This is an article about politics and citizenship. It is also an article about Ents. I’ve been trying for months to come up with a concept that I felt could properly encapsulate my absolute disdain for how we currently conduct both our politics and our public discourse. “Team sports” is, of course, a good analogy but there’s no gravity to it because people who watch sports generally love sports. However, in an age where real political change seems a naive impossibility, it makes a sort of sense that my mind would have settled on a fantasy image of living trees, tree herders, as an appropriate symbol for both where we are as a society that converses with itself and where we need to go as individuals to escape this gigantic, multi-decade trap we’ve laid for ourselves.
The Ents are living trees that inhabit a giant forest in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lorroud of the Rings. They are largely hidden away from the rest of that world and most people believe them to be a myth. This is largely of their own choosing. They have so divested themselves of the greater world that they count on others to take care of events both good and bad. So timeless and ageless are they that they cannot perceive that things may change and that they may be needed. In both the books and the movies, a gathering of Ents engages in a debate that lasts for days about whether or not to take sides in a war that is engulfing everything. At the end of that debate, they have decided nothing. So uninvolved are they that, at the debate’s inconclusive conclusion, their leader, Treebeard, trots off to ask someone else, Saruman, what he thinks they should do. And, in doing so, he finally comes face to face with the truth that blind trust and belief that systems of power are timeless, that they mean something objectively, brings with it ruin and feelings of betrayal. The very thing Treebeard is supposed to protect has been destroyed by one he trusted was on his side.
Here’s the relevant scene.
And like that, the discovery yields action and everything reasserts towards a natural state. At the end of the battle, all of the corrupting influence has been wiped clean.
Our civic discourse, as it currently stands, is unnatural. Our political scheme of parties dominating and controlling what ideas are presented and seriously considered is unnatural.
No one I know loves how we conduct our democracy and discourse. Worse, everyone I know generally has contempt for everyone in political office as a whole and thinks social media is generally a wasteland of hateful binaries. Here’s a Rasmussen poll:
There’s one week left till midterm elections, and voters continue to express their displeasure with the current Congress.
A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just eight percent (8%) of Likely U.S. Voters think Congress is doing a good or excellent job, unchanged from last month.
More than any other branch of our government, Congress matters. It represents our national political discourse as a whole and it encapsulates, supposedly, how Americans’ disparate ideologies are coalescing or whether they simply aren’t.
I think we all know they currently simply aren’t and haven’t been for years, so why are so many people willing to double, triple, quadruple down on what’s already proven itself to be completely broken system? Is it habit? Is it a cerebral dichotomy that we’re trained from our formative years to buy into one way or another? Is it our educational system where we’re encouraged to debate for or against ideas and concepts prior to even truly understanding them? Sure, probably all of those things and more.
So since we can see that it’s not working on a national, civic, level and it absolutely doesn’t work for our discourse as individuals with other individuals, why can’t we stop? It’s time to get out of these old ways of thinking, kick them to the curb, eschew our previous associations and move toward what will get us what we want and need rather than what will win all those old arguments we’ve inherited.
One party already seems to be learning that and it’s about time.
Power Has No Loyalty
For what seems like a billion years (really only around 30 years), Republicanism has been defined in most minds by one major issue and stance. That issue is abortion and that stance is unremittingly pro-life.
That has now begun to change. Obviously, it hasn’t changed all the way. There’s no 180 occurring here. But what has happened is that Republicans in more purple states have figured out that women are usually pro-choice and that if you tell them they can’t have an abortion then they don’t vote for you.
What might surprise some people (but shouldn’t) is that if you eliminate abortion and reproductive rights from the picture, Republican candidates are suddenly far, far more palatable to women and women will vote for them.
Republicans have also softened on gay marriage. I’m not saying that Republicans are now pro-choice and pro-gay marriage. I’m just saying that they’re generally talking less about social issues with a few exceptions.
Why the sudden change? I’m going to go out on a limb here and name a name, and that name is Rand Paul. Rand doesn’t really care if you get gay married, he’s for legalizing dope (likely so he can smoke it), and while he personally claims to be pro-life he’s libertarian enough to say “not my business” and have it stick ideologically. He’s also super popular among conservatives generally and nearly beloved in Kentucky, a socially conservative state.
