Regarding the question of political over-polarization, Among the Poseidonians recently commented:
our political culture has not only become permeated with hysteria and the de-legitimizing of one’s political opposition, but with an “ends justify the means” mentality which violates not only my sense of political morality, but long-term political prudence (which are intimately connected in my mind).This articulates very clearly part of my concern over the acrimonious and distorting nature of political "debate" at present. The more one polarizes the debate, the greater the license for radical, what-you-can-get-away-with tactics. (This is nicely illustrated, e.g., by John A.'s example of the GOP cutting minority membership in committees; and, credit where it's due, in this case the Democrats restored the balance even when it hurt them; this is also Poseidonian's point regarding the Justice Department's defense of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy's legality even as the Obama administration detests the law.)
As I mentioned in response to John, I sometimes meet a kind of shrugging, so-what, aren’t-we-among-friends incomprehension when I object to the demonizing of rank-&-file republicans (or tea-partiers) by my democratic acquaintances. What I take Poseidonian to be saying is that there’s a link between the end justifying the means, and the stark polarization of political life. After all, there is a referee in a boxing ring or a fencing match, but in a scratch-your-eyes-out brawl to the death, there are no rules of engagement.
In this midst of thinking this over, I stumbled on Grad Student's blog post ruminating on the guilty pleasures of counting oneself right. " 'Demagoguery...jihad...rabidly anti-Islam...incendiary libel...' I’m beginning to suspect," Grad Stdent wrote,
that political rhetoric like this isn’t very good for my psyche. It breeds in me a repulsive sense of smug superiority and anger that I would like to avoid. What’s the antidote? I suppose wishing my enemies well would help.I think I recognize what Grad Stdent's talking about. Even back in my sign-waving days when I stood outside the Nevada Test Site calling for a ban on nuclear weapons testing, indignation seemed always (to me) the least attractive or compelling feature of any political argument. I have noticed, too, that I have an aversion to my own smugness -- once I've noticed it -- even stronger than my dislike of others'; and my distaste for the smugness of those who agree with me is stronger than my dislike of it in my opponents.
I can extend this to a suspicion of all self-congratulatory, mutually-admiring in-crowds. This is not a horror of joining a group per se, a kind of rugged individualism run amok, but specifically a distaste for the lure of jargon, the secret smiles at each other over the bewildered heads of the others in the room, the nudge-wink, "we know what we mean" question-begging. And yet. And yet, the pleasures of friendship are so close to these, that I have to wonder if there is something of a bad puritan conscience in my recoil? (Simone Weil says someplace that the pleasure in sharing an opinion with one's friend sullies the friendship). I am a high-church Anglican, a lover of Nabokov, a nerd for progressive rock music, and on and on -- all highly idiosyncratic tastes (and more than "tastes") the sharing of which has given me some of the great pleasures of my life. We all know, too, how the little meaningless in-jokes one comes to share with ones best friends, one's lover, and so on, become the subtext of one's life after a while. I don't want to gainsay this. But there’s something that makes me shudder, about the sly way fellow-hobbyists shake their heads over the lost ones -- the ones on the outside, bereft of their meaning-bestowing enthusiasms.
This can only get worse when combined with politics. (In religion, it's positively deadly, and, in Christianity, all the more hard to uproot, as it is very close to -- and crucially different from -- something authentically and legitimately Christian... but that's the matter for another post entirely).
But are there not urgent matters for which indignation and rallying are the only decent responses, where "keeping a cool head" is an indecency? I want to answer Yes to this. And yet... Perhaps at least some of my distaste for indignation comes from thinking this line is in a different place from where others think it.
The difference, as far as I can tell, is that between friendship and something pseudo-, something that imitates it.
In the former, either both of you are looking at some third thing, and it endlessly opens up to you without exhaustion (or even 'withdrawing'), becoming a token of the mystery of the whole world somehow, but never losing its absolute specificity (the Sherlock Holmes stories you both love never turn into red wine or antique Tiffany lamps or even into “the mystery of the world”); or you are yourselves revealed to each other -- the wonder and miracle of another person, shining next to you as if in a pillar of light. This is what love is.
In the latter, there's something else -- something less. Something that comes about by virtue of not being the benighted others who don't get it, in which the miracle that occasions your camaraderie is cheapened by being pressed into service of making you feel better than them .
Certainly, I do also know a kind of reactive appalled-ness at the one who just doesn't see it, who seems to not grasp what is at stake. I long ago despaired over trying to open my parents’ ears to the thrill of certain music, or certain friends’ to the obvious allure of the mind. What refreshment, after so long among philistines, to meet someone who getsMark Rothko, or Led Zeppelin, or Le Morte d’Arthur, or ornithology. The soul exclaims “You too?!” And can one begrudge us if, after this "you too!", we share a moment of relief, or dismissal of everyone else besides we the initiated, as the accumulated exasperation of years is finally expressed?
I know well such moments. I will say, unequivocally, yes, I’d be a better person without them. Pace Nietzsche, there is a difference between pity and compassion, and (at the risk of an almost absurd overwroughtness) one can feel compassion for the one who lacks one's thrill at the sight of a landscape or the fascination of your favorite city, or (slightly less ridiculously) who just doesn't see the obviousness of your politics, without any condescending pity. I also try to nurture a degree of compassion for myself, in feeling these silly all-too-human moments of breathing, "God! Those idiots!", when I've finally found a sympathetic ear. Such lapses of decorum and decency are nonetheless forgivable. But I don’t want to mistake them for friendship, just because someone is there to agree with me.
This is the case, even if the listening ear, the kindred-spirit, who occasions this relief and recrimination is my friend. But in politics, all too often, they're only the enemy of my enemy.