Don't Join the Circus!

It was the letters in the Wall Street Journal that set me off. A few weeks ago. They were all "outraged" in tone and defensive about "income inequality." What upset me wasn't the sanctified selfishness claiming that the rich had somehow earned their wealth (as if they didn't rely on a network of social relations which enabled them to accumulate their money in the first place). Nor was I upset by the implication that the poor, with a few exceptions, were lazy and indolent. What got me going was the naïve and simplistic approach to politics. There was no sense that democracy is a messy business - a series of compromises which never finally resolve anything. Democracy is an endless and raucous shouting match, which can be very debilitating. G.K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man put it well: "A despotism may almost be defined as a tired democracy. As fatigue falls on a community, the citizens are less inclined for that eternal vigilance which has truly been called the price of liberty." It's dangerous to give into tiredness and even more so to surrender to the fear and anger and join the circus. It seems to me that the circus leading up to the Presidential Election next November is a sign that we're living in a tired democracy - or, better, we're living in a time where a growing number of angry and depressed people are tired of democracy.

The political ideologues think compromise is a dirty word but, in reality, they love the brutality of simplistic thinking because it comes across as refreshing and clarifying. "You must agree with me 100% if we are to work together." Al Simpson the former Republican from Wyoming, representing to my mind the best of his party, writes: "In politics there are no right answers, only a continuing series of compromises between groups resulting in a changing, cloudy and ambiguous series of public decisions, where appetite and ambition compete openly with knowledge and wisdom. That's politics." And we're in this together. As Ben Franklin reminds us, "We must hang together, gentlemen... else, we shall most assuredly hang separately." The trouble is that we can't talk to each other. Some of us have given up altogether. Others have adopted strident rhetoric as a substitute for civil discourse. They've joined the circus. Still others stand on the sidelines and trash the players out there in the field. Novelist Dostoevsky saw the emergence of a society of men and women without an sense of good and evil, without manners, without any elementary piety or prejudices -- "groups of venomous, self-assertive individuals, shameless in their rudeness, unembarrassed in their contradictory but despotic denunciations." Sound familiar?

What makes matters worse, God gets invoked as a political tool -- a circus act to please the crowd. Power hungry politicians glibly invoke the name of God and even say that they believe in Jesus but they give little reason for us to believe them. Like Huey Long (assassinated in 1935) Governor of Louisiana and US. Senator, they find God useful. Was Long a hero or a demagogue? The story goes that before beginning his electoral campaign in southern Louisiana, an aide pointed out that there were a large number of Catholics in the south. Long began his first speech:

When I was a boy I would get up at six o'clock in the morning on Sunday, and I would hitch our old horse up to the buggy and would take my Catholic grandparents to mass. I would bring them home, and at ten o'clock I would hitch the old horse up again, and would take my Baptist grandparents to church.

Later on a colleague remonstrated with Huey, "You've been holding out on us all these years. I didn't know you had any Catholic grandparents." "Don't be a damned fool," replied Long. "We didn't even have a horse."

In a talk a few years ago, the actor Kirk Douglas referred to his fellow actor John Wayne, who severely criticized him for accepting the part of Vincent van Gogh in the movie Lust for Life. Wayne suggested that he and actors like Douglas had the obligation to play manly men -- tough guys. Kirk Douglas commented, "The trouble with John Wayne was that he thought he was John Wayne!" Wayne had fallen into the trap of believing his own propaganda. The trouble with those who indulge in God-is-on-our-sidism is that they really think that God is a kind of domestic chaplain to the American agenda. They rarely invoke the truth that God created us neighbors and that we should care for each other.

Robert Sanderson in the 17th century put it this way:

God hath made us sociable creatures, contrived us into policies and societies and commonwealths; made us fellow members of one body and every one another's members. As, therefore, we are not born, so neither must we live, to an for ourselves alone; but our parents and friends, and acquaintances, nay, every man of us hath a kind of right and interest in every other man of us, and our country and the commonwealth in us all.

Don't join the circus, support the commonwealth!

Daniel Bell in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, (1976 - well worth re-reading) pointed out that, if we aware and honest, most of us are ideologically more complicated than we realize. He wrote (sorry for the word "socialist". It excites ignorance and paranoia):

I am a socialist in economics . . . a judgment on economic policy. It is for that reason that I believe that in this realm, the community takes precedence over the individual . . . establishing a social minimum which would allow individuals to lead a life of self-respect, to be members of the community.

He goes on:

Yet I am a liberal in politics . . . . within the polity the individual should be the primary actor, not the group. . . And the polity has to maintain the distinction between the public and the private, so that not all behavior is politicized, as in communist states, or left without restraint, as in the justification of laissez-faire in traditional capitalist societies. It treats peoples equally but does not attempt to make them so.

And lastly he writes,

I am a conservative in culture because I respect tradition. . . . Tradition is essential to the vitality of a culture, for it provides the continuity of memory that teaches how one's forebears met the same existential predicaments.

Wouldn't it be refreshing if the presidential candidates could admit that they are socialistic, liberal and conservative - depending on the issues? Calling "socialism" and "liberalism" dirty words certainly relieves one of the burden of thought. Better to run away and join the circus.

Think of the mess we get ourselves into when we run away and act on "impulse, rather than the reflective discipline of the imagination. . . To have significance, a culture must transcend the present, because it is the recurrent confrontation with those root questions whose answers, through a set of symbols, provide a viable coherence to the meaning of existence." I know it may seem too much to ask us to consider these issues but it's worth a shot. The good news is the circus always leaves town! The trouble is that now the "solutions" of the religious right are as odious as the cultural rot on the left they claim to cure. Ours is a spiritual crisis not a political one. Our self-definition as consumers, our competition for luxuries and our losing the ability to share and sacrifice is as the heart of that central rot which plagues both liberals and conservatives. We've lost the sense of a moral true North. Bell's view of the '60s - "a longing for the lost gratifications of an idealized childhood" -- sounds eerily contemporary. We've exchanged the civitas for the circus. Civitas? - "the spontaneous willingness to obey the law, to respect the rights of others, to forgo the temptations of private enrichment at the expense of the public weal - in short to honor the 'city' of which one is a member." It's time to abandon the circus and come back and rebuild the city.

Strive once more, and then be dumb.
Let the victors, when they come,
When the forts of folly fall,
Find thy body by the wall.

A.H. Clough -- in Niebuhr's "Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic".