Of Politics and Compassion

If I were to elevate one flaw I have above all the others, it would be that I am not nearly compassionate enough. This is not to say that I’m exceptionally brutal or mean, merely that I see in myself the same flaw I see in the vast majority of others.

The easiest example of this lack of compassion is in the political sphere. Politics is seen to be primarily a space for wounded yelling and progress-less confrontation. But anyone who sets out to convert the opposition is more likely to succeed by being compassionate toward them than by being stridently “right.”

In politics especially, compassion is seen as a liability. Barack Obama’s willingness to trust that America isn’t full of racist white people has been one of the big reasons behind his appeal, even while it garners a great deal of criticism from both the right and left.

The argument against compassion runs like this: the other side is blatantly wrong on this question and we need to be ready to beat them into submission by regularly emphasizing how wrong they are.

This is how many perceive the method of older black leaders like Revs. Sharpton and Jackson (and Wright). This is how many perceive the Republicans of the 1990 who were so willing to use any fodder they could against President Clinton. This is how many perceive the “new left” typified by The Daily Kos, unwilling to admit that Republicans aren’t greedily selfish bullies bent on world domination

These perceptions are driven, at least in part, by a failure of compassion. A failure to understand that your opposition is no less human because they oppose you. A failure to imagine that those politicians have feelings, and hearts, and consciences. A failure to understand that regardless of how impossible it might seem, your opposition is probably doing what it thinks is right.

Surely there are times when what is thought right is, in hindsight, clearly not so. The invasion of Iraq struck most people as right and necessary in 2003, today few would defend it as such. Jim Crow-style segregation was thought by many people to be the only way to ensure peace and harmony in the American south. Appeasement of the Nazis was thought a favorable alternative to engaging in another war. Continued slavery was a compromise many America politicians were willing to make if it would keep southern states from seceding.

But the fact that these notion were wrong at the time doesn’t mean that the correct course was or is to imagine the opponents as malicious and calculating. They were people, flawed perhaps, but still trying to do their best. In losing sight of their humanness any ability to understand them fades too.

The Downfall created some drama for failing to deny it’s Hitler a humanness. In what is widely seen as a first, Bruno Ganz’s Hitler was not a mindless or insane killing machine hell-bent on world domination. He was a person, deeply flawed, possibly crazy, and surely dangerous. But he wasn’t a monster. No person, the film quietly contended, is a monster.

Whether or not you think humanizing Hitler is A Bridge Too Far–my apologies for the too-easy pun–it’s important to recognize, and never forget, that lesser demons are probably not monsters.

Perhaps you hate Pat Robertson or William Hagee. Perhaps you hate Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn. Perhaps you hate Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann. Lou Dobbs or Jon Stewart. President Clinton or President Bush.

Whoever you hate, in politics or elsewhere, do yourself and that person a favor and remember that they are a person. A person who wants what’s best and would like not to suffer. Only after thinking of that for a second should you begin the name calling and mudslinging which I fervently hope will someday disappear entirely.

american society, politics

What’s Wrong With Talking?

NYTimes.comKristol (NY Times)

A character like William Kristol is often caricatured by America’s left. Since he joined the New York Times‘s Op-Ed staff, he’s provoked even more ire for both invading what’s usually seen as “home court” as well as being, well, not spectacular (even if no columnist is). His huge factual error of last week deserved the criticism it got.

And even as I’d like to take pity on such a magnet for criticism, I’m about to tell you how this week’s column is wrong. Though he was far more measured than some of the conservative ideologues he’s often confused with, the one problem–and conclusion–Mr. Kristol had about Barack Obama’s infamous speech on race was absurd:

With respect to having a national conversation on race, my recommendation is: Let’s not, and say we did.

To be fair, Mr. Kristol makes the valuable and accurate point that endless accusations of racism traded across massive chasms are useless. There’s no denying that. He also suggests correctly that,

What we need instead are sober, results-oriented debates about economics, social mobility, education, family policy and the like — focused especially on how to help those who are struggling. Such policy debates can lead to real change — even “change we can believe in.”

