28 January 2021

Elusive unity

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A headline on the Washington Post Web site today: "Biden struggles to define his ‘unity’ promise for a divided nation."

As evidence of "struggle," the authors of this article cite these various clippings:

“I do think it means a lot of different things,” said John Anzalone, a top Biden adviser and campaign pollster. “When we would ask people in polls what was Joe Biden’s message, they understood it was unity. They would say ‘bringing people together’ or ‘unity.’ ”

“It may have meant different things to them,” Anzalone added. “Maybe it was bringing the different parties together. Or healing the country by using a different tone and demeanor.”

Republicans — citing various Democratic initiatives that Biden is putting forth — have already sounded anti-unity alarms, claiming that the fact Biden is governing as a Democrat means he is not committed to his campaign mantra. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) defined “unity” differently still, arguing Sunday on CNN’s “Inside Politics” that the phrase perhaps should mean Democrats being “unified against insurrection,” a reference to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a mob of angry Trump supporters.

...

Biden and his aides have offered broad, and sometimes conflicting, definitions of what unity entails.

The president told reporters Monday that it means trying to “eliminate the vitriol,” “trying to reflect what the majority of the American people — Democrat, Republican, independent — think,” and trying to “stay away from the ad hominem attacks on one another.”

Early on in the article, the authors give their own rather snarky interpretation of Biden's "unity":

Biden campaigned on — and came to office promising — the ineffable concept of unity, a feel-good catchall that proffered bipartisan bonhomie, but with few tangible specifics.

Already, eight days into the new presidency, I can feel the forces of cynicism and division combining to erode any useful content in this word "unity," which Joe Biden defined in his inaugural address as "that most elusive of things in a democracy." Biden's use of the word "elusive" signals his awareness that unity is not a "feel-good catchall" or a vague "bonhomie," but a goal that requires diligent effort, because democracy is "fragile" and now vividly under attack by forces far and near.

I have no more ability than you do to state exactly what Biden means by "unity," but what do you think of these possible interpretations? --

1. In Biden's own words, "Give me a break." Give him a chance to get his cabinet together. Keep him honest, but give him the benefit of the doubt, at least in his first weeks. In other words, unite around the interest we all have in successfully completing the transfer of power.

2. The only basis for useful unity is the welfare of the nation as a whole. This is central to Biden's promise to be a president who serves those who did not vote for him as well as those who did. The cutting edge of his call to unity, directed at those who use this call against him: "do you in fact share an overriding commitment to the whole country's welfare, or have you already prioritized your success and Biden's failure as the goal?" Biden's gamble is that people of good faith who have prioritized the nation's welfare can differ on specifics, and still roll up their sleeves to negotiate. 

I don't think there is anything wrong with Biden's critics challenging what he means by unity. As the Post article shows, he isn't terribly precise about his definitions. But I'd like to know whether those critics already have their own contradictory definition of unity -- "give us veto power, even if it costs you every promise you made in your successful campaign." To define "unity" as "making your critics happy" (not revealing that definition publicly, of course), and then criticize Biden for his failure to achieve that kind of unity is a classic swapping of definitions to fake a victory over a straw opponent.

3. Those who tried to sabotage the Biden/Harris election victory should not expect to see their criticism of Biden's vision of unity taken seriously. Of course it's not a permanent disqualification; they can publicly renounce their earlier rejection, accept responsibility and consequences, and rejoin the discourse on healing and rebuilding the nation. What cannot be taken seriously is any attempt to define "unity" as needing to approve, overlook, forgive, or continue to tolerate the political (and literal!) sabotage of a nation in crisis.

One specific example: the upcoming U.S. Senate trial of Donald Trump. He is charged with insurrection in full sight and sound of the whole nation. No worthwhile unity would be gained by minimizing this betrayal or pretending it didn't happen, or holding the Biden/Harris agenda hostage to try to get Trump off the hook.


