Doug Talks Torah

Reflecting on all the ways Torah builds the world.

Month: September 2008

Does Voting Really Matter Anyway?

Here are a few more thoughts about voting as conversation.

Some thinkers like Jacques Ellul posited that voting may actually be harmful because it is a political illusion that helps reinforce the existing power structures. While I appreciate many of the thoughts of Christian anarchists, I still believe voting plays an important role in the culture.

But may not in the way we think it does.

When I listen to individuals speak, it seems like every election they think that if only the right person gets in office that everything will be corrected. Yet on a gut level they must know that this is simply not true. Some people will complain about entrenched power structures in Washington, and start another round of “throw the bums out.”

But like Eric Hoffer anticipates, soon you have another group of bums.

One problem is that while voting is a force for change, it is not the magical power of instant change. Voting is part of the conversation of change, and it is one way that we participate in the conversation. But laws alone (even if they all were passed by an administration) do not change a culture overnight.

Change is slow.

150 years ago, the Federal government amended to Constitution to secure voting rights for all nationalities including the freed slaves. And 88 years ago the Federal government amended the Constitution yet again to secure voting rights for women. And finally, after this next election we will have either a black man or a white woman in the White House.

Change takes time.

Voting and writing and politicking and even arguing are part of the process that changes culture. But change is not instant. And just because I disagree with someone doesn’t make me smarter than them. Smart and passionate people can disagree about how to change our culture. Every disagreement is not the beginning of a war.

While I am interested in politics, I rarely talk about it our culture because I find so few people who are willing to actually try and see a different position their own. They are so certain they are right, that anyone is disagrees seems virtually damnable.

My brother suggests that political argument are like two kids arguing about whose dad is bigger. I would add that it also seem like football fans ready to right over the outcome of a game that has little to do with their real lives. This is misplaced passion.

Change is about negotiation. The beauty of democracy is our freedom to self-govern. The ugliness of democracy is our freedom to self-govern. This means we can’t execute everyone who is wrong (that is everyone from part X or everyone who supports position x).

I believe this undisciplined passion is a sign of the loss of true, cultivated rhetoric. Would that we all would learn to articulate our ideas instead of repeating the latest spin from our “side.”

An articulate word can potentially do more to effect change than a war, thus fulfilling the dictum, “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

There’s a time to argue, there’s a time to comprise and there’s a time to fight.

But if every election and every issue is a time to fight (verbally if not physically), we may lose our ability to know when it really is time to fight. If I compare every political foe to Hitler, then what happens when the real Hitler shows up. At that point, my words will seem like empty chaff.

So as I think about politics and voting, I encourage people to speak about and vote your passion. But also be willing and ready to listen. It’s okay to be undecided sometimes. We all know a lot less than we think we do.

Be wiling to put down your fists, and quiet your disrespectful comments to those who disagree. Be willing to wait for change.

Then we might actually be a force for change. Then we might actually learn to live our ideas. Then we might actually discover valuable compromises that address the real issues even more effectively.

Then we might actually be able to recognize those “once in a lifetime” moments when it is time to fight, when it is time to say the imperative “No!” The Quakers taught me that consensus works because people learn that “NO” is so powerful, you learn to use it wisely and rarely.

Then we might be ready to lay down our lives for a better future and follow in the path of so many who were willing to die to create the future.

The way of politics as conversation is slower, more challenging, requires more discipline and may even make us feel and look like failures. But it also is way to move beyond the temporary need of ego to always castigate, and work for true and lasting change that can potentially create a better future.

Politics as National Conversation

I’m trying to articulate something in my head and this is a poor first stab. Argue with me if you like, it might help me.

In spite of the differences that seem to characterize our national politics, I would suggest that we are more alike than different. Politics is a bit like a long, slow conversation across space and time. It is part of a larger cultural conversation that helps define and shape the future.

I didn’t watch both conventions this year, but I usually do. If you can silence your emotions temporarily, I think you might be amazed by the similarity in both parties and both conventions. From the heights of dramatic oratory to the depths of attack politics, there are always striking similarities. They both are talking from the same narrative.

This a narrative that gives both parties speaking points. Parties make focus upon different themes, develop different plotlines and seem to say different things, but actually I think they are limited by the constraints of a meta-narrative that exists within our national consciousness.

Just like any conversation, this national conversation requires give and take, listening and speaking. Since we’re not a fascist state, you can’t just stuff a sock in someone’s mouth if you don’t like what their saying. I wonder if we realized how similar we are and how slow change takes (decades if not centuries), that we might play a role in the conversation without throwing a tantrum when our dreams of reformation are not realized overnight like Jack’s beanstalk.

This is a terrible simplification that needs more work, but here are some essential elements in the American narrative that may or may not show up in the narrative of another nation: religion, the future, nature/ecology/land, peace/war/violence, national/individual identity

Religion – Robert Bellah has suggested that the religion in America is the worship of the individual. Whether Christian, Atheist, Buddhist or more, American are deep individualists. In fact, so deep we can barely grasp the consciousness of other culture who do not revolve around the individual.

Within this context, I would suggest that Christianity has played a dominant role in the national conversation. But in a very different way than Europe. Historian Mark Noll suggests that American Christianity has always been a populist movement whereas in Europe it was a classicist movement.

There is a fascinating tension in the role of Christianity/religion between the public and private sphere, which is very different than other nations. Americans are never really sure what role religion is allowed to play. We fear any one group ruling and defining religion for everyone else since the individual is enshrined as our true divine.

Strangely, even our atheists seem exalt the individual to a virtual divine position. Even our atheism looks a bit religious. I’ve read some European atheists refer to English and American atheists as “Christian atheists.” Where else do those who believe in a god and those who believe in a “no god” feel the pressing need to make our “declaration of faith.”

Future – Americans love to talk about the future and change. Listen to any speak from virtually any point, and you’ll see that Americans are always “building bridges to the future.”

Natural World – I think that Americans have been trying to negotiate the role of the natural world in our narrative for at least 100 hundred years, starting with Teddy Roosevelt. We spent the 20th century trying to move the narrative beyond the narrative constraints of the Industrial revolution.

We still may not agree on particulars but I think the 21st century will redefine our narrative relation with nature that is beyond the Industrial revolution.

Peace/War/Violence – Americans like to think we’re pacifists, but trust me we’re not. We’re a violent nation. Even our peace activists are violent. A conversation on war is part of a much larger conversation on violence/war/peace.

Identity – There are other parts of the narrative, but these stand out at the moment. I think all the issues mentioned also fall under the category of identity. Instead of appealing to an ancient, racial and/or historical identity, we are the “high plains drifter” who comes to the rescues. I think the cult of heroism underlies many of the policies for both the conservatives and liberals. But I also think Americans are continually trying to figure who we are. We try on one culture and then another.

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