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, OPW, politics, USA

OPW: Fareed Zakaria on July 4th and Citizenship

Today’s Other People’s Words is a thought about the past week from Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International. Here’s what he had to say about the Fourth of July and becoming an American citizen on his PBS show, Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria.

For most Americans, Independence Day makes them think of fireworks, Old Glory, and traffic. For me, this week reminds me of the day, several years ago, when I became an American citizen. I was sworn in a few weeks before July 4, 2001 at a ceremony that would have sent chills down Pat Buchanan’s spine. Seated in a noisy Brooklyn auditorium, more than 2000 new citizens–almost all black and brown faces with the odd British banker looking around nervously–listened to introductory speeches in English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, and Hindi. A young woman of Indian origin gave us all an earnest lecture imploring us to do our civic duty and always vote.

After the ceremony, a short sweet speech on patriotism, the oath of allegiance, and it was all over. We emptied unto the street where a small welcoming fair had been setup. You could eat pizza, sign up to join the New York Police Department, and get your picture taken with a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush. In some cities, the Daughters of the American Revolution host tea parties for new immigrants, but not in Flatbush, Brooklynn.

The atmosphere in the country was then open, confident, and welcoming of the world. Today, too many of us have become fearful, insecure and suspicious of the outside world. It’s strange, it was only six years ago, but it feels like a different age.

politics, USA

After Bush: How to Restore America’s Place in the World

Our (that is to say the United State’s) requirement that all presidents must be natural-born is patently absurd. Though the first person to make me reconsider this rule was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has shown himself to be an incredibly bipartisan and wise Republican in recent times, it is actually Fareed Zakaria, the Newsweek columnist and generally acute observer of world politics, who has pushed me over the edge.

Zakaria has repeatedly astounded me with his ability to look optimistically and critically and all facets of American policy. Further, he synthesizes this analysis into a size that the average person can easily read, digest, and understand in a very short period of time.

Where the New Yorker seems unable to write a thorough analysis in under 60,000 words, Zakaria regularly makes himself understood in a single page. Though his cover story in this week’s Newsweek is longer than that benchmark, none of the words are squandered.

Some of the most interesting observations:

  • “Today, by almost all objective measures, the United States sits on top of the world. But… we have become a nation consumed be fear, worried about terrorists and rouge nations, Muslims and Mexicans, foreign companies and free trade, immigrants and international organizations. The strongest nation in the history of the world, we see ourselves besieged and overwhelmed…”
  • Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, “We will never be able to prevent a small group of misfits from planning some terrible act of terror… The real test of American leadership is not whether we can make 100% sure we prevent the attack, the rather how we respond to it… our goal should be resilience… If one day bombs go off, we must ensure as little disruption–economic, social, political–as possible. The would deprive the terrorists of their main objective.”
  • “If America has a core competitive advantage, it is this: every year we take in more immigrant than the rest of the world put together.”
  • “Above all, the United States has to find a way to send a powerful and consistent signal to the world that we understand the struggles that it is involved in–for security, peace, and a better standard of living. As Barack Obama said in a speech in Chicago, ‘It’s time to… send a message to all those men and women beyond our shores who long for lives of dignity and security that says, ‘You matter to us. Your future is our future’.'”
  • “At the end of the day, openness is America’s greatest strength. Many people of both sides of the political aisle have ideas that they believe will keep America strong in the new world–fences, tariffs, subsidies, investments. But America has succeeded not because of the ingenuity of government programs. It has thrived because it has kept itself open to the world… This openness has allowed us to respond fast and flexibly in new economic times, to manage change and diversity with remarkable ease, and to push forward the boundaries of freedom and autonomy.”

These brief quotes fail to do the article justice. If you do yourself no other favor this week, make it reading the Newsweek cover story, either online, or in print.