09 March 2023

The joy of politics

CBS Evening News, USA's presidential election night 1964, screenshot from source.

"They still haven't counted the votes in Pennsylvania and
Michigan." (Posted on Twitter with hashtag "Envy.")
Politics is serious business.

Many of us correctly associate "politics" with the ways society regulates itself and allocates scarce resources. It covers the ways human beings, with all our colorful conceits and uniforms, do what all "higher" mammals do: define "we" and "they," mark territory, and mobilize against calamity.

What could be more serious?

The realm of politics becomes even more serious, and takes on even more negative overtones, when we look beyond the formalities of politics and see the corruption and shortcuts that give some of us advantages in the allocation of resources, and marginalize others. I spent most of my growing-up years in Chicago, and I have lots of memories and diary entries about the scandals that regularly erupted in Chicago politics.

(See the sample from Mike Royko in this post.)

Of course, all this seriousness requires some relief. That relief often takes the form of humor, as it did for Mike Royko, and for Sergei Yolkin, the political cartoonist who left Russia last spring. (The cartoon above is his.) Humor can give us precious relief and can remind us that the emperor has no clothes. But it can also be a gateway drug to passivity and cynicism.

In Russia, we often came face to face with this passivity, this utter lack of hope that we ordinary humans can have any influence on "what goes on behind those walls," with the additional reasoning that "why would we Russians need democracy?—we already do whatever we want," and the corollary, "We need a strong hand to keep us in line."

"Do we still have a long way to go?"
"I don't know, I'm not interested in politics."

I may have told this story before: In some of my conversation classes in Russia, I'd ask the students to imagine that they were the absolute monarchs of our city. If they had total power to change just one thing, what would it be? One young woman answered, "I'd like an honest policeman."

"Oh, you'd like an honest police department," I responded.

"No," she said. "Just one honest policeman."

Occasionally, when we talked about students' future professions, I'd ask whether any of them wanted to be politicians. In all the years I asked that question, only once did anyone say yes. The answer nearly 100% of the time was, "It's a dirty business. I wouldn't touch it." 

During one of the big demonstrations in the 2011-2012 election season, we had some students in our kitchen. We ourselves never encouraged students to take any political action at all beyond voting (our school's directors told us instructors to encourage our students to vote), but when the subject came up, we were all ears. One student said, "Why should I risk going on the street to tell Mr. Putin that he is corrupt? He already knows it!"

Here in the USA, we have plenty of excuses of our own to avoid serious engagement with politics, whether it is passivity, cynicism, or despair at the deep divisions in our country's political life. But there's another way to consider politics, a way that starts out by regarding it as ... a spectacle to marvel at.

My best attempt at an analogy is sports. As in politics, sports has teams and competition. Some contests end up with winners and losers, some end up a draw. There are captains, coaches, referees, fouls; there are heroes and cheaters, and moments of sheer inspiration.

I used to think that sports were a trivial distraction compared to real life (for example, politics!). But then I thought about the vast amount of resources devoted to playing and watching sports, and the billions of people who care about their favorite teams, their heroes, their own children's teams, and all the facets of the sporting world. Much of this enthusiasm is voluntary and often it's joyful. Who am I to be condescending?

Then it occurred to me that there are people in politics who behave as athletes, and others who behave as avid spectators. They love the competition, they love the scorekeeping, they keep track of wins and losses—whether we're talking about candidates winning or their policies winning.

To see what I mean, watch this video of Bill Clinton nominating Barack Obama for a second term as president at the 2012 Democratic Party convention. Clinton is all about a serious task: contrasting Democratic political values with what Republicans offer, and explaining why Obama is the candidate that will honor those values. But one thing is incredibly clear throughout the video: Clinton is enjoying himself immensely.

Of course, for the dedicated spectator of politics-as-sports, part of the drama is that this same Bill Clinton worked his head off against Obama four years earlier.

(Speaking of politics and sports, Clinton says this in the speech about his wife's working relationship with Barack Obama: "I’m grateful for the relationship of respect and partnership she [Hillary Clinton] and the President [Obama] have enjoyed and the signal that sends to the rest of the world that democracy does not have to be a blood sport. It can be an honorable enterprise that advances the public interest.")

