One of the defects of our political process is the degree to which it brutalizes us, and we brutalize it. Certainly, as, in essence, pacified civil war, whenever and wherever we succeed in substituting the verbal and ideological brutalities of politics for the physical violence of warfare we have taken an enormous step forward. But wherever we settle for the verbal and ideological brutalities of politics rather than reach further in our ongoing struggle to replace brutality with civility and irrationality with reason, we have cause for shame rather than pride.
Many people seem to believe that being a candidate is something that one does only for their own benefit, and, of course, one’s own benefit is generally a consideration, on some level or in some manner. But more often than not, wrapped up into what one perceives to serve their own interests is their commitment to certain ideals, or goals, that serve some public with which they identify (hopefully, but not always, the public as a whole). Politics is a human enterprise, a human endeavor, not fundamentally different from those enterprises and endeavors with which we all are familiar in our own lives: We aspire, we care, we want, we try, we succeed, and we fail.
Sometimes, we do so in competition with one another. If I start a business that sells widgets, then I am in competition with other businesses that also sell widgets. It is not unusual (though neither is it universal or inevitable) to feel some animosity toward my competitors, since their success comes at my expense, and mine at theirs. But we are both just striving to succeed in our chosen endeavors, and the animosity, unless for other reasons as well, is an unnecessary addition of brutality to a shared existence that is already far too brutal.
In politics, more is at stake. We are competing over how we will define ourselves, over who and what we are, over how we will organize our shared existence. And the emotions of those most involved run very high indeed. Some anger may be inevitable, may even be useful, but when some feel glee not only over the victory of their vision for our state and nation, but also over the loss and suffering of others, they contribute to what we should be trying to transcend rather than what we should be trying to augment.
To be sure, sometimes the animosities aren’t ideological, but personal. During my years posting on Colorado Pols, for instance, a few bloggers there decided that my form of argumentation made me a despicable person, and sought every opportunity to shoot any irrelevant barbs within their reach. On three occasions (twice for having knowingly and intentionally posted false factual assertions about me, and once for threatening me both physically and to virtually stalk me) I mentioned that there are legal limits to how they can express their hatred. Now, “Ralphie” (with the help of the one who both threatened me physically, and promised to stalk me on Pols, who recently posted a highly revisionist reference to that encounter) wants to turn that into yet one more vehicle for his relentless vendetta.
In the wake of the election, I’ve noticed them coming out of the woodwork on Colorado Pols, creating the same group-think reality, piling on as a form of entertainment (which helped inspire the following two posts: The Battle of Good v. Evil, Within & Without, The Battle of Good v. Evil, Part 2). Initially, I felt a far more muted annoyance than usual, the degree of pettiness appearing to me too obvious to be effective. But, to my dismay, others, including some who have been friends, helped reinforce rather than confront the meme, some casually and carelessly.
It is, in part, the expression of a strange cultural attitude, one which, on the one hand, cheers malice, and, on the other, dehuamanizes certain categories of people, including “intellectuals” and “candidates,” two categories to which I have belonged, or have been perceived to belong. That combination of approved malice against approved targets creates ideal designated scapegoats, against whom it is not only acceptable but customary to vent all pent-up aggressions, and to do so as rudely and crudely as you like.
The anger, and sense that there is a specially exempt political zone in which it is acceptable to express it with as much hostility, as little restraint, and as much indifference to what we consider to be basic decency in almost all other realms of life, extends beyond our attitude toward politicians and intellectuals (see The Politics of Anger). But a special sphere of heightened disinhibition is reserved for them, both, I think, justified by some perception that both are attempts to put oneself above others, and so inviting of being taken down a peg.
How strange and contemptuous that we should reserve our most vicious expressions of belligerence for those who have chosen to work on behalf of the public interest in these two ways, either by trying to understand or directly affect our social institutional landscape with the desire to improve it. And how dysfunctional that we should remain so committed to reducing our public debate over how to govern ourselves to a frothing-at-the-mouth hate-fest, one which not only drowns out reason, but seems most hostile to it.
The irony is that “Ralphie” and “MOTR” and many others like them do not direct their rage particularly at their ideological opposites, but rather at anyone who “contaminates” politics by treating it as something more than a fairly shallow exchange of arbitrary opinions. They perceive analysis as hostility and hostility as reason, in one of many complete inversions of reality particular to political discourse.
At the Jefferson County Democratic Party’s election night vigil at the Lakewood Holiday Inn at Hamden and Wadsworth, I sat with fellow candidates and supporters, in what was a very emotional night for us all. We rejoiced at our party’s victories, and mourned our party’s losses. We felt for our friends in office who were not re-elected, who we knew had given so much, with such a sincere desire to serve others, and who at times lost to opponents who, to our minds, represented the insanity of politics. Those of us who knew we could not win joked about the inevitable, and, if anything, found some joy and comfort in watching the culmination of our small slice of the shared story of this election cycle, one which we agreed was really a pleasure to have lived.
I will continue to argue passionately for the policies and perspectives that I believe best serve our long-term collective interests. And I will continue to seek out all people, of all perspectives, who are willing to engage in an ongoing discussion, in a context of mutual goodwill, as fellow human beings trying to do the best we can, regardless of what policies they believe would best serve the public interest. If we occasionally get angry with one another, let’s not enshrine our anger as the defining quality of our relationships. If we disagree, let’s not turn disagreement into justification for implacable hostility. If an olive-branch is offered, take it. If one might be taken, offer it.
If we err in our treatment of others, let’s use it as a reminder to redouble our efforts to do better. If others err, let’s give them every opportunity to find their way back to civility, and accommodate and encourage their efforts to do so. There is never any justification for viciousness and malice. There is never any need to condemn or mistreat any individual for any sincere belief about what best serves the public interest, but there is neither any need to insulate those beliefs from critical scrutiny and blunt challenges. We need to put everything we have on the table, set aside our animosities, strive to cultivate mutual goodwill, and work together as reasonable members of a single society working together to do the best we can.