philokalia, which I've also not looked at in far too long. I may quote from it in today's (Jan 10) posting.

I love the Pilgrim's testimonies and similar literature, not as patterns to adopt for myself or to urge on others, but because I'm always grateful to know how others experience discipleship and spiritual power. Someone once said that most devotional books are written by intuitive introverts for intuitive introverts--and that suits me just fine, since I'm one of them! But I'm also aware that the church needs to provide for all temperaments, which is why I see such books as illustrative or advisory, rather than prescriptive--even though I don't want to lose the hero-value of the books: it is possible to pray without ceasing, to become utterly God-centered, despite the excuses I come up with to cut myself slack.