30 January 2020

"Our life is politics"

Alexei Navalny (light blue shirt) and Ksenia Sobchak (other end of row) debate opposition strategy on election day 2018.  Sobchak was rumored to have been approved as a candidate by Kremlin strategists who wanted to make an otherwise boring political campaign more interesting without threatening V. Putin. Source.

Not long ago, I was one of several Americans talking with a 16-year-old Palestinian from Gaza. As she answered our questions about her family's experiences living inside that locked-down territory, she said something I'd never heard from a teenager anywhere: "How can we not talk politics? Our life is politics."

I cannot say that every teenager in Palestine would agree with her. But I checked with her to be sure she was really saying what I thought she was saying: People in her situation did not have the luxury of ignoring politics. Or to put it in contemporary terms, they did not have that privilege.

It was an interesting contrast to our experiences with young people in Russia during the years 2007-2017. In a blog post from three years ago, "Russia's YouTube generation," I reported the single most popular cliche about politics I heard over all those years: "Politics is a dirty business; it's not for me."

As I reported in that post, the anti-corruption movement in Russia had made inroads among young people, some of whom seemed undaunted by the prospect of being arrested at a demonstration. Their increased awareness seemed connected to their choice of information sources -- mostly Internet-based, in contrast to older generations' preference for broadcast television.

However, those demonstrations, startling as they were in a political scene that had seemed almost dormant, only involved a microscopic percentage of all young people in the country. Our own students were well aware of the anti-corruption movement, and talked about it without fear, but were almost uniformly skeptical about its utility. Few (if any) trusted the government, but almost nobody saw any point in public opposition.

On the Global Voices Web site, freelance writer/editor Eilish Hart just posted more recent impressions of youth participation in Russian politics. Some young people, having known no other Russian leader, are asking, "Volodya, aren't you tired?" I don't doubt that there is potential for more creative pressure from this generation, but it is not obvious how and when they will become a critical factor.

I wish I could now go back and discuss with our young Russian acquaintances what that Palestinian teenager said: "Our life is politics." Specifically, is their definition of the word "politics" the same as hers? If they could all compare understandings, how much overlap might actually exist between her viewpoint and theirs?

For example: if by politics you only mean "effective participation in an open process of choosing those who will govern us, and then choosing their replacements," neither the average Palestinian nor the average Russian is likely to get this kind of experience anytime soon.

In contrast, if "politics" means "gaining influence in choice of leaders by whatever means are available," then you filter out -- in both countries -- those who are allergic to the "dirty" reputation of politics. Those available means can include trading on family ties, buying influence, currying favor by joining the right youth groups, patriotic clubs, political parties' summer camps and seminars, and so on. That's exactly the sort of definition that many of our students assumed, but perhaps not our friend from Gaza.

Of course, neither the cleanest nor the dirtiest versions of these understandings of politics are all we have in real life. If a company builds chemical warehouses, disobeying laws and polluting the local park near a housing complex (an actual situation not far from Elektrostal), ordinary people who had always assumed that politics was not for them, might mobilize in response, and in that process might learn more about the laws, the authorities who are supposed to enforce them, the incentives that bear on those authorities, and -- ultimately -- how they can be replaced. On a national level, things might look stagnant, but there is local ferment nearly everywhere in Russia; and as the old saying goes, "All politics is local." It follows, maybe, that the most effective education for learning about politics is also local.

There's a way of understanding politics that is far more descriptive and analytical than all transaction-based descriptions -- and to my mind, far more helpful. "Politics" simply refers to the social processes by which a community allocates scarce resources. It's not just limited to the arrangements in place at the moment -- it also includes the marketplace of ideas within which we advocate fairer and more transparent processes and learn to do that advocacy more persuasively. There are few forces that can resist the power of an idea whose time has come ... thanks perhaps to years of intelligent development and persistent advocacy.

It's that kind of alertness to the forces at work and readiness to respond knowledgeably, rather than dependence on heroes and villains, that may be one important way of understanding that "our life is politics." It's a refusal to resign oneself to a passive acceptance of whatever happens, in favor of awareness of today's hazards and tomorrow's possibilities of change. The more hazards you face (e.g., Gaza!!), the more important it is to stay aware.

Christian discipleship potentially influences all these understandings of politics, but to apply discipleship to political life, we have to think systemically. If we only see politics as transactions among personalities, we will only attract and repel based on our audience's willingness to engage in those transactions -- whether they be abject loyalty at one extreme, or character assassination at the other.

Instead, we need to do the work of building ideas and visions of a biblically-shaped allocation of resources. What that actually means may not be clearly and universally understood, but those kinds of conversations, even passionate debates, can be conducted ethically, with love and respect, within a discipline that bans today's ever-popular practices of bearing false witness, name-calling, objectifying the "other," and so on. To ask what it means systemically "to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" is worth all the hard work, active listening, and mutual forbearance we put into it.

Even when we succeed in convincing more people that politics is simply a systemic process of allocating resources, not a fancy euphemism for conniving and mud-slinging, we have work to do. But we don't each have to do all of the work. We need a division of labor: we need prophets to stick their necks out for advocacy, vision, and for calling out unethical shortcuts. We need evangelists to spread the vision of a Godly rebuke to all bondages, and to invite people into the community that's building upon that vision. We need pastors to care for them all. We need teachers to do the hard work of shaping a common arena where everyone potentially knows the same things, can learn to analyze for themselves, and where none are left out. As E. Stanley Jones said, we need conservatives to protect traditional values, and liberals to expand the reach of those values. Each keeps the other honest.

Maybe all this can be done outside the Church as well. I'd like to think we have an advantage: by having Jesus as sole occupant of the center of our lives as individuals and as community, we can take risks with all other aspects of human diversity. The lion and lamb can be together, as can the liberal and conservative, the prophet and the pastor, the socialist and the capitalist, the skeptical newcomer and the weighty Quaker. Our churches and meetings can be laboratories and incubators of that capacity for systemic discernment that can start building new visions, new alliances ... new politics.

Opportunities and dates:

Quaker Men's Gathering for the full variety of Friends in the U.S. Pacific Northwest: April 17-19 at Camp Tilikum near Newberg, Oregon.

Pacific Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference, June 24 to 28th, 2020 at Cascades Camp, Yelm, Washington.

Support the Friends International Medical Teams (and Judy!) as they take their ministry back to Bolivia, April 15-27.

Micah Bales brings to our attention one Christian experiment in understanding politics differently.

British and Irish Quakers on Brexit.

The Trump-Netanyahu annexation plan, and what Palestinians could do.

Russia and Poland ... both guilty of distorting Holocaust history?

From "president" to "Supreme Ruler" ... some highlights of recent proposed Russian constitutional amendments.

Finally ... twelve years ago I asked myself, "Am I a political junkie?"

Samantha Fish with Christone "Kingfish" Ingram ... another version of "I Put a Spell on You."

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