Sex and politics both have a long and frequently sordid history, both separately and together. It’s time for some perspective, and for a divorce between these two spheres of interest as spheres of interest.

First, let’s acknowledge that human beings are fallible, that those who we hold up as paragons of virtue more often than not have foibles of their own, and that the fact of human fallibility should cease to be a cause celebre each time we find ourselves astonished by its unsurprising recurrence.

Second, let’s acknowledge that politics is about power, whether for benevolent purposes or personal aggrandizement, and that, to varying degrees and in various senses, sex is about power as well, whether the power to seduce and benefit in some way from that seduction or the power to create bonds of love, either simply for the mutual benefits of the most comprehensive of all human partnerships, or to bring new human beings into existence, and nurture and guide these beautiful creatures in ways which fill one with pride and joy. In most instances, human existence being messy and complex, some mixture of the benevolent and base is implicated in each new chapter of both an individual’s sexuality and, when they have a political career, in the progress of that career as well.

Even the purest of new love is cultivated in a fire of mutual seduction (as in nature, where peacock feathers and oversized antlers and various struttings are the norm), and even the noblest of political causes requires seducing people with a compelling idea. Is it any wonder, then, that the two are often conflated, even if in ways which elicit a collective moan from the mesmerized onlookers?

My point here, however, is not to discuss the natural if uncomfortable articulation of sex and politics, but rather to discuss why we just shouldn’t care. Politics is not and should not be the art of finding and promoting paragons of moral virtue, both because being a paragon of moral virtue is a poor qualification for the job of acting as an agent of our collective will in a responsible and effective way, and because more often than not our judgments about others’ moral virtues are easily and frequently deceived. More perceived paragons of moral virtue are power-crazy megalomaniacs than are people less deluded and/or deluding about who and what they really are.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was generally recognized to be the third great American president (until recent ideological lunacy began more stridently to rewrite history and recover the political cultural errors that he had so successfully diminished), and yet he had an affair (and was wheelchair-bound t’boot). John Kennedy had his political strengths and weaknesses, but was a complete philanderer. The list goes on, and even a passing bit of careful consideration leads to the conclusion that there is no visible correlation between sexual virtue and fidelity on the one hand, and political virtue and effectiveness on the other.

Today, we have Weiner’s weiner and John Edwards’ general yuckiness making the rounds. Sure, let’s have our fun at their expense (or not), but let’s not confuse that with political discourse, or anything relevant to political discourse. I disliked Edwards, politically, before I ever had any reason to think he might have had an affair, and though his affair is completely compatible with the reasons I disliked him, it is incidental to both their existence and anyone’s realization of their existence. If you couldn’t see that he was a narcissist before finding out that he was a narcissist, you just weren’t paying attention.

Not that a little narcissism is necessarily a bad thing in a politician. If Edwards had won the presidency prior to being revealed to all and sundry to be a true sleezebag, he would still have been better suited to the job than the most virtuous of right-wing zealots, because he would have at least been performing his job with an understanding that it involves some consideration of the public interest and particularly of the needs of the most disadvantaged. It wouldn’t matter that much to me whether he was doing so in order to get others to adore him as much as he adored himself, or in service to a sincere and deeply held altruism, just as long as he was doing the job we all should want our elected officials to be doing.

Because, when push comes to shove, politics is not about the people we are electing to office; it is about the ways in which we order our own collective existence. Certainly, all things being equal, we want the most responsible, caring, and intelligent people to hold those very critical positions in this shared endeavor. But all things are not equal, including our ability to make those moral judgments with any accuracy, and the degree of their relative relevance vis-a-vis other important considerations, such as what public policies they stand for.

Weiner is still right that universal single-payer health care is the most economically and medically efficient, and most socially just, national system of health care known to man. Kennedy was still inspired and inspirational in his call to dedicate ourselves to the welfare of the nation, and to treat our future together as a shared endeavor calling upon our individual and collective genius and commitment to it. Roosevelt still ushered the nation through a devastating Depression and a horrendous World War in a way which kept our pride and our dignity intact. In comparison, their dalliances and their peccadilloes are of little concern to me.

So next time a politician crashes and burns in a sex scandal, please join me in saying, “wow, man, that’s embarassing. Now get back to work.”

Amidst all of this heavy discourse (and particularly in the wake of Grand Synthesis I), it’s nice to step back now and then and remember what it’s all in service to.