A couple of days ago, in anticipation of George Lakey's visit to our town and our church this weekend, I watched a video of  a conversation about his new book at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Lakey has a lifetime of experience in organizing and training organizers for social justice, anchored in his Quaker faith. Early on in the presentation, Varshini Prakash asks Lakey, "How do you view the acutely polarized state that we're in?" (This link goes to that point in the Free Library video.) I found Lakey's response fascinating—not just for his analysis of past and present times of polarization and the possibilities that they opened and might again open, but also for the enthusiasm he brought to this analysis. 

That's what I mean by "the joy of politics" in a context that takes humanity and justice seriously.

Later in the video, Lakey describes how he assigned students in his University of Pennsylvania classes to take a crate to Philadelphia City Hall plaza, stand on it, and speak to the passing crowds on a vital subject of their choice. "The students universally thought I was putting them through hell ... and afterwards they felt like they could move mountains."


Maybe the joy of politics isn't for everyone, but I'm absolutely sure that many more people would discover that joy, if we can break open some of our learned passivity currently bound up with "that dirty business."

The word "politics"—is it singular or plural?

Related posts: Am I a political junkie? Thoughts on hope and cynicism. "Our life is politics."

George Lakey's visits to the Portland, Oregon, area, tomorrow, Saturday, and Sunday. (PDF with live links.) And, specifically, his visit to our Quaker church.

Kristin Du Mez on Beth Moore's autobiography, on the use and misuse of theological labels, and on coming out as Calvinist.

Covenant community requires trust, so how do we know when to trust? Our traditions have weakened, our signals don't necessarily travel well. Emily Provance challenges us to propose solutions.

Nancy Thomas on "coming unglued" in a poetry writing seminar.

Ally Venable, Buddy Guy: "Texas Louisiana."

1 comment:

  1. # ◉ Johan

    From youtube interview sourced above:

    "Polarization is a forge ... its a heating up of society and making it ... moldable ... polarization heats the society up so we can do what we want to do."

    "Metal [Society] doesn't do what I want it to do until I heat [Polarize] it first."

    Through the inshining presence of the spirit of Jesus Christ upon my conscience and consciousness, I am come out of the spirit of the reflective nature and the agency of the process of polarization promoted and propagated by its agents to guide, direct, and mold human affairs and behavior. Lakey, as an agent of the dialectic of discord (and by his own acknowledgment), nurtures conflict and strife through the agency of the reflective nature by the conjuration or reflection of thought-entities in order to make human society malleable to the thought - entities that he conjures through the alchemy of the social sciences in general and politics specifically.

    The presence of Christ's spirit inshining upon me is discovered to me a different way than Lakey's acknowledged faith and hope in the forge of the reflective nature which nurtures and promotes a dialetic of discord. In Christ, I am drawn out of participation in and engagement with the promotion of polarization through the agency of political (and all social sciences), religious, educational, and economic institutions and the agents of these institutions to guide, inform, and mold human affairs and relations.

    The continuous and immediate presence of Christ's spirit in my heart is discovered to me as the sole and sufficient quide in human relations; outside the mediation of the reflective nature and its agency through social science, religion, education, and economic institutions and the agents of those institutions.

    Christ's presence within me is discovered to me a different way of human relations not of the nature of the dialetic of discord which Lakey nurtures, promotes, and which gives him joy. This different faculty settles down into and is solely focused upon Christ's presence in all moments and in all interactions so that the ebb and flow of Christ's living presence during a given interaction is the quide. Should the Presence itself ebb during an interaction this may suggest an alteration in behavior. Should there be an increased awareness of Christ's presence, this may affirm behavior. This different faculty is not of the reflective nature and is disengaged from the dialectic of discord. This different way is of the new covenant wherein human relations are guided directly through the inshining presence of the spirit of Jesus Christ upon the conscience of people through immediate awareness of the ebb and flow of Christ's presence during human interaction and relations.