Saturday, September 6, 2008
From someone I highly regard
As important as art and drawing are to me, I have also always been deeply interested and involved with the politics of this country, ever since I was at Princeton, majoring in political science, working for my congressman, and as a White House intern.
I have been thoroughly absorbed in the current Presidential election, the most important of my lifetime. The twists and turns of the primaries were history in the making and the general election has engaged Americans and the world like never before.
However, despite the strategies and theatrics of the campaigns, which have been as entertaining as any sporting event, I have the increasing concern that I could lose sight of the true nature of the issues at stake. All too often the media, the pundits, and the political operatives tempt me to lose perspective on what all of this drama means … to us and to me.
When I was studying political history, my thesis advisor, Robert Tucker, gave me a concise definition of successful leadership. A leader does three things. First they provide a definition of the situation facing the community. Secondly, the leader charts a course to deal with the situation. And, thirdly, they mobilize the people to move in that direction. In other words 1.”Here’s what’s going on” 2. “Here’s what we need to do about it” and 3. “Here’s what we can all do to solve the problem.”
While reading political theorists like Locke, Hume, Mill,and Hobbes, I also came to understand the proper purpose and function of a successful government. It’s to organize the people, to share their resources, and to guide them in collectively solving their problems. You can’t build your own roads, educate your children, defend your borders, and improve your community alone. So we set up governments to help us figure out how to do it together, preserving our own self-interests but also encouraging us to make some sacrifices for the greater good. Those people who have the ability and inclination to help us coordinate in this way become the community leaders while the rest of us agree to support their decisions made on our behalf. If we come to feel that they are not doing the job well, we replace them.
On September 12th, 2001, I suggested to the group of people I worked with, that in response to the events we’d witnessed through our office windows the day before, we all go and donate blood and our time and effort to help our fellow New Yorkers. We walked over to the Javits Center on the Hudson River and joined thousands of our neighbors who also wanted to help. After hours of standing around, we realized that nobody had anything for us to do. We, white collar workers, were useless in this situation. The firefighters and ambulance drivers who showed up from around the country soon discovered that their skills in dealing with emergencies wouldn’t be needed either. The next day, President Bush told us that there was nothing we could do but go shopping. We all felt scared and impotent.
Months later, the war on Afghanistan began but we weren’t asked to make any sacrifices or offer any help. All we could do was to pay taxes and stand by whatever the government thought was best. That extended to the following year when the President told us we needed to support his decision to invade Iraq. Most Americans agreed to do so. But some of us marched through town, waving banners that expressed our concern. We were a small and ignored group but we did feel we’d done something, finally. (Now, I know that war is an inevitable part of history, that all societies must define themselves and protect their interests through calls to arms. But I also know that this is an incredibly high price to pay and that we should all question ourselves deeply before we make any sort of commitment to violence and destruction; in the last few years, we have utterly failed to have the sort of open national discussion that such a commitment requires.)
We had a sense of purpose when we participated in the 2004 Presidential election, but were frustrated and disappointed when the discussion veered off the real topic at hand, the issues facing the country, and into a destructive and hostile creed against the personalities of the candidates. Again, citizens were infantilized and distracted by pundits rather than engaged in a productive forum on the true matters at hand.
Three years ago, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, we tried to help again. But no one was there to coordinate us, to lead us, to harness our desire to make a difference. I felt even more worried that not only could we do nothing to deal with the situation but that the government was failing to protect us too. They did nothing and we couldn’t help.
Communities are defined by who’s in them and who isn’t, us vs. them. It could be Americans vs. Foreigners, Citizens vs. Immigrants, Men vs. Women, Gays vs. Straights, Believers vs. Non-Believers, Democrats vs. Republicans… people are galvanized by being presented with an opponent. (As a sidebar, when Al Gore established his leadership by defining a situation that impacts us all, by asserting that for once there was no Them, just Us, all of Us, and that we could all make a contribution to fix the problem, I was very inspired. I was also flabbergasted by how many people, those in power and those with no apparent axe to grind, were skeptical and even openly hostile against the effort to reduce global warming. I just don’t get it but can only assume that the agendas are hidden but there, and that the power of denial is incredibly strong. )
This election is hard fought and as always has a lot of Us and Them in it. And, as has been the case so often before, people are diverted into a certain group or another, even though they may well end up working against their own better interests. Religion is often used to distract people from larger agendas or self interest. Whether Al Quaeda convinces young people to kill themselves for the cause, or the Religious Right convinces working class people to support corporate interests on the off chance that Roe v. Wade will be overturned, people with a range of interests are edged into one suffocatingly narrow view of the world, one slim issue that overshadows all others.
I have feelings about a lot of the emotional issues being discussed but if I look at them really hard, I can see that many or most issues have nothing really to do with me.
For instance, I don’t understand why people feel so strongly about owning guns; they seem dangerous things to have around the house. But I really don’t care if people insist on bearing arms. Just keep them locked up and don’t let your kids bring them to my kid’s school.
I also don’t care much about whether or not people want to pray in school. On an academic level, I think the Constitution is pretty clear about the separation of Church and State but if you want to say a prayer or even carve it into the wall, and it really means a huge amount to you, then go ahead. As a boy, I went to a Protestant school in Australia that had mandatory chapel and I found it boring and irrelevant but I lived through it, reason intact. I think my son would be more annoyed by such a mandate than I was but I don’t think it would stunt him horribly to be exposed to it. I also lived in Israel for three years of my boyhood, an ostensibly single religion country and Judaism was taken for granted and part of most things we did but it didn’t have much impact on me either way except to leave with a distaste for the tedium of religious ritual. So believe what you will, pray where you want, but don’t deny my boy the chance to learn about evolution and have a proper education. If you choose not to do the same in your community that is a shame and will diminish the intellectual power of our country but it’s not a life or death matter for me.
(It’s odd how hard religions work to foist their notions on others. Maybe I should go around lobbying for mandatory contour drawing or stop people in the airport and make them do watercolors.)
As for abortion, I am pretty clear that it should be a choice left up to the people involved rather than imposed by the government, I think that we all agree together how to behave towards each other and that behind closed doors we should be left to do what we want as long as it doesn’t hurt others. I realize some people think that abortion does hurt people, namely fetuses, but this still strikes me as something that should be decided by families or maybe by communities but not by the federal government. It doesn’t seem to be a clear absolute as far as everyone is concerned and the idea that a 14-year-old girl who is raped should be forced to bring her baby to term feels like something that should not be decided by strangers hundreds of miles away. I think this country and the women who live in it are better off since it was agreed that they were capable of making their own decisions about such things. I also can’t understand why people don’t want their teenagers to get proper, coherent, fact-based sex education, to protect them from disease and unwanted pregnancies, regardless of what their religion decided thousand of years before AIDS and condoms were around. Any belief system that promotes ignorance and denial over health and long lives warrants a question or two and probably won’t prevail in the long run.
It also goes without saying, in my mind, that the people who deny any rights and privileges to people based on sexual orientation or race are either biased, ignorant with regard to 'the melting pot' of diversity, or acting out of some selfish economic interest.
In any case, whether you agree with me or not on these topics, I am fairly certain that this is not the most important issue that government can help me with right now.
I also don’t have the huge problems some people seem to have with paying taxes. I’ve given a lot of money to the government over the past twenty-five years, and despite the fact that there are potholes on my street and idiots in Washington and often on T.V.and the media, I consider the money reasonably well spent. I figure it’s just the cost of living in a big society, and that because I have a good job and a lot of opportunities, I should do my bit to help those who are worse off. I hope my money is going to help the poor and the elderly and the disabled, to make schools better and water cleaner, parks greener and food safer but I also know that bureaucracies and corruption siphon off a fair amount and I wish it was less. I don’t resent paying that money any more than I resent paying for a carton of milk or a movie ticket and there’s a limit to how agitated I am willing to get over the efficiency of the system (I really can’t understand people who devote their lives to working for the government in order to dismantle the government).