But Mr. Kristol’s failing, the reason his conclusion strikes such a dissonant note, is that he’s misunderstanding “a nationwide conversation about race” to mean “a televised shouting match that does nothing but increase grievance.” I share his opinion that the latter is a bad and useless thing, but I also know that the former isn’t alway code for the latter.

One salient example of how we can really learn and teach something about race was taught to the crew on MSNBC’s Morning Joe by Mike Huckabee, who said:

As easy as it is for those of us who are white, to look back and say “That’s a terrible statement!” I grew up in a very segregated south. And I think that you have to cut some slack–and I’m gonna be probably the only Conservative in America who’s gonna say something like this, but I’m just tellin’ you–we’ve gotta cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told “you have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant. And you can’t sit out there with everyone else. There’s a separate waiting room in the doctor’s office. Here’s where you sit on the bus…” And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me.

Mike Huckabee–to the apparent shock of much of America’s left–shows us, in the surprise of the Morning Joe crew, what an honest conversation about race can look like, and teach us.

To his immense credit, Barack Obama has long stood by the fact that a conversation is neither support for the person with whom you are talking (as would be the case if he were to talk to Iran or Cuba), nor is a forum for people to shout grievances at each other and walk away unchanged. A conversation hold implicit within it a finding of some common ground of some, however subtle or unnoticed, new awareness of the commonality between the participants.

Perhaps Mr. Kristol simply missed the point that Jon Stewart made so cogently, while doing his best Walter Cronkite, “And so, at 11 o’clock a.m. on a Tuesday, a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race as though they were adults.”

big ideas, politics

By the People, For the People

No Known RestrictionsMartin Luther King Jr.

Recently, I noticed–during a television commercial in which an S. C. Johnson representative was telling us that their products are both environmentally friendly and effective–that by consumer demand “green” in becoming essential for business. Not because laws were passed that mandated that S. C. Johnson make less harmful cleaning products, but because the public wanted–or was perceived to have wanted–this.

One thing that has come up a lot in the Democratic race for president, though usually obliquely, is the difference between bottom up and top down change. Hillary Clinton has sold herself as the woman to face down the special interests and get things done in Washington. Barack Obama has sold himself as a man who can bring the American people to his side and get change by the sheer force of popular demand.

When it is discussed, it’s usually mentioned that Mr. Obama was once a community organizer in Chicago. And that community organizing works by convincing lay people to get involved or change their position, not by playing games in the center of power.

There is also mention of the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who famously fought with President Johnson over civil rights legislation. And when told that he didn’t have the votes to get his legislation passed headed back out to the street, proclaiming that all he needed was more action, more organizing, more public attention and hence, public outcry.

And indeed, it’s hard to deny that without such action popular support would not have been behind the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. The point that people, having seen the injustice of Jim Crow segregation and the outright racism of many whites would not and could not tolerate the injustice was made, as The Race Beat pointed out, long before the movement, by Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal.

Now, the movement could not have changed everything on its own. Bottom up organizing has hundreds of inherent problems. Surely some businesses may have given in to popular demand and ended segregation if they’d not been legally mandated to do so, but it’s highly unlikely that it could have been eliminated so radically and swiftly without action from the powerful. And the powerful are, far too often, insulated and safe from the will of people.

It’s also important to remember that S. C. Johnson ad. And though it’s very possible that the company is truly committed to environmental preservation and the citizen’s safety, without external verification such ads could be simple greenwashing. The people must depend on the powerful for such verification.

The two method of change, by the people and for the people, are not mutually exclusive. The will of the people, in legitimate honest and open democracies changes who is powerful. And who is powerful influences strongly what is done for the people.

Surely something is to be said for Senator Clinton’s insistence that Barack Obama’s vision of change may be empty. But if this campaign has shown us anything, it’s that when given truly open and democratic control of their leaders, the majority of the people get who they want and the changes they seek. It simply does not work the opposite way.


About Super Tuesday

Josh ThompsonSuper Tuesday Voters

Let’s recap: A lot of people in a lot of states participated in presidential nominating contests yesterday. Though no one expected Huckabee to win anything, he did. And no one expected that McCain would be derailed; he was not. No one expected that the Democratic race would have a decisive conclusion; it does not. Ms. Clinton won more large states–as was expected–while Mr. Obama won more total states. What that means for conventional wisdom, delegate counts, and the public at large is still unclear.

