Politics With a Human Face
When some bureaucrat at the Department of Defense sent a memo to Congress opposing Sen. Al Franken’s amendment to protect victims of rape, the neo-liberal bureaucracy was doing what bureaucracies always do. It was erasing the human in deference to a system, and with it all hope of morally defensible action.
In my own case at least, this points to just one of many colors the right wing gets wrong in its portrait of progressives. I’m skeptical of the State, this one and all future ones. I believe disciplined vigilance is necessary to protect us from the tendency of bureaucracies to put themselves above the flesh and blood lives of individuals.
Unaccountable corporate bureaucracies, of course, have proven to be far more dangerous than democratic governments, which still face some form of voter scrutiny, however diminished by years of conservative anti-democratic efforts. This is one reason I’d rather buy my health insurance from government. When the time comes I can at least climb out of my sick bed long enough to vote out the bureaucracy-enabling bastards that put me there.
Don’t get me wrong. Addressing the problems and opportunities of a nation of 300 million people takes organization. Libertarians can’t wish this fact away. I can’t build my own road, keep my money safe in my own uninsured bank, or educate my kids and my neighbors’ kids in a backyard little red schoolhouse. We cooperate with one another in the creation of a government to help us do these things (and more).
It’s a shame that the rise of the bureaucratic state has so obscured the very human enterprises we know as politics and government. In many ways the erasure of the individual has advantaged conservatives who blame progressives for the dominance of state over the individual.
I think a return to politics with a human face is a moral and strategic necessity. Politics is nothing more than the public negotiation of common problems and opportunities. Governments are made of the people we hire to carry out our plans. So how do we return the human – and moral know-how – to these enterprises?
There’s a clue in Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, the new memoir from scholar and activist Cornel West. I was immediately struck by the influence of music, church, family, neighborhood and books on West’s political and philosophical consciousness. His political being is not isolated in some separate political sphere. Culture helped shape him as a man, and he’s happy to explore just how it happened.
His storytelling is half Whitmanesque Song of Myself and half straightforward, American autobiography. Readers of a similar age (he’s three months older than me) will also be struck by the parallels between his story and their own. The same sort of early influences – a couple of mine were Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash; a couple of his were John Coltrane and James Brown – made us who we are as individuals of a certain generation.
We don’t really need any more research to tell us that we don’t reach our political decisions through cool, unfeeling deliberation. We aren’t political animals, we’re culturo-political animals. We live and love and read and listen and watch and feel, feel especially. Political solidarity is possible only when we pay attention to whole persons.
We have to be personal. When we are, our values emerge naturally, new bonds between ourselves and others are formed. Communication is eased. We manage a much different, more fully human story than when we recite only facts and statistics, which are good for starting arguments but bad at resolving them. The FireDogLake community deserves much credit for understanding this. In a sense, I’m preaching to a choir already accustomed to offering book salons and music and film references and examples. There’s an effort here to reach a higher level of human communication.
I’ve backed into arguments made persuasively by George Lakoff, Drew Weston and a dozen other contemporary thinkers who have given us a clearer picture of what it really means to be human. The rational self-interest picture of the Enlightenment is false. Economists know it. Cognitive scientists know it.
The music video above is here as an example of what I’m talking about. Sure, it promotes the other place I hang out. But y’all already know me, so I didn’t put it here to do only that (wink). Instead, notice the iconic Western geography, the simple country melody, the standard folk-country instrumentation, the slightly off-beat lyrics (first performed by the 60s psychedelic band, Sopwith Camel). It’s a fur piece, as they say, from the political. It’s fun (I hope), but it’s also strategic. It’s with a full picture in mind of the human beings we’re trying to reach. It’s honest; I’ve been singing that song for years. And it’s homemade by my closest friends and family (that’s my daughter Katie on the fiddle).
We need to do more of this. And, when we are addressing a political or policy issue, we need to keep it centered upon human lives and drop our exclusive talk of systems, statistics and unpersuasive, ultimately inhuman details.