The art of the pos­si­ble

Stabroek News - - Letters -

In 1801, writ­ing to John Dick­in­son, a fel­low found­ing fa­ther, Thomas Jef­fer­son ad­vised his col­league that “if we do not learn to sac­ri­fice small dif­fer­ences of opin­ion, we can never act to­gether. Ev­ery man can­not have his way in all things.” The let­ter, which comes up for auc­tion this week, was re­cently ex­cerpted in the Wash­ing­ton Post, with a note which slyly suggested that the US gov­ern­ment might profit from its coun­sel.

The prob­lem, then as now, is that once en­trenched, par­ti­san­ship be­comes a habit. It re­casts pol­i­tics as a zero-sum ac­tiv­ity and emp­ties out the mid­dle ground by mak­ing mod­est com­pro­mises look like sur­ren­der. The Hobbe­sian at­mos­phere of the cur­rent gov­ern­ment shut­down is hardly new to the US Congress, but the un­prece­dented petu­lance of the ex­ec­u­tive (the Democrats’ Sen­ate leader, Chuck Schumer, has called it “gov­ern­ment by tem­per tantrum”) has pro­duced a mas­ter­class in mis­gov­er­nance.

The lat­est stand­off feels like a throw­back to the cyn­i­cism of the Clin­ton years, when the pres­i­dent’s “tri­an­gu­la­tions” pro­voked Gin­grich’s “Con­tract with Amer­ica” – es­sen­tially, a prom­ise to deny the in­cum­bent al­most ev­ery­thing he asked for. With those griev­ances – not to men­tion the even greater GOP ob­struc­tion­ism un­der Obama – still fresh in their mem­o­ries, it is no sur­prise that House Democrats are in no mood to com­pro­mise with a pres­i­dent who is try­ing to bully them into pay­ing for his ridicu­lous wall.

Forty years ago, Christo­pher Lasch’s book “The Cul­ture of Nar­cis­sism” noted the hol­low­ing out of Amer­ica’s lib­eral in­sti­tu­tions, and cor­rectly fore­saw the con­se­quences of their de­cline. “Disen­chant­ment with gov­ern­men­tal bu­reau­cra­cies,” Lasch wrote, “has be­gun to ex­tend to cor­po­rate bu­reau­cra­cies as well—the real cen­ters of power in con­tem­po­rary so­ci­ety …[and the en­su­ing] “flight from pol­i­tics,” as it ap­pears to the man­age­rial and po­lit­i­cal elite, may sig­nify the cit­i­zen’s grow­ing un­will­ing­ness to take part in the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem as a con­sumer of pre­fab­ri­cated spec­ta­cles. It may sig­nify, in other words, not a re­treat from pol­i­tics at all but the be­gin­nings of a gen­eral po­lit­i­cal re­volt.” Time has shown the truth of the first ob­ser­va­tion, but not even Lasch could have fore­told how much the po­lit­i­cal process would de­scend into a se­ries of “pre­fab­ri­cated spec­ta­cles.”

“The art of cri­sis man­age­ment,” Lasch wrote, “now widely ac­knowl­edged to be the essence of state­craft, owes its vogue to the merger of pol­i­tics and spec­ta­cle. Pro­pa­ganda seeks to cre­ate in the pub­lic a chronic sense of cri­sis,

which in turn jus­ti­fies the ex­pan­sion of ex­ec­u­tive power and the se­crecy sur­round­ing it. The ex­ec­u­tive then as­serts his “pres­i­den­tial” qual­i­ties by con­vey­ing his de­ter­mi­na­tion to rise to cri­sis, what­ever the cri­sis of the mo­ment hap­pens to be—to run risks, to test his met­tle, to shrink from no dan­ger, to re­sort to bold and de­ci­sive ac­tion even when the oc­ca­sion calls for pru­dence and cau­tion.” In­trigu­ingly, Lasch de­tected this sort of mere­tri­cious brinkman­ship in Kennedy and Nixon. One shud­ders to think what he would have made of Trump.

Across the pond, the spec­ta­cle of Brexit is no less de­press­ing. On BBC tele­vi­sion’s Ques­tion Time, a Bri­tish co­me­dian summed up pub­lic frus­tra­tion thus: “We’re told [that Brexit] is about re­turn­ing par­lia­men­tary sovereignty, yet when the Speaker in­ter­venes to… re­turn sovereignty to Par­lia­ment, we’re told it’s about re­turn­ing sovereignty to the will of the peo­ple. When we’re asked if we can have a sec­ond vote for the peo­ple, or a gen­eral elec­tion, we’re told it’s not about the will of the peo­ple – it was about the will of the peo­ple that one time and now the peo­ple need to shut up for the rest of their lives.”

When ma­ture democ­ra­cies can­not set aside par­ti­san quar­rels in the midst of a na­tional cri­sis, it may seem naive to hope that we can do any bet­ter. But against such low ex­pec­ta­tions, we should re­call the hopes of our In­de­pen­dence, in par­tic­u­lar the be­lief that po­lit­i­cal self-de­ter­mi­na­tion would give us the op­por­tu­nity to avoid re­peat­ing the mis­takes of the re­cent past; the free­dom to rec­og­nize the fool­ish­ness of men who try to have their way in all things, and the wis­dom, and sol­i­dar­ity, to pre­vent them from suc­ceed­ing. Ex­pe­ri­ence is the child of thought, and thought is the child of ac­tion - Ben­jamin Dis­raeli

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