Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Politics 101

It was the summer of 1956 and times where hard for my family. My father was foreman of a company that manufactured church furniture. The owners of the company were in financial trouble and he was looking for work while he had a job and before the company was bankrupt. He had no savings, an eighth grade education and few prospects in the area. My father's brother lived in Buffalo, New York so he planned a trip from Princeton, West Virginia to Buffalo to look for work.

Getting time from work to make the trip and paying for the trip were challenging. Some pews had been installed in a church in Pennsylvania and the work was unacceptable so my father decided to drive through Pennsylvania and repair the work himself as a way to pay for trip. On the second day, I remember waiting for him and lying down on a pew and going to sleep. He finished the work after dark, woke me and we went for supper. It was then that I learned he was down to less than a dollar. Supper for me was a small package of cookies and he had nothing. Hopefully, his company would send more money by Western Union the following morning. We returned to the motel that had a black and white TV with a choice of one snowy channel. I turned on the TV hoping to watch Hop-a-Long Cassidy or Roy Rogers but I saw something new. What I was was not entertaining to a nine year old. I asked my father and learned it was a political national convention preceding the 1956 presidential election. I questioned the fanfare on the TV, the purpose of the convention and tried to understand. Such was my introduction to politics and the beginning of my political education. I began my political education on a hot summer night, hungry with a queasy stomach from eating cookies and wondering about our uncertain future.

In school I was required to take classes in "civics" and U.S. history but I don't remember ever being required to read the U.S. constitution. I was mystified and horrified by a high school teacher who said that the office of president was so important and so sacred that it would be better if the Russians bombed and killed everyone in New York City - eight million people - rather than killing the president. This sounded extreme -- too extreme.

I was taught that the U.S. was founded on noble principles of equality, truth and justice. Beginning in first grade we recited the pledge of allegiance -- "with truth and justice for all". Watching the protests that led to the riots of the sixties I realized the unspoken words appended to the end of the pledge made it "with truth and justice for all white men".

I had questions for which no one offered acceptable answers. "If we believe in truth and justice and if we reject the violent overthrow of the U.S. government aand if we advocate peaceful reform through political processes then why do we fund rebels in other countries attempting to overthrow their government by violence? Is this truth and justtice? Isn't this a double standard."

I lived though the nuclear cold war, the Cuban missle crisis, air raid drills in school, the construction of a fall out shelter by the town library and the Viet Nam war to stop Communism. I was taught the Communists were the "evil empire". Then came the Iran-Contra affair which was confusing. It had something to do with the "Freedom Fighters" in Latin America. As I read and tried to understand why the president needed "deniability" and the details involving the revolution in Nicaragua I learned the "Freedom Fighters" were Communists who were being supported and backed by the U.S. "What the heck? Why where they called freedom fighters rather than Communists? Why the deception?"

As I came of age and tried to vote responsibly I learned each candidate was in favor of jobs, education and fighting crime. As the elections drew closer each candidate told me that his opponent was dishonest, unethical, a scoundrel and would lead to the destruction of civilization. "Which one to trust? Both are saying the same thing. Vote for me because I'm the lesser of two evils."

"Big government is bad!" This was news to me and I tried to understand. "What size government is not bad? Are we talking about the number of employees, the budget or what?" Finally, after hearing slogans and catch-phrases repeated many times I began to get the message -- "government is bad".

I find labels to be misleading. What's a convervatives? A liberal? As I struggled to understand these terms I concluded they were useless. Then it happened. The definitions changed!

I was talking with a young lady who took an online poltical tests. After finishing the test her choices identified her as most similar to people who identified themselves as members of political party 'X'. She was confused and said "How can I be an 'X'? I don't believe in abortion!" I saw the young lady as somewhat naive for taking the labels of party 'X' and party 'Y' as communicating something about individuals. I related this story to an intelligent and educated man. To my shock and surpirse, the man saw it the same way as the young lady! The labels had meaning and usefulness to him. If you identify youself as supporting party 'Z' then you are blah, blah, blah . . .

As I walked across campus about three years ago I came to a stop sign that had a bumper sticker affixed to it: "The League of Pissed Off Voters". Sadly, the message communicated with me. I don't have answers to the many questions I posed as a young person. I feel like I've been deceived by the educational system and by politicians. I want "truth and justice" not just for myself but "for all". I read "Blessed is he who hungers and thirsts for righteousness" but I don't feel blessed. I feel cynical, disillusioned and angry.