I’ve always walked my seven-year-old daughter to school and back home again, whenever my schedule has allowed. This year, I’ve been able to do both almost every day. We usually run into a group of six neighborhood kids (mostly second and third graders) at the park across which we walk to get to the elementary school. Together with my daughter, I dubbed them “the seven dwarfs,” which makes me, by default, Snow Whitehair. Sometimes we create running jokes together, such as singing our theme songs for both going to school (“Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to school we go. We learn all day and get no pay; hi-ho hi-ho hi-ho”) and returning home (“Hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s home from school we go. We learn all day, and then we play, hi-ho hi-ho hi-ho”). They love to tell me about the things that are important to them, and I love to hear about it.

My daughter and I have an amazing relationship, full of laughter and stories and spontaneous games. When people talk about how difficult teenagers are (as a former high school teacher, I know both the degree to which this is true, and the degree to which it is highly variable, and more dependent on how adults handle it than some realize), I think about that relationship, and feel confident that, despite the inevitable challenges ahead, we have created a bond together that won’t simply be whisked away by the onslaught of adolescence. I worry about my daughter’s safety, but not about her future choices, because I already see in her a deep well of personal responsibility and goodwill to others that is only going to grow richer and deeper.

And that’s what this blog is really all about. Beneath the jargon and soaring rhetoric and complex analyses is a simple commitment to my daughter, and the other six dwarfs, and the other millions of children in the country and billions in the world. I’m less concerned about my welfare today than about theirs tomorrow, and less concerned about abstract values fluttering in the wind of patriotic rhetoric than about the human spirit that those values and that rhetoric are meant to serve, but often commit violence against instead.

When I see people defend the contributing factors to devastating violence and suffering with blithe disregard for the devastation and suffering itself, or react to news of violence with the hatred that only feeds it and increases it while simultaneously obstructing efforts to do what it takes to actually diminish it, I feel a deep, painful frustration that is visceral rather than academic, that is informed by the smiles and happy voices of “the six dwarfs” who accompany me and my daughter to and from school, that knows that the greatest tragedy of our existence is our own resistance to improving it, together.

I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even know all of the questions. There are legitimate areas of debate, and legitimate ranges of uncertainty about what works and what doesn’t, about unintended consequences and unidentified risks, about what degree of decentralization of decision-making, what balances along the spectrum of individual liberty through increasing levels and degrees of social coordination, best serve humanity, all things considered. But the degree to which we bury these legitimate debates beneath mountains of arbitrary assumptions, inflexible ideologies, unexamined platitudes, and truly abhorrent rationalizations for complacent indifference to the suffering of others, form together an on-going tragedy far more consequential than hurricanes, floods, terrorist attacks, and all other natural and man-made disasters combined.

Whatever we believe, whichever way we lean ideologically, we need to strive first and foremost to all agree to be, to the best of our ability, reasonable people of goodwill doing the best we can in a complex and subtle world. That should be our mantra —everyone’s mantra– everyone who wants to have some basis for self-respect. We need to shed our false certainties, unbind ourselves from our imprisoning platitudes, liberate ourselves from the rhetoric of division and enmity, and strive, with full recognition of the difficult reality within which operate, to work toward an improved quality of life for all people, all things considered.

That shouldn’t be a controversial notion.

Everyone who advocates any political or social position, and who claims to do so because it serves interests other than merely their own, acknowledges, either implicitly or explicitly, that we are in a shared enterprise. Some think the public interest is best served by an absolutist commitment to “less government,” and some by doing the analysis and making the determination, in each instance, in the light of the specific relevant facts. But regardless of what we value, what we believe, what we insist upon, if we are valuing it, believing it, and insisting upon it in a public forum in an attempt to persuade others that it is the right thing to value, believe, or insist upon, then we believe that we have some shared fate, and some common interest in governing and organizing ourselves wisely. That is the human enterprise.

First, let’s dispense with the artificial distinction above between “governing” and “organizing” ourselves. Those who believe that churches and community organizations and voluntary associations of various kinds are useful, but that government is an impediment to our individual and/or collective welfare (the latter simply being an aggregation of our individual welfare, according to some set of values held by the individual advocating a particular position), are in effect saying that they favor one form of government over another. If government were eliminated or reduced, but voluntary organizations were left to fill the void, then the latter would become governments, and would be subject to many of the same issues, debates, and concerns that current governments are subject to. So, the debate is always over what form and function of government we advocate.

I assume that we can all agree, that in any conflict of ideologies, generally speaking, we are acting on the assumption that some are more useful than others. The logically possible alternatives are that conflicting ideologies are not actually incompatible, or, if they are incompatible, that the public interest is unaffected by the choice between them, in both of which cases there should be no conflict. The existence of conflict demonstrates the belief that some ideologies, some positions, better serve the public interest than others.

