Monday, March 28, 2011

Politics, Sin, and Redemption

It is a commonplace that American politics in the first decade of the twenty-first century has been sometimes nasty and polarized; equally familiar are the calls for politeness in public discourse. Yet a call for politeness does not by itself draw forth the civility it desires, and one cannot enforce courtesy via police methods. New York Times columnist David Brooks asks about origins of manners:

Civility is a tree with deep roots, and without the roots, it can’t last. So what are those roots? They are failure, sin, weakness and ignorance.

It is not our virtue or nobility which creates courtesy, but rather it is our human nature - flawed and imperfect - which gives rise to civility - or, more precisely, the awareness that because of our human nature, we need and receive grace, mercy, and forgiveness. One who is constantly aware of his flaws, further aware that his flaws are apparent to others, and who finally aware that others are forgiving his flaws and allowing him to participate in society - such a one is very inclined to respect the habits of civil behavior, knowing that civil behavior is what keeps him a part of society, and not an outcast:

Every sensible person involved in politics and public life knows that their work is laced with failure. Every column, every speech, every piece of legislation and every executive decision has its own humiliating shortcomings. There are always arguments you should have made better, implications you should have anticipated, other points of view you should have taken on board.

Because it is our very human nature which causes us to err, it is inevitable that we will do so. Truth is broader and grander than our minds can comprehend, than our words can express, and than our actions can copy, so we will necessarily fall short of it.

Moreover, even if you are at your best, your efforts will still be laced with failure. The truth is fragmentary and it’s impossible to capture all of it. There are competing goods that can never be fully reconciled. The world is more complicated than any human intelligence can comprehend.

Forgiveness often flows to us through, and is announced to us by, our fellow citizens. Forgiveness is a necessary ingredient in the culture of any political society.

But every sensible person in public life also feels redeemed by others. You may write a mediocre column or make a mediocre speech or propose a mediocre piece of legislation, but others argue with you, correct you and introduce elements you never thought of. Each of these efforts may also be flawed, but together, if the system is working well, they move things gradually forward.

The meaning of mercy is that we don't get the censure we deserve: and grace is receiving the accept we don't deserve. This is the moral economy of a society which understands that we cannot expect perfection from humans. Its dynamic is an energizing humility which encourages cooperative and respectful participation even among those who disagree with each other.

As a result, every sensible person feels a sense of gratitude for this process. We all get to live lives better than we deserve because our individual shortcomings are transmuted into communal improvement. We find meaning — and can only find meaning — in the role we play in that larger social enterprise.

Although some people in society have physical disabilities, and other have mental disabilities, we all have a moral disability. It is this recognition about both self and other which yields gracious tolerance as the best and only way to carry out the tasks of a civilization. Any other pattern - including the hypocritical politicized tolerance which is merely intolerance used as a weapon - will lead to a collapse of civilization (although not necessarily of governmental structures: leaving a government without civilization, which is the surest formula for tyranny).

So this is where civility comes from — from a sense of personal modesty and from the ensuing gratitude for the political process. Civility is the natural state for people who know how limited their own individual powers are and know, too, that they need the conversation. They are useless without the conversation.

When a society loses, individually and collectively, its humility, it is doomed to nastiness, which will chip away at civilization:

The problem is that over the past 40 years or so we have gone from a culture that reminds people of their own limitations to a culture that encourages people to think highly of themselves. The nation’s founders had a modest but realistic opinion of themselves and of the voters. They erected all sorts of institutional and social restraints to protect Americans from themselves. They admired George Washington because of the way he kept himself in check.

But over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness. Children are raised amid a chorus of applause. Politics has become less about institutional restraint and more about giving voters whatever they want at that second. Joe DiMaggio didn’t ostentatiously admire his own home runs, but now athletes routinely celebrate themselves as part of the self-branding process.

So, of course, you get narcissists who believe they or members of their party possess direct access to the truth. Of course you get people who prefer monologue to dialogue. Of course you get people who detest politics because it frustrates their ability to get 100 percent of what they want. Of course you get people who gravitate toward the like-minded and loathe their political opponents. They feel no need for balance and correction.

Beneath all the other things that have contributed to polarization and the loss of civility, the most important is this: The roots of modesty have been carved away.

David Brooks points us toward modesty as an essential ingredient for a civil society. Pride goes before a fall: if we are not humble, we will be humiliated when our nation weakens itself by means of its own unkind discourse. Brooks points us toward the words of Reinhold Niebuhr:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. ... Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.