In my last post I said I have questions and I want help. How do you accept and function within a political system such as ours? Don't tell me it's the best in the world. It may be the best but it's still not acceptable to me.

The last politcial candidate for president who caught my attention did so because of his intelligence, his integrity, his honesty and his boldness. He stood in New England before the National Rifle Association and said "I'm in favor of some forms of gun control." When questioned about the energy crisis he advocated, as one part of a comprehensive plan, a huge tax on gasoline. Popular ideas? No, but he was honest and he had courage. He didn't tell me what I wanted hear. He told me the truth as he saw it. I can't ask for anything more.

My life is good. I enjoy life when I meet people one-on-one, when I spend time with good books that offer thoughtful opinions differnt from mine, when I open myself to dreams of a better future for all, and when I try to live in harmony with the natural world. It all makes sense. The politics I've experienced doesn't.

(My job doesn't allow time to re-read and edit the above. You're getting the raw product so read it with a degree of tolerance, please.


Blogger Ben said...

Hi Paul, another fascinating post, thanks. Don't know if you follow the British Government stories, but an increasing number of people in my age range are coming to similar opinions as you.

All the parties seem dishonest in some way - "both are saying the same thing". This leads to people waiving their right to vote (have to say I've always voted, I almost take pride in it). The beauty of having more than 2 parties in our system is every now and then a party comes along with a fresh perspective. The Green party, for example, stand almost solely on conserving the environment not just for future generations' enjoyment, but to improve our own enjoyment of it right now.

While the 2 main parties in Westminster bicker about issues the populous are beginning to grow weary of, the smaller groups are growing. They are not "Big" government, ready with high-handed measures, instead they start from the bottom and connect with what people realy want.

The role of the government for me is primarily to listen. The "nanny state" accusations just show that our government lacks this simple, polite, necessary skill.

1/25/2006 08:20:00 AM  
Blogger Buffalo said...

There doesn't seem to be a viable answer. I tried to silence my anger and outrage by stopping the newspaper, not listening to the news, and by not voting. Ignorance isn't complete bliss, but it does diminish the anger somewhat by keeping reality out of my face.

I am considering casting a ballot once again. Maybe voting against someone is better than simply not voting.

"I just don't know," my less than famous last words.

1/25/2006 10:51:00 AM  
Blogger Larry Clayton said...

I really enjoyed this post, Paul; wish that more of my blogging friends could be personal, straightforward and honest (with themselves and with us) like this.

Summer of 56 sure rang a bell for me; that's when I got 'religion', after being in two wars. Thereafter politics meant less (in comparison with 'kingdom work'). I do worry that some day we may wake up and find that we've lost our freedom, but I pray like Hezekiah, 'not in my time, Lord".

Like you I find personal life very rewarding. I recall that countless Christians, from the days of Christ to now, have lived (joyfully and victoriously) amid more repressive political systems.

Well that's enough; thanks again.

1/25/2006 01:13:00 PM  
Blogger grannyfiddler said...

amen, brother!

i've come to the cynical conclusion that in political life, the machine runs the representative, not the other way around. it seems to me that even a 'good' candidate gets swallowed up in the machinations of the political process... in my opinion, because it's all about power, and who/what weilds the power. it's not very much at all about what's most good for the most people (which is what we're told democracy is all about)

i have tremendous respect for your former U.S. president, Jimmy Carter. the work he does with Habitat for Humanity and the Carter Centre speaks volumes for who he is and what he stands for. i think the same of our former Canadian P.M. Joe Clark. both men were ousted because they were honest and straightforward. not powermongers, therefore the machine didn't like them, and spewed them from its greedy gullet.

so, yes, i vote, because i consider it the duty of responsible citizens, but there are seldom any choices i consider very good ones.

and i concentrate my efforts at improving the world on what's within my immediate reach. hoping for the ripples thus created to make some small difference in the bigger picture.

1/25/2006 03:29:00 PM  
Blogger Alex Pendragon said...

I think that perhaps the major problem we face when it comes to politics is that it takes a certain kind of person to WANT to dive into this world and play ball. Now tell me, in the real world, how many genuinely NICE people reach the panicles of power? When Jimmy Carter ran for president, the American people were so fed up with just about any kind of politician that they felt they had nothing to lose by voting for a person who was the polar opposite from the usual candidate. Problem was, the average American has never really had any respect for kind, decent, nice people, and Washington did not suddenly become a nice place overnight simply because Jimmy Carter came to town. Another problem Carter faced was that he encountered problems any other president would have been tempted to solve by rattling the saber, even threatening with nuclear weapons, rather than try and talk it out. He warned us that our energy crisis was going to become a problem equal in crisis to war, and what happened? We bitched and moaned and kicked him out and this last year the oil companies posted the most obscene profits in history while we little people got socked with the bill. We deserve the people we elect.