Alfred McCoy on what the USA lost internationally during the four years of Trump's disengagement from the world. Is McCoy's summary fair?

Ten years ago in an essay for TomDispatch entitled “Four Scenarios for the End of the American Century by 2025,” I suggested that U.S. global hegemony would end not with Thomas Cole’s apocalyptic bang, but instead with the whimper of empty populist rhetoric. “Riding a political tide of disillusionment and despair,” I wrote in December 2010, “a far-right patriot captures the presidency with thundering rhetoric, demanding respect for American authority and threatening military retaliation or economic reprisal. The world pays next to no attention as the American Century ends in silence.”

Is male-only military conscription constitutional? The Supreme Court is asked to weigh in. (Thanks to David Finke for the link.)

Some music links: Remembering Mahalia Jackson. (My favorite Mahalia Jackson track.) Suzi Quatro turns seventy. (My favorite Suzi Quatro track.) Aaron Neville turns eighty. (Thanks to WWOZ 90.7 FM New Orleans for that last link.)

(As a teenager growing up in an atheist family in Chicago, how I did I come to know and admire Mahalia Jackson? I can't say. However, I do remember an interview she did on a Chicago radio station, probably Jack Eigen's show on WMAQ-AM or Studs Terkel's on WFMT-FM. Somehow it came up during the show that she was in the Chicago telephone directory. I thought, "A celebrity like her would surely have an unlisted number." But when I got out my Chicago phone book, there she was.)

And more music: In this interview, James Harman tells us the important lesson that B.B. King taught him, leading Harman to change completely his approach to choosing material to perform. "All music is second hand. It's all about the stories. That's all you got."

Updates on Navalny and his team in Russia: Widespread searches and arrests; "all in a day's work."

Unity in a Christian context: could the real obstacle be unacknowledged rivalry? 


My tribute to Halina Stepanovna van de Lagemaat: 

Her Russian language students at Carleton University knew her as Galina Stepanovna. I took her course in my second year at Carleton. She often used songs in her classroom -- something (to my utter shame) I thought was silly, at first: this is supposed to be a serious course in a serious subject!

Whatever my arrogant doubts were about her methods, we were all won over by her kindness and good humor. Sometimes she invited us to her farm in Navan, Ontario, for good Ukrainian and Dutch cooking, conversation, and ... of course ... singing.

It wasn't until years later when I realized that I still knew those songs by heart, and, furthermore, many Russians above a certain age also knew those songs by heart. What a gift she gave me, a gift that took me years to value fully. At one and the same time, she was teaching the language and giving us a way to connect.

A few days ago, I was pursuing some Russian-related rabbit trail on the Internet, and decided to look her up. She died seven years ago this month. Why should I be shocked? -- she was middle-aged 45 years ago when we had her as a professor. However, she had several years yet to live when Judy and I moved to Russia, and I began to encounter people who knew the same songs she taught us. I wish the thought had struck me then to send her a letter.

Thank you, dear Galina Stepanovna!

Here -- as a tribute to her -- is one of my favorites from the songs she taught us. It's not exactly blues, but takes up some of the same emotional territory. (The song is performed by its author and composer, Bulat Okudzhava. English and Russian lyrics here.)

There's another song by Okudzhava on this page.

1 comment:

kfsaylor said...

It is the very process of seeking unity through the faculty of the reflective nature, manifested through the agency of any particular political, religious, and social conceptual framework or narrative, that is the very source of and nurtures the opposite. There is a different way of human being and relations founded in the faculty of the awareness of the direct and experienced increase, decrease, or stasis of the immanent and self-evident illumination of the Life itself in itself in the conscience and consciousness of people without regard for the agency of those people and institutions of the reflective nature . As long as you continue being a agent of the reflective nature through the promotion and profession of the reflective process to guide and inform human relations, you will nurture the opposite reflective construct or narrative. It is through the appearance of immanent and self evident being in the conscience and consciousness that the cycle of the reflective nature is resolved.