I think that the GOP is finally looking around and realizing their voter base is dying off. They see Rand Paul and think, “I don’t have to be an evangelical to be a conservative anymore.” And they’re right. Once those social issues are fully removed from the GOP (it will happen, believe me) then they’ll be far more palatable to voters, specifically women.
I mention all this about the GOP because I want people to understand that in politics there is no loyalty to the base. The GOP will not agree to die with the baby boomers. They will change. They will leave you. The Democrats are the same. They will change. They will leave you. Labor learned that 20 years ago.
But that shouldn’t matter because you should never, ever have been loyal to them and you never, ever should be.
Politics as Consumerism
As in our economy, we’ve seen a continual and steady move on the part of political parties toward consolidation of thought such that, more now than at perhaps any other time, our parties no longer represent civic agendas, they represent pseudo-religious dogmas with followers of each individual party believing whole anything the party leaders say. If they say X is unjust then it is deemed unjust and all must rally against it. If X is socialism, then socialism it shall be. If conservatives hate women then the truth must be told, amen. Please, leader, tell me who to hate for there are only two voices in this country and I cannot listen to both.
Typical. You can’t drink Coke and Pepsi at the same time. You have to choose.
It should be no surprise that those representatives who make laws and form economic policy should have so refined this system of telling people what to think (or you’re a traitor and political Jesus hates you) at the exact moment in time when a merger between telecom giants Time Warner and Comcast is viewed by many as completely reasonable, as healthy. Duopoly and plutocracy are now the American way and citizens of both parties vote for it while believing they’re voting for either: A) opportunity; or B) economic justice. No, it’s duopoly and plutocracy you’re voting for, no matter what.
The purpose of political parties isn’t to represent your civic wants and wishes, it’s to limit your choices, narrow your thoughts, and harvest your money and votes. Oh sure, this isn’t true down to every man or woman in politics but structurally it is absolutely true. I’ve given money to both parties years ago but I still get some of the emails. The Democratic Party has basically refused to remove me from their lists. Fine. Here’s a couple.
Here’s the Boehner one. He and his allies. Those sons of bitches.
Next comes the scolding, the shaming.
I’m disappointing so many presidents and they’ve sent me more emails than they can count!
Right, I’m the disappointment…next come threats to my way of life.
That last one is my favorite. It’ll all be RIPPED AWAY. What will? This shitty economy full of rich banks and service jobs for PhD level academics where the only shred of dignity left of the Democratic Party comes in the assurance of an abortion and the peace of knowing that a gay, lesbian, or transgender person has just as much of a right to be unemployed or underemployed as I do?
How about some actual policies? No? Just underemployment equality then?
This is all simply about grist for the mill. They are owed it after all they have done for you and I in the form of a mandatory nationwide privatized health insurance law. Yeah, that’s what I voted for in 2008.
I absolutely assume the GOP’s fundraising emails are just as horrific, full of O’Bummer references and appeals to God’s laws which the GOP’s policies roundly mock in their bootstraps-and-Jesus propaganda.
I have no interest in these people. They offer me nothing. They are middlemen extracting a fee. They are small people, beggars who have grown fat on the mercy of others, the fears of others, the working hopeful, the genuinely loving. And lo they have made us strangers to ourselves.
The Hurtful Contraries
When you call your fellow citizen who is a pro-gun-control advocate a traitor, you lose. When you, in kneejerk fashion, refer to a pro-life Christian as a woman-hater, you lose. When you say that people who want lower taxes “hate the poor” or that those that are for higher taxes “hate democracy,” you lose.
We have been taught to think these things. In my experience, and likely in yours as well, people rarely do things simply because they are bastards. Certainly this does happen and when it does it stands out but generally, my life is full of mostly civil and pleasant interactions with people whom I may or may not agree with on a whole range of issues.
However, once we exit that individual, everyday arena and plop ourselves down into a context of politics or some dearly held ideology, there are suddenly enemies everywhere and we change our faces to meet them. We put on our political mask or our anti-choice or pro-choice mask. We put on our workingman’s hero mask or our liberal capitalist mask. But none of these are the true face that we were wearing prior to the change of context.
