A new presidency looms — U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia notwithstanding. (Question: Was Lewis, in denying, in heralded fashion, the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s Nov. 8 victory, applying for a thank-you note from Trump Tower? Was he startled not to get one?)
A new presidency brings new faces, new ideas, new events, new crises. But we can sort out all that as it happens. I advance a different point — an anti-political point, if you please.
It is that, whatever the old gang didn’t do or the new one does, we’re due for a crash course in disillusionment: one all the tougher for those who anticipate bliss, or substantial progress toward it, in four years or eight or 16 or 24.
For an insight on why, contemplate the last eight years. The planet didn’t heal, as promised, and the races didn’t come together. Those who expected things of that sort expected too much. The reality pictured and provisionally shaped by political figures of one kind or another, and advanced by government decree, generally works better for a mere handful than for the generality of folk. The people for whom politics works out, most of the time, are those who believe politics to be the dispositive human activity — the source of all good. The politician is their priest, their philosopher.
Give me a break. Give yourself one. There are, in both major political parties, smart and honorable leaders and thinkers. Some do good and necessary things. But the notion that government can twirl a few knobs, raise or lower the room temperature, pull a few levers, and voila, the kingdom comes into view — that is a fantasy we swallow against the historical evidence. The more of it we swallow, the likelier we are to push others around — maybe eviscerate or kill them — for the sake of the “noble dreams” we concoct at seminars, or just when we’re asleep. Right, mein fuehrer? You, comrade Castro; you, President Putin; you, President Maduro: Is that not the way of things when the political obsession bites?
We’re always trying to usher in the heavenly kingdom via one plan or another. We don’t seem to figure out — it’s built into us, apparently, not to figure it out — that life is a more fantastically contingent business than our political actors and the media, which gins them up and eggs them on, can possibly imagine. Pass this bill, crush that one; the political delusion is infectious. We all buy into it, because we are in the human habit of equating power with success.
Life isn’t about laws and regulation; it’s about habits and beliefs. It’s about how you live, not how you vote. The politics part of life is a necessary evil at best; sometimes just a plain and simple evil, the asphalt playground of dirty little despots who think themselves, and their ideas, too good not to bring forcibly to the attention of the unenlightened.
Let us get down to cases: the moral teachers, if we have any left (and the supply doesn’t seem infinite, in a world devoted to instant gratification), do more good than the power-mongers. A citizenry imbued with the ideals of honor and honesty and dignity and justice and patience and sincere care for the suffering will produce more lasting and beneficial results than a government wedded to setting and executing goals resulting from calculation and analysis.
A citizenry thus imbued doesn’t need to be ordered and taxed into doing needful things; it does them because they are also right things. The politician, shamed by the teacher, attends to the functions for which government exists — guaranteeing peace, administering justice. If only! That’s not the modern way. The modern way is to equate moral teaching with mental tyranny; “right” as a personal viewpoint, “wrong” as some notion handed by people in celluloid collars, intended for the suppression of the powerless. Tell me another one. Suppression of the powerless results chiefly from the flexing of political muscle because someone won and someone else lost.
Ah, politics! We’re stuck with ’em — at least until the moral teachers regain their voices and we begin listening all over again.