So does that make me a ‘tax and spend liberal’? I guess so but I’m not sure what’s quite so awful about that. Maybe the benefits of community are less obvious to people who don’t live in a huge diverse city like I do but I sure wouldn’t want to have to sweep my own street or drive my own bus.
So, instead of worrying about a lot of the topics that are brought up in presidential elections, I am much more concerned about the state of our economy and whether it drives my clients to cut back their budgets to the point that it forces me to lay people off or even get fired myself, about the amount of freedom from regulation that banks should have to not screw up my mortgage, about whether the stock market goes down so far that all my investment banker neighbors get such small bonuses that New York’s tax revenues sink too far and cut back on Jack’s school budget. There’s a limit to what the government can do to guide the economy but it should be as honest as humanly possible and impose some discipline to keep special interests that are contrary to the greater good at bay. Maybe government officials should be better paid so they aren’t tempted by corrupting influence quite so much. I’d probably help pay for that.
I would love it if our community supported artists more than it does but I can't stand the idea that books are pulled from libraries or exhibits are canceled in museums or shows are censored on TV because a small and vocal minority can’t deal with their content. That seems like sheer idiocy and actually does inhibit my life. It seems a simple matter to avoid stuff you find offensive and to adequately educate your own children so they aren’t led astray by stuff you think is unwholesome.
As the husband of a disabled person, I am very sensitive to how inaccessible large parts of this country remain. There are many street corners without curbcuts, places without ramps, taxis that are too high for a wheelchair, and so on. This may not be an issue that touches your life (I hope not) but with a small effort, you and your community can make an enormous difference to people who have trouble getting around.
Thanks to Patti’s disability, I am also very aware of how Byzantine and Kafakesque our health care and insurance systems are and do not understand why this isn’t a major priority of everyone in this country. We may not all be disabled but we're all getting older and inevitably will have to rely on our healthcare system to help us out. And before we need wheelchairs and bypasses, our parents will and we’ll be saddled with the bill and the stress. This is hardly a partisan issue but exactly the sort of thing that we formed into communities to help each other with.
I wish we could be nicer and calmer too. It’s sad that in the current political debate so many people seem more interested in diminishing the ideas of others than in providing solutions of their own. The politics of division are an enormous drag on our progress and eat up resources and energy that could be so much better used.
And finally, I wish, more than ever, that I could do more to help. I yearn for a call to action, to join with my neighbor in solving our current woes, to give of myself. I am so put off by the derision leveled at ‘community organizers’ that I heard on TV a couple of nights ago. How low to put down people who work in soup kitchens or churches or libraries or schools, who volunteer to help their neighbors, people who are filling in the gaps left by reduced government programs unfunded because of the trillions spent on defense. It just seems like mean spirited knavery looking to grasp at any straw to pull down the opposition. I hope we end up with a leader who will truly lead, lead like Lincoln, like Churchill, like Jesus, like FDR, like Gandhi, like JFK, like Buddha, like the Dalai Lama, who will say, “Look here’s what’s going on (don’t you agree?), and here’s how you can join us to help fix it, not just with donations or prayers or mute acquiescence, but by rolling up your sleeves, grabbing an oar and getting to work to right the ship and get us back on course. I know there’s a will out there, all we need is someone who will lead the way. I'm pretty sure Barack Obama has the answer, have been since the beginning of last year.
If you agree with me, I hope you'll spread the thought. If you passionately disagree and have something constructive to say, I'd love to know where I might be going wrong.
A few readers seem to think that I shouldn't talk about how I feel about politics and my view of American society here. I rarely do, in spite of the importance such issues have for me. I believe, however, that my art is an extension of my life, and a record of how I see the world, warts and all. If you don't like everything about me and how I think, I'm cool with that. And if my views as stated above are utterly repugnant you, either skip such posts or ignore me all together. That's cool (though a little sad) too.