[This post was originally an email to a friend, on why it is that my political centrism gets misread from the Left and the Right as farther from the center than it is.]
Well, I am still very angry at the Bush administration, both for what they did, and the damage it has done to the credibility of the institutions.
I think there are two key differences between the way I view things and the way more alienated people view things. First, my life history has given me a glimpse from the inside of people in politics: my father was the mayor of our city, and later in regional stuff. His next move would’ve been state politics but life got in the way. Since everyone who is national starts out farther down the food chain, I see no reason to think that the people in the positions of greatest power aren’t basically the same as the people I knew first hand. They were fundamentally decent people with a tinge of ambition, and while the narcissistic side came out the most during campaigns, the rest of the time was just problem solving in the context of an inherited situation. True horrific evil, I thus suspect, is more often than not Arendt-banal, not seeing the forest for the trees. There are exceptions. I think Cheney was evil.
The philosophical dimension of this: a bunch of things. First, I view the system in a somewhat Hegelian way: it has created us, we are defined in large measure by our participation in it. I really really am an American citizen just like you really really are a school teacher (and conversely). It isn’t a game or a charade that the Red Pill (or was it the Blue Pill?) enables us to wake up from. Social reality is as real as any other reality. So more “radical” stances seem to me not fully real or authentic, except when they are. And I admit that the inner progressive inside me gets very excited when I see people on the march taking back their institutions, as we’ve seen in the Arab Spring. Euphoric in fact. But it would be to efface huge differences to think that their situation is comparable to ours. If it ever is, I won’t be blogging (well, maybe I will) but will be organizing cells and risking my life. But if we aren’t there, I work within the only system I have. So, what strikes some as wildly naive seems to me anything but. When I in effect said “waitaminute! Clinton can’t perjure himself! That’s illegal!” I make a conscious choice to make those laws my own. It’s not a childlike innocence but a refusal to give up. Perhaps that’s a kind of faith? I don’t think so, because it’s not a matter of belief, but of will. I make a commitment to these institutions.
Second, law school is a very powerful experience for revealing the functions behind laws, and the reasons behind judicial decisions, and precisely because it teaches you how to see bad laws and bad decisions, it leaves you with this surprising sense of just how much rationality is already there in the system. So that’s very much a glass half full thing. What works, for most, recedes into invisibility, as it should perhaps, but it can make the occasional epiphany that it is fucking miraculous that it all works as well as it does hard to have.
Third. In college I read Kazantzakis, and though I find him bombastic and perhaps not altogether genuine now, he conveyed this notion to me: the noble man takes responsibility for everything, not just what he can actually control. Which led me to think that the outsider stance was somehow too easy, not strenuous enough. This is often misunderstood. I have no delusion of the importance of my action or thought. It has no influence whatsoever except on maybe 3-4 twenty-somethings in Portland per year. It’s that I must, as a part of my conception of my own character, regard myself as responsible for my government. This means that I do all those civic republican virtuous things we are told we’re supposed to do. Whenever a political issue appears, I strive within the limits of my ability to pretend that what the nation will do is entirely up to me, and that I will have to take the blame if I make a bad decision. I try to figure out what the best decision from the perspective of governance would be. And then once I think I have that, I tell people what I think. Because this regulative fiction governs my sense of civic virtue, people often find me overly accommodating of the status quo. But I in turn view many people as not really serious. When someone says something over the top or utterly defeated or cynical, however appropriate that may really be to their actual conditions of powerlessness, I ask myself, what would I think if, say, the president thought and acted exactly that way while in office? I’d think they were a lousy president, worse than lousy. Hugely irresponsible. So once the regulative fiction that defines my sense of civic virtue is activated, I have to think about policies and decisions from the standpoint of taking the “what would I do if I were president/senator/ congressperson/etc.” stance realistically and seriously. And what I wouldn’t do is say, as my staff was waiting for instructions, “politics is such bullshit, and it’s pointless to do anything.” Yes, but Mr. President, we have to do something anyway, so what will it be?
Last but not least. This individual conception was later reinforced by reading Gore Vidal’s history novels, because he portrays all his political actors, knaves, saints and ordinary people alike, as presupposing this sense of ownership. For them, the government is the family business, and you don’t just let things fall apart because you don’t believe in it. You do the best you can with it. Obviously all these ideas interact and lead to a result.
The point I started with that I wanted to make is, all of this is completely compatible with being as cold-bloodedly, clear-eyedly aware of how screwed up things are, and how much lack of virtue there is, all the way up to the top. What some see as naive, and others see as wickedly complicit and apologetic, I see as a useful fiction necessary for the construction of my own sense of virtuous character. Consequently, I seldom sound truly radical, unless the actual exercise of power at the moment shows signs of actually destroying something central to our freedoms and institutions. To my own surprise, Bush managed to get my attention in just that way: he put our constitution at risk. But given all of the above, I saw him, not as the wicked tyrant above me to be rebelled against, but as the lazy brother who, god damn it, is going to destroy the family business beyond repair if he isn’t stopped. An “intervention” was called for, as the substance abuse treatment community calls it.
I’m convinced that 90% of what makes people suspect that I’m a bad guy, is precisely this “ownership” business. And that saddens me, because I think it’s one of the best things about my stance. Beyond that, my only conservative qualities at this point are that I give a wide berth to religious conviction, because that seems to be what treating people with dignity and respect requires, and I have the limited but adequate economist’s understanding of policy that says you can’t have everything you might want, that things must be paid for, that market distortions have consequences, etc. But like a sensible man I know efficiency isn’t everything either, and there are many other political goods that have to be weighed against it.
In the end, I suspect that these attitudes, in myself and others, are conditioned by fairly straightforward Freudian dynamics. For me, my father is old and failing; I have long since taken his place. And maybe that’s all that I’m really saying.