This is a learned behavior that’s been taught in order to get you to do things. Certainly, you may actually believe whatever ideology you defend but it’s the learned behavior that determines how and with what weapons you defend it. “Daddy hit Mommy, that’s why I hit my wife” says the repentant abuser. He’s not wrong. Masks are learned and inherited. They are tied to contexts and issues. They are triggers. They are rarely you as you are living your life trying to love your friends, family, and strangers in need.
They are the hurtful contraries, the binary on’s and off’s, the world distilled to noirish black and white. “Choose!” they say “or all that you love will surely perish and the barbarians will feast on the fruits of your labor!”
There are no barbarians at the gate. They are already inside. I am the barbarian. You are the barbarian. We are raiders and reavers all and our masks pain and burden us. Through the filtered and limited vision they allot us, we see nothing we can truly believe in and even less we can understand.
The Venom That Curls Green Edges
And so a person’s allegiance to a group and idea that has no allegiance to them is given a vial of poison to pour into their ear every time they question. In an attempt to fit all these square pegs into round holes we have to conduct the most fanciful set of mental gymnastics. We have to convince ourselves to despise things that others think they love (it doesn’t matter what, take your pick) and we have to learn to love those things that should not require love, things and systems that are meant for service, not adoration. And in this miasma of roiling and difficult thought all growth dies. Individual growth, certainly that’s quelled, but I’m referring here to the great national organism whose purpose it is to debate and speak and listen and, most importantly, discern. And without discernment we are all, all of us, predictable. Wendell Berry said it in 1973. Emphasis mine.
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
If you want to live a life you can understand then refuse to join. Don’t be a joiner, a bandwagon rider, a celebrator of minor events, a party goer where “everyone will be.”
There is no party that is on your side and there never will be. Take heart in that because you can count on it.
Be slow to rage or assume that things you are told are true but be quick to anger when you know you are being manipulated. Leave that stage immediately and don’t return.
Stop affiliating with a party, even as simple shorthand. We have to quit demonizing entire groups of people we don’t know. Discuss ideas—not people, not regions, not backgrounds—but ideas. It is ideas that matter in formulating plans and solving problems, not fears. Refuse to do what you’re told only because someone says “time is short.” Time is forever and we are surrounded by it, inundated by an ever flowing and enriching river of it. Do not tell me time is short. Life is short, yes, but not time. Choose among the issues as if you live among people with souls as generally gray as yours and as mine because you do. Time is not short, time is not short.
Leave your party. When you’re asked what you believe in say “my neighbor and myself” and when you’re asked what policies you endorse say “the best for the most that will seize it.” Choose pragmatically because, if nothing else, pragmatism is the ideology of the United States of America. It is also the least taught ideology in school and I wonder if this is because it is not binary, it is not on and off, it is not black and white. It eschews the grist for the mill because that system is not practical.
When you vote ask “is this caretaking? Will my neighbor or lover be the poorer for this? Will my son curse my foolishness when he is a man? Will this someday make my daughter weep?” Answer those questions and then decide accordingly but don’t allow the decision to be handed to you simply because it’s next to a decision you didn’t need handed to you.
Reject cynicism. Cynicism is for those waiting for others to present them with choices from which they may choose. Cynicism is ill gotten. It speaks of loss and theft. Let others be disappointed in the virtue of others. Discern and act and speak out. Keep after yourself in this. Keep after others in this.
Our civic dialogue is a gray ash and though we are all appalled by it none of us are surprised by it. We know intuitively what has happened. The forest has burned because, to some, it was judicious to burn it. It was right there and its burning created fuel and so, so much money. The smoke hangs like an echo in an empty city. It is only by using people’s inherent will to protect what they love that our civil society has been turned against itself. Abel murders Cain daily and the Great Family suffers.
“Enemies are everywhere! Can’t you see them? There, through the smoke!”
No. It is not so but what should we do?
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
There are no enemies, there is work to be done, and we are surrounded by good people with which to do it. Shoulders to the wheel. There is no savior coming to do your part for you.