After writing it, I decided to not publish my blog about my son-in-law’s deployment to Iraq.
Experience has taught me that our culture – and especially church culture -- no longer tolerates nuanced opinion. The prevailing belief is that one is either on the “right” or the “left”, and that all subcategories of thought, emotion and opinion assigned to those two broad labels naturally attach to one of these polar positions. Thus, we tend to select the media outlets most favorable to our stated position, form our friendships, alliances and even our churches according to how they revolve around one of these labels. We also tend to consider or dismiss issues and ideas according to how they seem to support or threaten our social and political identity.
This polarized environment leads us to speak in sound bites and clichés with those who agree with us and call the result, “a conversation.” Of course this is not real conversation at all but it takes a lot less work than a “real conversation.”
A real conversation requires the following:
1. A willingness to speak one’s true thoughts about the subject at hand
2. A willingness to listen to the true thoughts of another; without using the time when the other person is speaking to craft our own speech
3. The ability to maintain respect for the person with whom we are conversing even when we disagree with his or her opinion
4. Being more concerned with finding the truth about a matter (or at least gaining understanding the other person’s opinion) than with winning an argument.
I invite the reader to ask himself or herself if we have very many conversations these days, at least as I define “conversation” here.
I say all of this to point out the fact that it has become notoriously difficult to have a political conversation nowadays – at least with people who feel differently about political matters. One of the reasons is because we don’t always share with them the same definitions for the words we use to discuss political life. So I thought it might make sense to create a political glossary – defining our political vocabulary in an unbiased way and with as much “common” sense as possible.
We could begin a political glossary with the words “right” and “left.” The terms were first used in a political way in France, where the early attempts at parliamentary democracy resulted in hundreds of delegates sitting in a massive room, grouped by political orientation, from the royalists on the extreme right to the anarchists and socialists on the left.
So do those labels tell us anything at all, here in the United States, in 2008? Well, yes. They tell us whether a person is generally more interested in social change (left) or in maintaining continuity with the past (right). Few people sit on the extreme boundaries of these positions, however. Most people position themselves somewhere away from the extreme of their stated position. This means that a person who is somewhat more interested in social change than in continuity with the past will have a lot in common with a person who is somewhat more interested in continuity with the past than with social change. In fact, these two people will likely have more in common with one another than with those who “sit on their side of the aisle” but at the edge of the room.
At present, the American media seems to define us all as sitting at the edge of the room. Thus, if we are on the “right” side of the aisle (as I am) then we are expected to be in agreement with every idea and emotion represented on “our side of the aisle” and to find every idea represented by the folks on the other side of the aisle thoroughly repugnant and nauseating.
As I just said: I sit on the right side of the aisle. That tells you that I am more committed to maintaining continuity with the past than I am to facilitating social change. This does not mean that I am uninterested in social change at all, however. Actually, I am extremely interested in social change. I just want to experience change in a way that does not sever my social, spiritual and cultural root system. That makes me a conservative, although not one that a person like Rush. Limbaugh or Ron Paul (both of whom claim to be conservatives) would affirm. Both of those gentlemen (if gentlemen they are) sit further toward the edge of the room than I do.
I am also a Republican, or at least I have voted that way most of the time. Now what does that mean? What exactly is a “republican” or a “democrat?”
Here’s a simple explanation. Since the beginning, our country’s leaders and thinkers have been divided about whether the nation ought to be governed as a pure democracy – a place where every citizen has as much say about every decision as everyone else – or as a republic – where every citizen helps select the best and the brightest political thinkers among us to make those decision that most of us do not have the experience or training to make.
So. A democrat leans more toward the idea of pure democracy. A republican leans toward the idea of a republic.
Historically, republicans have kept democrats from degenerating into mob rule. However, democrats have kept republicans from forming an oligarchy. That’s why we tend to change parties every few years – to keep our nation from tilting toward either one of these extremes. Kept in power too long, each party tends to drift toward its most radical position.
In the last twenty-five years or so, both of our parties have shifted away from being republicans or democrats and toward being conservatives and liberals. Before, each party had both liberals and conservatives and had to work through the differences of the nation before arriving at a party platform. Today, the parties – and those who belong to them – are able to escape real conflict of opinion within their own parties. It is possible to read only those magazines, listen only to those radio personalities and to affiliate only with those people who are in substantial agreement with us. This creates a climate in which the opinions of the other party seem like insanity, like the babblings of madmen. It opens up a chasm between the parties that forces people at the center to choose between the extremes, least they fall into the widening abyss.
In such a climate, nuance and moderation gets lost and civility and respect colors one as cowardly or duplicitous. So the radicals and extremist rant while the centrists and moderates remain silent, shamed by their desire to maintain community with those with whom they disagree.
That’s why I thought I would create a political glossary before sharing my own views on the war, public service and political life.