"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Do Your Politics Reflect What You Think Or Who You Are?

I have a friend with whom I grew up  and saw for many years until politics pushed us apart. Over time he grew more and more liberal and I more conservative.  We were far apart on most issues, and our interchanges became contentious and personal.  He at last said that we would have to stop talking, for continuing would erode the last intact bits of the long friendship.  Politics are are not just what you think, he said, but who you are, and I don’t like the person I see in front of me anymore.

I have never subscribed to this view; and have always felt that the real mettle of a man – the core of his character – has nothing to do with politics.  It is about intelligence, humor, perception, enthusiasm, ambition, and energy, not about tax reform or voting rolls.

I am good friends with the most ‘progressive’, idealistic, and irremediably liberal person one can imagine.  There is not a Left-wing cause that he does not espouse. He is passionate about the environment and implacably committed to the rights of women, gays, and minorities. He is unremitting in his attacks on the One Percent, on the unconscionable economic and social inequality of America.  He has been untiring in his work for world peace, international harmony, and a non-nuclear, non-threatening world.

I am opposed to John on just about every one of the issues about which he so passionate, yet we have remained good friends since college. Perhaps it is because we liked each other long before our political views had formed. There were no politics in the scramble to get up to Smith for pussy at the Northampton Inn; none at all in Potty Court  launching water balloons over the Gothic towers of Trumbull, across College Street, over the even taller towers of Davenport, and down onto the dorks in the courtyard.  We never talked politics but only ideas – Kant, Kandinsky, Modernism, and ethics.  We laughed at Paul Weiss’ adumbrations and Harold Bloom’s famous ten-hour marathon dissection of Blake’s The Tiger. We listened to Vincent Scully rant on about horned mountains, the Cretan Minotaur, and the great, potent, thrusting,phallic, immanent power of Mount Psiloritis. Scully was a circus act, a one-man burlesque show, and we loved him.

Perhaps because I knew John as a late child before life got all serious, I could never take him seriously. Or perhaps even more accurately because beneath the carefully-crafted, perfectly consistent, ‘progressive’, liberal professional exterior, the outrageously smart and funny fat kid from Far Rockaway was never far.

I have a good friend from Alabama who is just as far Right as John is far Left.  Bob is a gun-toting, Tea Party, Washington-hater.  He is convinced that Obama is a socialist scourge who will bring the country down. Yet he is a charming, generous man who values friendship, camaraderie, and gracious living.  He is unapologetically Southern, proud of the five generations of his family who settled the Coast, farmed the red dirt just west of Meridian, planted cotton in the black prairie near Eutaw, lived in grand antebellum homes, and suffered through the agonies of Reconstruction.  He is gentleman. 

If it is so easy for me to ignore politics in friends, how is it that my friend whom I have known since childhood; and who was rough and temperamental as a boy, then an Ayn Rand individualist, and finally an “I never ride buses” patrician before his political epiphany many years after college, decide that he and I are too different to remain close?

The more I think about it, the more I think that he may be right about political destiny.  Politics is not simply a matter of preferring one political party over another, being partial to the private sector, or seeing government as the principal instrument for social change.  It reflects a personal philosophy and a view of the world which is no mere intellectual construct but moral and ethical principles derived more out of character, genes, and upbringing than experience .

There are two fundamental issues over which Left and Right argue and which reveal a fundamental difference in perceiving human society. The first and most important revolves around human nature.  Conservatives contend that human nature is an immutable given, an inbuilt, hardwired component in all of us.  Human nature is necessarily acquisitive, self-serving and self–protective; and commoners and kings have always fought to expand defensive perimeters, to acquire capital, labor, and natural resources.  They have rejected all comers, battled their way from Europe to Palestine, from the Steppes to the Far East, from Mecca to Spain; from one rugged prehistoric plain to another.  There is no way to eliminate war, reduce international tensions, and secure world peace.  The only solution to conflict is to meet force with force, accept aggression as a fact of life and imperfection an absolute.  An uneasy, temporary balance of power is as good as it gets.

Liberals believe just the opposite.  There is no such thing as an immutable human nature, they say.  We are all malleable creatures, endowed with wisdom and intelligence, and only need education, guidance, and leadership to evolve.  Perfectibility is indeed an option and a goal; and government is the way to achieve it.