1/25/2006 06:19:00 PM  
Blogger Gaye said...

I understand the cynicism. I don't understand voter apathy. Voting is really the only time the average person has a "say"--regardless of the outcome of the election. When my kids were small I would take them out of school so they could go in the voting booth with me. I wanted them to "see" that I had a "say" whether the election went my way or not.

There has never been a candidate that I totally agreed with; and there never will be. Good people getting sucked up into the political machine instead of working for the benefit of the people... sure... but ya know; I'm good people too, and I've been known to get sucked into less than desirable situations... and such is life...

1/26/2006 07:48:00 AM  
Blogger anonymous julie said...

How do you accept and function within a political system such as ours?

I accept that the world isn't a perfect place, and that even the best of available options will not be ideal. I don't let myself forget or be lulled into thinking that things are okay as-is, and keep on eye on what they should (and more reasonably could) be.

The way I should be centers round love, kindness, mercy, understanding... not precluding other virtuous qualities.

The way the government should be centers upon liberty, justice, fairness, protection of those governed.

This isn't an ideal world... sometimes a government is able to do a little harm to prevent a much greater one. In the ideal world, there would be no intent to harm, and dialogue would solve all our problems.

I don't deal with ideal people... I try to recognise what I can change and what I cannot. If I cannot change, then I have to be satisfied to argue my displeasure and shake the dust from my feet.

One of the things I don't feel that I, personally, can change - is the way we are governed. (I do vote.) Is that a misperception?

Close with a quote that I thought particularly apt, even taken out of its original context: "People and nations must do what they have to in order to confront and survive aggression." NR 060130 36

1/26/2006 10:15:00 AM  
Blogger Anvilcloud said...

Ah, when you said that the definitions changed, I thought that somebody else has noticed too. I used to vote conservative, partly because I believed them to be more fiscally prudent. But in this country, it was the Liberals who put an end to deficit budgetting, and it is their platform that seems more fiscally responsible. It is also my impression that the Clinton administration was more fiscally responsible than the adminstrations that both preceeded it and followed it, but perhaps I am wrong. I am a lot -- wrong I mean.

1/26/2006 03:01:00 PM  
Blogger anonymous julie said...

Anvilcloud - great observation, but incomplete... it's not just the President but also the legislature, and the relationship between the two.

For budget issues to improve, the President and the Houses must be dominated by opposing parties (such as during the Clinton administration, and not during the current one!) No matter what any party is supposed to stand for, it seems that no politician can say "no" to his buddies - even when he ought. To my surprise, National Review suggested that would be a good reason to vote for John Kerry.

Opinion follows... I would prefer to think that party identities have not changed, but that the political system eats people more successfully when they don't have sufficient opposition to hold 'em to their ideals. Could definitely be wrong on that!

1/27/2006 08:15:00 AM  
Blogger Norene Griffin said...

I was born a couple of decades after you, but experience has been very much the same.

To my mind, the prisoner's dilemma is a pretty good model for politics. Bilateral cooperation always results in mutual gain, but most of the time we do not know what the other party will do. In an uncertain situation, not knowing if the the other party will "defect", I have more to gain from defecting than I do from cooperating (if the other party defects).

I am not terribly knowledgeable on the subject, but it seems to me that one problem with the prioner's dilemma as a model for human behavior is that the consequences in real life are far more severe and far-reaching than they are in the idealized version. In the idealized version, bilateral defection results in less "punishment" for both parties than unilateral defection. In the real world, unilateral and bi-lateral defection can only lead to harm all around.

Here's an interactive version of the game. It's interesting to try on different strategies and see what the results are.

I do play along with the political process. Sometimes it seems to work, most of the time it seems very broken. I personally think that unless we are able to give third party candidates equal access to getting elected, there is very little hope for our political system. I would also like to see some changes that make it possible for people without vast financial resources to compete in the political arena. I have been negligent in these areas--thinking about them, but not doing anything about it.

The morning news gives me a daily kick in the pants regularly. I often start my day thinking that it is absolutely past time for me to become active in our policital process, but over the course of my day, against the demands of work and life, that fire of that impulse cools down. I appreciate your post for giving me another much-needed kick in the pants.

1/28/2006 12:19:00 PM  

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