Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The false political divide: preservation vs. innovation

The origin of this post, and of this blog generally, predates the terrible events in Tuscon.

The shooting that day was the result of a fateful confluence of mental illness, distrust in government, and the prevalence of ever more heated political rhetoric.  I find it hard to blame Jared Lee Loughner for his murderous actions, so much does he present the appearance of a lost soul, afflicted and desperate.

Nor is it helpful to join the chorus of blame that has risen against a certain sometime-politician of high ambition and certainly questionable judgment in supporting imagery.  She’ll just end up using the criticism as grist for her mill.  I can picture her smirking interviews in the coming weeks: "Lookit thye laayyymestreeem mee-dya blaymin' me fur this shuutin'.  Thye lyast thying I kyilled in Ayrizoohna was JAHN MAH-CAYN'S prizzidinchal aspuh-rayyyshuns!"
And she’s not wrong.  I loathe her fanning of the flames, but right now we cannot say to what extent, if any, her words (her ‘grammar’ or ‘currency’ perhaps) drove Jared Lee Loughner to pick up his gun, to load it, to fire into the crowd.  The larger issue, into which that Alaska politician plays but for which she is not solely culpable, is the great and widening divide in American politics.
Much has been written about that divide, about senators back in the ‘50s sharing a box of cigars and a piece of legislation but not necessarily a political party or ideology.  And none of the discussion has really explained satisfactorily why this has broken down, why we’re so divided.  “Issues are more extreme.”  Well, no, issues aren’t any more or less extreme, in and of themselves; reactions are, and that gets no closer to explaining why.  “The media is creating a narrative of division to feed ratings.”  Maybe so, but would so many lawmakers be playing into that narrative if it weren’t in their hearts already?

It’s instructive sometimes to reduce complexities to their fundamental ideas to get a better idea of how they relate to each other.  Conservatism and liberalism are many things, but down near the base they correspond to preservation versus innovation.  Now, no one person or political body should be all about the one or the other, but the trouble is that the extreme rhetoric tries to trick us into making just that choice. For conservatives, it’s all about preserving and reclaiming an idealized past.   Liberals, meanwhile, are supposed to be constantly out to re-invent the wheel, resulting in over-complication and invasion of privacy.  So says the rhetoric.  We are presented with easy categories, so we slot our politicians—complex, flawed, interesting individuals—into these categories.

Troublingly, they seem content to do the same to themselves.  They develop their personae.  They strive to check off the box next to each point on the litmus test designed to make a picture of a modern major-general.  Or I should say, of a perfect  conservative or liberal pol.

Preservation versus innovation—conservatism versus liberalism.  We’re told, in words and actions, to pick one or the other.  But how can we let ourselves get tricked into accepting this false dichotomy?  In my own experience, I’m a very strong liberal, politically; but in my personal life, I’m a preserver—I want to nail down every last scrap of movie ticket stub paper under glass in a museum devoted to my past.  So, in a sense, I’m conservative.  I don’t want to let go of things.  That’s okay.  The thing is, I see how to marry innovation—liberalism—with my conservative bent.  Mainly with the computer.  I scan pictures and documents, type old journals up with a word processor, and organize everything into folders and subfolders.  (The best synthesis of conservative and liberal values, I think, can be found in the local libraries and historical societies, following the same set of principles of innovation in preservation as I’ve found.)

I think political conservatives are into preservation, and that’s great, but they don’t innovate new ways for us to access our valuable political and social heritage—that is, the central tenets of the Declaration and Constitution.  They say that they simply Are, and must be protected.  Whereas I would say, they are there, but things are constantly changing, and we need to bring those values along with us.  Life, Liberty and Happiness are great, but we have to get that this isn’t 1776, that there isn’t a village woman who’s good with herbs who’ll bring down your kid’s fever in exchange for meals while she’s working, and the fancy university-trained doctors won’t exchange surgery for your prize bull anymore.

In order for our historic promise to be fulfilled, we must design and implement ways of providing the means to pursue that fulfillment, to provide as level a playing field as possible; that means insurance, that means social programs.  The hate on ‘big government’ that has poured out from the right, and which seems to underlie Mr. Loughner’s psychosis, is baseless and illogical, the inbred philosophical descendent of a time when the US was very nearly a confederate of independent nation-states.   It is this ‘big government’ debate the fuels the tectonics of drifting unity. We’ve come a long way since federalists and anti-federalists, though, evolved new definitions of State and Union.  Barney Frank put it extremely well—“Government is nothing more than the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”    Government doesn’t stalk our dreams, Mr. Loughner, or unplug Grandma, or look for ways to skin the millionaires.  It’s us.  It’s just us, together.