Everything flows from those two differing conceptions of society.  Conservatives value the individual and the liberty to follow his instincts and human nature.  Life is a constant struggle, a survival of the fittest world where individual interests are pitted against each other and from which excellence emerges.  Life is intrinsically unfair, but individuals will always struggle to survive, to beat the odds, to take on enemies and aggressors, and out of the conflict will come resolution and evolution.  Government gets in the way, for it stifles individual liberty, enterprise, and initiative.  Conservatives see economic and social inequality as facts of life, borne out by history.  The winners and losers will change, but the struggle will never end. There is no such thing as progress.

Liberals contend that we can learn from history and avoid its mistakes.  Conservatives reply that we have never learned and cannot learn because we are fated to always act in the same predictable ways.

The literary critic Jan Kott observed that if Shakespeare’s Histories were laid side by side in chronological order, the reader would see the same dramas played out over and over again.  Kings, queens, and courtiers might change, but what they did and how they acted would not.  All of them plotted, devised, and plundered.  England vs.Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, the Pope, and the Holy Roman Empire. Cleopatra was never in love with Antony but bedded him to secure power and wealth - just like she did with Julius Caesar. 

Cassius and his co-conspirators felt that by murdering Caesar they would save Rome and the Republic, but they only wanted their own power and glory. Every Comedy, Tragedy, and Romance of Shakespeare is about power, conflict, and the ineluctable forces of human nature.  Today’s conservatives are not the first by any means to assess history from this objective, rational perspective.

The argument over income inequality has often been couched in terms of distribution of wealth.  In a just society, say liberals, wealth should be equally distributed.  Conservatives, on the other hand, say that wealth has always been and will continue to be unequally shared because the intelligence, will, and enterprise needed to generate wealth are in short supply. Some people are simply more able than others, and they will prosper.

Liberals feel that it is the obligation of the wealthy to help those less fortunate.  The poor can’t help that they were dealt bad cards, but the house can reset the odds.  Conservatives feel that such patronizing attempts to redress unequal abilities will not only fail, but will numb the only armaments that the less fortunate have at their disposal – desire, ambition, and energy. Only those in the most abject conditions – physical and mentally impairment– need and deserve the help of others. 

I am, therefore, philosophically far removed from my ‘progressive’ friends.  We see the world differently.  We interpret history differently.  For every reference I can cite strengthening my argument about the irreversible course of human history, they can match me with brain imagery, psycho-social experiments, and anthropological studies which prove the existence of a Generosity Gene; a verifiable, common social trait of selfless cooperation; or irrefutable anecdotal evidence of voluntary caring, commitment to higher ideals, and a prayerful optimism of millions.

How can we possibly be friends? Two reasons – fatalism and humor.  I think my ultra-liberal friend, John, my Tea Party friend Bob, and I really don’t care that much about political philosophy. After all, if those we leave behind remember us for anything, it will certainly not be for our views on Obamacare or immigration. If we are lucky, it will be for what we felt, not what we thought.

I recently went to the funeral of a close friend.  I heard eulogy after eulogy in which friends and colleagues talked of her professional abilities.  She could write excellent proposals. She worked well with African counterparts.  She was a consummate public health expert.  I heard nothing of the warmth, passion, and exuberance that I loved. Her work, her professional expertise, her political savvy working the bureaucracy of the federal government meant little to her. They were means to personal ends. 

When John and I are alone, far from his censorious and sanctimonious ‘progressive’ friends, we laugh about duck-and-cover, global warming, Wall Street greed, and capitalist predation. We trash welfare queens, white crackers, ghetto do-rags, bling, and street creds.  We savage black preachers, Monopoly capitalists, uppity women, and trannies. Life is all one big, three-ring circus.  Funny as hell.  Humor as well as fatalism have sealed our particular bond of friendship.

My childhood friend shares neither my fatalism nor humor, and takes life very, very seriously.  He cannot see that for all my conservatism and political views, I am at heart only indifferent. The world will continue to turn left, then right, then left again, Jan Kott’s Grand Mechanism grinding its gears perpetually and moving in predictable cycles, and occasional political paroxysms are little more than the static caused by periodic sun flares.  They come and go.

How can he not laugh at all the energy, posturing, sanctimony, and outrageous lies and deceit practiced in the name of political conviction?

I am sorry that he and I do not communicate much these days, for I still consider him one of my oldest and closest friends; but age has a way of making most things meaningless.  As the old saying goes, no one wants their epitaph to say “He worked late at the office”.

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