I further assume that we can all agree that the purpose of our political process, of our public debate over which ideas to implement, is based on conflicting beliefs over which ideas best serve the public interest. We should all acknowledge that we are engaged in a process the purpose of which is to select those ideas which best serve the public interest, however it is defined.

There are really, implicitly, two interrelated debates taking place under that one rubric: What is “the public interest,” and how is it best served? In other words, there is a debate over how to define the goal, and over the means for achieving it. We routinely conflate these two debates, arguing over means to differently conceived goals without debating the relative merits of the goals themselves, because we are in conflict over policies which, by their nature, are based on particular resolutions of both aspects of this contested terrain.

The first thing we need to do, in service to the human enterprise that we all implicitly acknowledge we are in, is to engage explicitly in the debate over what defines “the public interest,” without leaping to the debate about how it’s best served. This pre-empts the error of various idolatries, including “Constitutional Idolatry” (the treatment of adherence to a particular reductionist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution as the necessary and sufficient justification for all policy positions), by requiring attention to the end that is being served, rather than merely advocacy of a particular means for serving it. It requires, in other words, that the argument be made, rather than merely the dogma invoked.

Having to “make the case” is an essential procedural cornerstone of engaging in the human enterprise most effectively. We resolve legal disputes by “making the case” in court, which looks for adherence to a particular set of procedures and rules to best ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information presented. We resolve scientific and academic disputes by “making the case” in peer-reviewed journals, which look for adherence to a particular methodology which maximizes the reliability of data and of the analysis applied to it. We need to learn how to submit political disputes to the same discipline, to a methodology which maximizes reliability of information and of the analysis applied. The starting point for developing such a discipline is the requirement that political positions prevail to the extent that the case for them prevails in a court-like or academy-like procedural crucible, rather than to the extent that they manage to exploit unexamined emotional responses and predispositions (the same predecessor to modern legal and scientific procedures which gave us throwing witches into lakes to determine guilt or innocence, and basing knowledge of nature’s subtleties almost exclusively on popular superstitions).

When we subject the fundamental political conflict over how to define “the public interest” to this constraint, we discover that one set of positions is based on a refusal to make the case, rather than on how well the case was made. The Tea Party and its fellow travelers, invoking the “Constitutional Idolatry” mentioned above, claim that we have an authoritative document that tells us exactly how to pursue the public interest, without requiring any consideration of what the public interest being pursued is. It jumps to advocacy of a methodology for pursuing the public interest (i.e., adherence to a particular interpretation of the Constitution), assuming that the public interest is thus served. It may be, but the case needs to be made, explicitly, to determine if the argument should prevail under a sound methodology applied to political disputes.

Currently, there isn’t really any debate over what the public interest is. There is, rather, a conflict between those who think we should pursue it, and those who think we shouldn’t, the latter, essentially, arguing that the public interest is best served by being disregarded. This latter group is rooted, for instance, in a belief in the justice of inequity, that what each has is what each deserves, and that any attempt to “redistribute” wealth, or to refine property rights in ways which result in the redistribution of wealth, is an injustice against those from whom it is redistributed.

But this position is detached from reality. It doesn’t recognize that current property rights are a legal and political artifact, no more inherent to nature than alternative sets of property rights, and are a particular kind of distribution, not the absence of one. Modifications in these laws are less “redistributions” than “alternative distributions.” All that distinguishes them from the current system of distribution of wealth is that they are more or less efficient (contributing more or less robustly to the production of wealth), more or less fair (distributing wealth and opportunity with less regard for the chances of birth), and more or less sustainable (establishing a stable pattern of rights and responsibilities).

This position that defends strictly defined and inviolate private property rights is detached from history, in which the distribution of wealth extant today is rooted in violence and exploitation, and that the distribution of opportunity today is affected by that historical legacy. It is detached from empathy, in which the injustice of being born into poverty and suffering its effects is a social problem to be addressed rather than someone else’s problem to be disregarded. It us detached from pragmatism and economics, in which our current extreme economic inequality diminishes economic robustness and social mobility, decreasing both aggregate wealth and increasing persistent, long-term social costs imposed on all of us. But most of all, it is detached from consideration of what “the public interest” means, because the economically, socially, and morally dysfunctional commitment to current inequities can only be defended in blindness, for only as long one refuses to face the question of what “the public interest” means. It crumbles under scrutiny as soon as that question is addressed.

The Human Enterprise requires that we address both the question of what defines “the public interest,” and what means (i.e., public policies) best serve it. And it requires that we do so according to a methodology that maximizes the reliabilitiy of information and analyses employed, and minimizes the role of prejudice (i.e., emotional predispositions). It’s time for all of us to engage in that enterprise together.