Updated: Jul 25, 2020
In response to my last post, Politics and Longing, a friend asked me this in a text:
“Wondering — you seem (correct me) to be saying attachment to politics is about projection and reductive in contrast to the complexity of ‘real life.’ But isn’t to ‘sit out’ politics also to leave the shape and tenor of our society to others? To not only not watch from afar but to allow your fortunes to be dictated by someone far from yourself?”
His questions poked at the embers of that post and caused a few more sparks to flare. I’ll attempt to capture them below. (This piece stands on its own, but I think it’s best read after the post my friend was referring to.)
"Politics & Longing" wasn’t meant to discount political engagement wholesale. My point was that a certain way of engaging in politics is largely hysterical and counterproductive (hysterical in the crazed sense of that word). Or, as The English Beat put it, “two swords slashing at each other only sharpen one another.” But that slashing is what generally passes for politics in our culture, or at least that’s the kind of politics we hear about.
That English Beat song goes on:
“Are you fighting the front or just fronting a fight.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell the left from the right.
Are we angry, are we looking for peace?
Or just trying to win the war.”
I’ll chime in with some lines of my own, in the form of a haiku:
Recipe for Harm:
What you hate in you, call bad.
Project it. Attack.
Some causes are clearly more noble than others. Fair and equal treatment of all races, for example, is a worthy cause. White supremacy is not.
The English Beat song, though, investigates matters further. Even the best-intentioned people can be more fundamentally motivated by anger than by the desire to accomplish their officially stated goals. When that happens, they become secretly happy when they’ve made things worse. That creates more fuel for the anger.
People love to say that it's each person’s responsibility in a democratic society to vote and be actively engaged in politics. I say it's each person’s responsibility—no matter what idiocies the other side is spewing—to reflect on what’s really motivating them.
That individual clarification of our own tangled psyches allows a person to truly be a force for good in the world, because that person then has the capacity to act “cleanly.” No longer thrashing around with a club, but striking precisely with a sword.
That individual reflection also may or may not result in direct political action.
Some of us are called to politics. And thank god, for many are quietly doing great things in that arena. You just won’t hear much about them on the news because their work doesn’t involve things like lighting buildings on fire or screaming till their heads explode. They are instead accomplishing things.
Some of us are called elsewhere. But any authentic engagement with a calling does good in the world. And even the ones that don’t look political may end up having immense political consequences. It could be that Chuck Berry had as much impact on racial equality as Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK did his thing. Chuck did his.
The way we conventionally think of politics doesn’t just overlook rock stars. It overlooks the profound effect of the millions of small kindnesses that happen in corner stores and on sidewalks. It’s in these day-to-day interactions that hearts open and minds change.
Our everyday contact with people is visceral and immediate. It’s real. But conventional politics plays out in the abstract. It’s an unreal world that doesn’t challenge our simplistic ideas. No side in that world is willing to actually hear and discuss the points the other is trying to make, or get at what might be the real and complex underlying issues.
Elsewhere in “Two Swords,” the English Beat sings, “And in the long run even he's your brother/ Said, even though that kid's a Nazi.”
To which I’ll add another haiku imposter of mine:
The only humans
you can hate are those you’ve made
It is not wrong to be furious at hatred and violence. But to lash back out in that same state is to perpetuate the cycle. Responsible people who know right from wrong have a duty to reflect on themselves when they speak or act.
It may be more politically helpful to meditate than to vote.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to share. I also welcome comments and appreciate little red hearts in the lower right corner.