And now let’s stop talking about it. And talk about how, again, I want to reconsider my support of this whole process. Well, not really. This time I still like the process. I like that average people are choosing these candidates and not merely a few party elites. I like that these candidates are becoming better understood by the people they so desire to lead. It’s not a bad process.

But I’m really really wondering what else we’re missing as we do all this. How much more attention would Kenya be getting if we didn’t worry so much about this game? How much more attention would be given to Tadic’s reelection in Serbia? How much more attention would have been paid to the skirmishes for Chad’s capital of N’Djamena?

How much more would we worry about President Bush’s proposed budget for 2009? Or about the efficacy of the stimulus package that Congress is putting to a vote? Or that the attorney general still refuses to say anything meaningful about waterboarding or torture?

The answer seems to be, upon reflection, not much. Those international stories are surely too obscure to get much attention in American media even on the slowest day of the year. And the domestic news is being ignored because the country has lost almost all confidence in–and perhaps more importantly, concern about–President Bush and all that he may or may not be attempting to do in his final year.

So perhaps it’s not so bad, the way that we’re flooded with campaign coverage. Surely some worthwhile things that would otherwise get coverage go missing while the media works to satiate our seeming unending hunger for presidential punditry, however oversimplified, overdramatic, or just plain weird.

But this country is in the process of making an important decision, and it’s not so bad that media outlets are trying to help us make the right one. We will, after all, let this person run our country for the next four years. Perhaps it’s not so bad making sure they are everywhere we look before we make that choice.

politics, review

Review: Obama’s SC Victory Speech

In my younger years, I was given some advice that I’ve always taken quite seriously: Never have any heroes who remain above ground. And though that may sound like a claim that a person should only make heroes of sewer rats, subway conductors, and water sanitation engineers; it’s not. Depending on who you ask, it is either a realistic or pessimistic statement that all people still alive have the power to show themselves to have been untruthful. To fail. To disappoint.

And so I’m full of reservations about the positive feelings engendered by Mr. Obama’s soaring and hopeful speech. He’s shown himself to be vulnerable to the same cynical campaigning that his statements so often derides. He’s shown himself to be willing, sometimes, to take the easy potshots and low blows that he argues against so often.

I’m also worried about attempting to review one of his speeches. Whenever I write an unconventional review I feel like I’m (especially) out of my depth. My review of raking leaves, for example, feels novel but not particularly interesting. And then my review of Joshua James’s excellent album–album reviews aren’t unconventional, but I’ve made no habit of writing them–made it sound average at best.

And I also don’t want to support any politician explicitly. All politicians play a game that I find both fascinating and disgusting. They change things, but they often sacrifice principle to do so. And that’s got well defined positives and negatives.

Senator Obama’s oratory is truly breathtaking, and this speech is just one that I was able to watch and easily find a transcript. In my–admittedly short–political history no politician has spoken with such clarity. Such a hopeful vision. Whether or not he lives up to this vision in day-to-day life is an open question, but that his speeches can inspire those who agree with him is hard to doubt.

And Mr. Obama begins well. He skillfully weaves together his optimism and the political message he needs to make: that South Carolina was indicative of his power as a presidential candidate, not of his power as a black presidential candidate.

Well, tonight, the cynics who believed that what began in the snows of Iowa was just an illusion were told a different story by the good people of South Carolina.

After four great contests in every corner of this country, we have the most votes, the most delegates, and the most diverse coalition of Americans we’ve seen in a long, long time.

He goes on to list the elements of his coalition. And all of this is important for two reason. First, he’s making the point that not only does he have more delegates than Mrs. Clinton–he does, but they’re also “better”–whatever that is.

Secondly, this beginning is important because unlike Mrs. Clinton, he’s making the clear statement that this isn’t about him. Senator Clinton’s best known speech so far has been after her New Hampshire victory in which she said, “Over the last week, I listened to you, and in the process found my own voice. … Let’s give America the kind of comeback that New Hampshire has just given me.”

