FLOTSAM & JETSAM: A sinner’s view of born again politics

Thursday, June 21, 2012

A sinner’s view of born again politics

Sam Smith

The overwhelmingly negative comments to my piece on a one night stand approach to Obama – elect him, then oppose him – reminded me that while the right may be driven by born again religion, progressives and liberals are often driven by born again politics.

In either case, personal salvation or redemption takes precedence over communal progress.

In fact, whether I truly believe in Jesus or truly disbelieve in Obama changes the world not one iota. Change comes from large numbers of people moving in the same useful direction.

Saints may help show the way, but they can’t produce the change unless, that is, you accept the great definition of a saint as a sinner who tries harder. Change is the product of the flawed, the failed, and the frustrated moving in common.

Which is why politics tends to be a more useful tool than many forms of religion. And why a sinner can feel more comfortable at a city council meeting than at confession.

In my article, I mentioned my political roots having been in places like Philadelphia, Boston and Washington where this question seldom arose. Which is one of the reasons politics appealed to me even as a pre-teen. It wasn’t like church, home, or school. You didn’t even have to wash your hands before you took part in it.

As I read readers’ excoriations of my willingness to vote for Obama despite his sins in order to create a better battlefield for struggles we have barely begun, I was reminded of one of the reasons we can’t get these struggles going: you’re meant to be saved before you can join the battle.

This is something that has troubled me for decades about left politics. How do you grow a cause if only proper people can join it? I realized that something bad was happening beginning about 30 years ago. Liberalism was becoming a demographic rather than a movement. And if you weren’t part of that demographic, there was little hope for you.

That was alien to everything I had learned as a New Deal baby, a 1950s doubter and a 1960s activist. Even Martin Luther King told his aides that they must remember that their goal included that some day their enemies would become their friends.

After Don Imus had been slammed for tasteless remarks about black women basketball players, I wrote:
In his marvelous book, Respect, Richard Sennett (who grew up in the Cabrini Green housing project) notes that for radicals in his generation, making bureaucracy the enemy "still did not reveal how to make friends with those who were not radicals. . . The struggle to break apart institutions failed to bring the New Left closer to people unlike ourselves."

And he concludes, "In society, attacking the evils of inequality cannot alone generate mutual respect. In society, and particularly in the welfare state, the nub of the problem we face is how the strong can practice respect towards those destined to remain weak."

The problem is particularly acute among liberals who are increasingly separated from the weak either by ethnicity or by class. It has brought a major shift in the priorities of liberals - with a shrinking interest in those policies that truly help the weak and a growing condescension towards those who do not share their cultural enlightenment. Much of what was going on during the Imus affair consisted of upscale liberals and media establishing their own virtuous credentials, an act which, aside from its boredom, does little to improve matters.
It’s somewhat the same with voting against Obama or staying home. The choice can achieve personal virtue, but whom else has it helped? How many people is one willing to see go without food stamps, lose their jobs or have their Social Security trimmed as a result of one’s noble act?

Saul Alinsky put it this way:
There's another reason for working inside the system. Dostoyevsky said that taking a new step is what people fear most. Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people. They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and chance the future. This acceptance is the reformation essential to any revolution. To bring on this reformation requires that the organizer work inside the system… They cannot be dismissed by labeling them blue collar or hard hat. . . . If we fail to communicate with them, if we don't encourage them to form alliances with us, they will move to the right. Maybe they will anyway, but let's not let it happen by default.
Alinksy wrote that in 1971, about a decade before America began its long collapse. If liberals and progressives had listened to him instead of becoming a comfortable elite, the story might have been a lot different.

Which is one reason I don’t mind being considered politically flawed. Because politics only works when it is a collective achievement by a bunch of sinners willing to work with each other.