Politics, society, and the individual

A thoughtful friend of mine responded to one of my political postings a while ago by saying (rightly) that our system was designed for a relatively small number of voters and a relatively short campaign, but today has become a “monster we know and dislike, where one’s vote counts one 200-millionth toward some outcome, where voters know that no matter how they vote, their entire state has been declared `safely’ in one camp or the other.”

He went on to say, “fortunately, each of us lives in an individual and not a mass world.”

I have thought about his comments for more than a month because on one level he’s absolutely right and on another level — well, I’m not so sure.

As to our vote being but one among so many, I would say this is true numerically but not energetically or, shall we say, spiritually. Just as it is true externally that one enthusiastic individual outweighs many apathetic individuals, so it is true internally, though it would be impossible to demonstrate this.

His other point, though, required a little thought.

Some years ago I decided, prematurely, that I was finished voting. The problems of our time, I decided, were not essentially political, nor economic, nor even what one might call sociological. They are spiritual. However, then came the stolen election of 2000, and eight years of misgovernment that reminded me that it is true that we all participate in our times, however little power preoccupations have to do with those of society in general.

For instance, I had never suspected that the fear that overshadows so many peoples lives would affect me so directly, in ways ranging from trivial to essential. Having to take off our shoes at airports! Tearing up the Bill of Rights! I do not live in fear, but suddenly I was living in a society that lived in fear, that was being ruled by fear.

I find that living in fear contemptible. Compare the reaction of the English in 1942 the German blitz or, a closer analogy, compare their reaction to the terror bombing campaigns of the Irish. Their response, officially and privately, was to continue to live lives as normal as possible, on the theory that any disruption caused in reaction to a terrorist bombing was a victory for the terrorist bombers. America, however, threw up its hands and said, “Safety! Safety! Do anything you want, take away anything you want, limit our lives any way you want, but give us safety!” Pathetic. Pathetic and contemptible. Yet here I was, living with the result.

Now, I have said more than once that I think that perhaps George Bush came onto the earth in order to play the villain, polarizing us with his every deed, to get us all off the fence. If this is true, he did well. He reminded us that our private worlds and the public world we share are inextricably interconnected, regardless of our preferences. Some historian said somewhere that in the anti-slavery struggles of the 1850s, “even Thoreau discovered that he had a country.”

However, Thoreau, throwing himself vigorously into stinging denunciations of the North’s complicity in the continuance of slavery in the South, nonetheless remembered and even mourned the fact that so much attention on public matters was luring him away from the individual life he had come to earth to lead.

Just as the founding fathers knew that the only reason to govern was to avoid being governed by those who wanted to govern, so we know that the only reason to attend to public affairs is to prevent the damage that is so easily done by those who think only in terms of public affairs. This self-contradiction in both halves of that sentence should be obvious. How to overcome that contradiction, however, is not obvious. At least, it is not obvious to me.

One thought on “Politics, society, and the individual

  1. That’s why, when I bought into a brand spanking new condo development, I made sure I was on the rules committee. Knowing the tendency of some people to want to control all aspects of other’s lives, I wanted to ensure that we had rules I could live with. Happily I was successful. Often it was just a matter of rephrasing some potential rule to achieve the desired outcome but with a lot of flexibility. One example was: rather than “no pets” or “no cats / dogs / fish / etc” we came up with: “pets should not create a nuisance”. So a quiet dog was fne, but one that barked all day, regardless of size, was not.


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