The jarring distinction, unveiled within the first few minutes is this: rhetorically Mr. Obama speaks of ideals, unity, and hope. Mrs. Clinton speaks of herself and her candidacy. And though both of the candidates clearly needed the victories at the time, you wouldn’t know it from a comparison. Senator Obama argues that his victory represents a comeback for his platform while Senator Clinton speaks as if it’s a comeback for herself.

This is not exactly a novel observation, but it’s an important one. People seem stunned by Mr. Obama’s skill, but the simple rhetorical device of saying “us” instead of “I” and “we” rather than “me” is a crucial part of his oratorical ability. By doing so he’s got a room of compatriots rather than supporters, a room of helpers rather than those that need to be helped.

Even in referring to himself, Mr. Obama doesn’t speak explicitly of himself or his campaign.

But here’s what I know. I know that when people say we can’t overcome all the big money and influence in Washington, I think of the elderly woman who sent me a contribution the other day – an envelope that had a money order for $3.01 along with a verse of scripture tucked inside. So don’t tell us change isn’t possible.

Certainly he knows things. He’s seen things. But what he’s seeing is the power of the people to whom he speaks.

But I also have to say that Mr. Obama–or his speech-writing team–has a way with words. And that’s what I’ll leave you with. The closing paragraphs of his speech last Saturday night were truly beautiful:

And as we leave this state with a new wind at our backs, and take this journey across the country we love with the message we’ve carried from the plains of Iowa to the hills of New Hampshire; from the Nevada desert to the South Carolina coast; the same message we had when we were up and when we were down – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope; and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people in three simple words:

Yes. We. Can.


Savage Politics

Marc Nozell (cc)No Mudslinging

I admit it. I was wrong. I don’t like it. I don’t like this whole mess one bit. This presidential campaign has already disappointed me. A lot.

Last time I addressed the presidential nomination process, I called it “exhilarating.” And though I did hesitate to use the word at the time, I decided it was good enough. Now I’m certain that was never the right word for this process. I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that when I wrote “exhilarating,” the “conventional wisdom” stated firmly that Barack Obama and John McCain were going to win their respective nominating contests. And at the time, the two men were both saying the right things.

Fast forward two weeks. We have continuous semantic sparring between Mr. Obama and Mr. and Mrs. Clinton about truly petty concerns, perhaps most notable is Mr. Obama’s unimpeachable statement that Mr. Reagan changed the country. The discussion is nearly as far divorced from the candidate’s real words as the earlier confrontation about what Mrs. Clinton had to say about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lydon Johnson.

Both of these disputes are purely superficial. It’s true that the Civil Rights Act couldn’t have passed without hard work by white politician like Mr. Johnson. It’s also true that Mr. Reagan’s vision inspired and transformed the country. The fact that either of these statements gave rise to all the confrontation and vitriol it did is a testament to our broken political discourse. To our collective inability to, to borrow Mr. Obama’s words, disagree without being disagreeable.

Who is to blame for all of this? There’s little question that NBC, who held the Democratic debate eight days ago, intentionally tried to create a fight over Mrs. Clinton’s Johnson comments. But there’s also no question that the candidates willingly bickered and sniped during Monday’s debate on CNN. To varying degrees we could easily blame “the media,” the candidates, and voters.

The Republican contest has seem much less mired in semantics, but that’s probably because the leading candidates all have distinctly different views. Mike Huckabee is certainly less economically conservative–and more willing to pander to Confederate flag fans–than Mr. McCain. Mr. Guilliani’s certainly more socially liberal than either Huckabee or McCain. And whatever Mr. Romney stands for today, you can be certain that it’s not the same as anyone, even his former self.

In a sad way, the fights among Democrats are a clear symptom of how much the candidates–and the party as a whole–agree upon. Unable to have a meaningful fight about anything but their health care plans, the media and the candidates have had to look for smaller points to harp on. Mr. Obama’s had to repeatedly insinuate that he’s being double teamed because Mrs. Clinton can’t handle him alone. And Mrs. Clinton has drudged up some scandalous-sounding issues about one Mr. Rezko.

Though I still agree that this process is good, I’m no longer enamored with it. It’s this type of knock-down drag-out everywhere-you-look conflict that turns so many people off of politics. And if I’ve learned nothing else in the past two weeks, I now know better why people say they hate this beast.