Saturday, June 30, 2012

Crisis As System

The polarization of US politics is a cliché. The term suggests two rationally hostile groups, with ideological battle lines drawn, but really it tells us very little. Is our situation truly because one side wants to limit government, and the other side regards government as essential for social good? Or is it because there is an anthropological crisis beyond any one's managing?

A confession. I contributed donations to Barack Obama's 2008 election campaign, but since then have kept my purse strings pretty tight. The reasons don't matter here. What is important is the increasingly urgent tone of the Obama re-election campaign as they continually send emails asking for help. A recent one sounded flat-out frantic.

"I will be the first president in modern history to be outspent in his re-election campaign, if things continue as they have so far. I'm not just talking about the super PACs.... The Romney campaign raises more than we do, and the math isn't hard...: Through the primaries, we raised almost three-quarters of our money from donors giving less than $1,000, while Mitt Romney's campaign raised more than three-quarters of its money from individuals giving $1,000 or more."

"And, again, that's not including the massive outside spending by super PACs and front groups funneling up to an additional billion dollars into ads trashing me, you, and everything we believe in."

It left me with a sense of breathlessness if not hopelessness. The monthly fundraising deadlines becoming min-elections in their own right, creating a sense of quasi-inevitability for the real one. The Obama camp sounds desperate because they know they're in the business of crowd control. Dollars mean advertisements and advertisements mean the power to pull the crowd. They do not want the dollar reports to show the likelihood the crowd will go toward the opposite camp. Even the simple report of those dollars begins the sense of the crowd drifting and it becomes a self-fulfilling phenomenon.

On a personal level, as an individual citizen, it means it is always election time and everything is at stake: you're always going to lose everything unless you bet the farm. This makes democracy a permanent rivalry and of a vicious, metaphysical kind. I personally, with my very average income, have to take on the very wealthy, the mighty corporations and the super-rich. Of course that is impossible, so all that is left me is my sense of pure, intolerable rivalry.

So, yes, in U.S. politics there are very real issues (immigration, jobs, taxation, health etc.) but it's the systemic, self-generating rivalry which is the real, acute and terminal problem. I could just as easily demonstrate a similar sense in the "other camp," of being up against stacked odds: it is hugely paradoxical, but that's the point, the rivalry is metaphysical.

Who can live with it? It is not in any rational sense a political system. It is a human crisis, the kind that according to René Girard has occurred many times in history and quickly resolves in all-out sacrificial violence. Now it seems to have become a permanent cultural theme, a way of being and doing, in and of itself. Again according to Girard such a crisis is unsustainable, but there is something about the US that defies the nature of the case and makes a system out of a crisis.

I can think of an array of interrelated factors that create this unique anthropological situation and which would need book-length treatment to describe: lots of money, lots of space, serial and multiple media, industrial incarceration, permanent militarism, private use of the gun, and, yes, the "separation" of church and state which provides the fiction of a safe place above or beyond the crisis.

This may "work" societally (the Supreme Court's decision this week re Obama's Health Care appears to indicate some restraining effect of the US constitution) but spiritually it really is unsustainable. Which brings me to the good news.

Precisely because crisis-as-system is intolerable I believe something genuinely new is emerging. It is a totally alternative human possibility to endemic rivalry, and its best name is compassion. It is already present at many levels in popular culture and inevitably a new politics must and will emerge around it. Sounds sappy? Perhaps, but when the churches, or the remnant that is left of them, really express the transformed human cosmos brought by Christ (immanent, relational, anthropological, semitoic, rather than otherworldly, transactional, mythological and metaphysical) then the seedbed of a new politics will become vibrant and irresistible.

At the moment the churches are a long way behind the curve. But they--or significant small cohorts within them--can catch up quickly. And once the message is out there in theological form it will be irreversible. As in the proverbial story where the reeds can't help whispering a secret, the chatter of the media itself will be full of it! (For the religious doubters see Isaiah 11:9 for scriptural validation).

Tony Bartlett

P.S. I sent in a donation. 


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  2. Tony,

    Great post! I, too, see the system in/as crisis, and also hope/feel there is an emerging, sweeping, irreversible(?!) change.

    One thing that disturbs me and I believe is an indicator of our polarization is how much one side mistrusts and uses vituperative language against those with whom they disagree. The fear shown and extreme, harsh language some democrats used about Pres. Bush is a mirror-image of what the Republicans are doing to Pres. Obama. (I will grant that there are racial overtones in the most extreme Republican critics that weren't there for Bush.)

    Until we start treating each other as real people with real feelings, and have face-to-face, compassionate and understanding interactions with each other, this squabble will continue and lead to the downfall of many a good chance to change policies.

    1. Great to hear from you, Evans. One of the things that drives the vituperation is the lack of serious analysis and attempt at objectivity on the part of the news channels. So often is the loudest voice that drives the cycle, and that often means also the harshest. It all serves to ramp up crisis. But then, simply from the human perspective, people will be pushed to find something different. What will it be and how will it be articulated?