In my last post (The Battle of Good v. Evil, Within & Without), I discussed the individual dimensions of this classic struggle, a struggle, at the individual and interpresonal level, in which we are all implicated, and in which we all contribute to both sides. The message, I believe, dovetails with other related posts on this blog (e.g., The Foundational Progressive Agenda, The Politics of Anger), a message that emphasizes that we have to build progress on a foundation of reason, humility, and goodwill, rather than on the inflexible assumptions of blind ideology and the continued political treadmill of mutual belligerence.
But as we deal with that fundamentally important personal level struggle, both individually and mutually, the outward battle to implement social policies that reflect the same commitment continues. Our widespread lapses at the individual level aggregate into both angry policies and angry politics, in which some can blithely blame the disadvantaged and their allies for trying to create a more equitable political economy, and in which those who oppose that brutal notion can fail to create an inherently attractive alternative. The question, on the political level, is: What does it take to penetrate the hardening of the heart and shrinking of the mind which informs the historically discredited and transparently unjustifiable political ideology of extreme individualism (otherwise known as “small government”)? One part of the answer, the part that is perhaps most overlooked, involves the personal aspect of the struggle between “good” and “evil” discussed in The Battle of Good v. Evil, Within & Without.
My own personal failures, for instance, have contributed to the weakening of the influence of my arguments, because arguments against the politics of anger are discredited by personal indulgence in anger. Hypocrisy in failing to implement at the personal level what we are advocating for at the social level may not undermine the merits of the arguments, but it does undermine their persuasive force. One cannot effectively advocate for a kinder state and nation while failing to be a kinder person.
We are blessed with extraordinary lives, able to savor the wonders of the world around us, the joys of daily life, the deep emotional gratification of loving relationships, and yet we squander this blessing with amazing regularity. We squander it as individuals, and we squander it as a people. And the two failures are intimately intertwined, though we treat them as entirely separate, or only conflate them when discussing the foibles of elected officials and other political actors.
I am suddenly deeply impressed with the need to walk the walk as well as talk the talk, to be as an individual what I am advocating that we become as a people. It’s not enough to do so in the public sphere, in efforts to affect public policy or improve people’s lives. It must also occur in the private sphere, in our daily interactions, in our treatment of those who most challenge our patience and pique our chagrin. If we progressives truly want to help create the world that we envision, then we must work far, far harder at creating it within ourselves first, and, by doing so, establish a far more attractive and compelling force through which to create it in our social institutions. We must model it, exemplify it, demonstrate what joy and strength and tranquility it bestows.
This is by no means advocacy for reducing the challenge to do good to the individual level, as so many on the right try to do, as justification for addressing it not at all. These are two sides of a coin, two aspects of a single struggle: To exercise goodwill in interpersonal interactions while rationalizing political ideological brutality, or to fight for social policies predicated on goodwill while failing to exercise it in interprersonal interactions, are both failures of commitment, and choices that reduce the moral force of one’s professed positions and attitudes. Those of us who claim to be progressives must strive to progress within, without, and together; those of us who claim to be charitable must be charitable not just in how we act in the private sphere but also in what we advocate in the public sphere, not just at the individual level, but at the policy level as well. There should be no refuge in hypocrisy, whether of the left or of the right.
It is clear to me, as it is clear to many others, that the ideology of extreme individualism, the use of the word “liberty” as a justification for public mutual indifference and disdain for the most disadvantaged, the argument that trying to help the poor hurts them (always reducing such investments to mere hand-outs, rather than recognizing that programs to increase opportunities and to provide training cost money as well), the insulation of what’s “mine” from the threat that others might get some of it, define a political position that cannot both claim to be based on any commitment to the “good” (as I defined it in the previous post), and withstand scrutiny at the same time. It is a position maintained by false economic, legal, and moral arguments, justifying an intensely “me-first-and-only” rather than socially responsible commitment. I remain as adamant as ever in that position, which should, by all rights, be a magnet that attracts every human being with any desire to be a reasonable person of goodwill.
And yet it doesn’t. Somehow, people who take offense at being characterized as inhumane for adhering to what is obviously an inhumane political ideology are perfectly insulated from the pressure that that contridiction should exert on them. They have a set of platitudes and ideological certainties that mask the truth, from themselves and for each other, platitudes that simply distort the concept of “liberty” into the concept of “screw you,” and reject the notion that we can or should ever use our agent of collective action, our government, to address the inequities and injustices of life, though few dispute that the most prominent examples of having done so in the past (e.g., abolishing slavery, establishing civil rights laws and protections, establishing schools, etc.) are now indispensable aspects of our social institutional landscape.
The cruelties that invade our daily lives are the same cruelties that invade our political ideologies. The ability to ridicule others for personal pleasure while still imagining oneself to be an individual dedicated to the public good is the same blatant contradiction as the ability to insist that the poor are parasites while still believing oneself to be a reasonable person of goodwill. The challenge we face on either level, be it individual or social, is the challenge we face on both.
I suggest a new progressive agenda, one which is not based just on political advocacy, but also on personal responsibility. Let’s reunite these two sides of the challenge that we have so conveniently separated, and address them as a single whole. Let’s not seek only to implement kinder policies, but, while doing so, let’s strive to implement in our own lives kinder behaviors. It is not just that both are good, and that both contribute to the same good, but also, and perhaps more importantly, that they reinforce one another. Progressive advocates who are striving in their own lives to realize what they are striving publicly to implement will be far more compelling, far more difficult to dismiss, and far more effective than those who leave the two sides of this challenge artificially divided.
Those of us who are truly committed to progressing as a people must also become truly committed to progressing as persons. Let’s turn this movement into the one that can work, and work with any and all others who understand even some isolated aspect of what’s involved to accomplish it. It’s time to break the deadlock, and create a narrative that can’t be denied.