Deploying Moderation

It is apparent that radical liberal politics are just as dangerous, uncompromising and self-referential as radical conservative politics. The more extreme and inflexible the position at either point on the political continuum, the more disconnecting and destructive its response to opposition. Devotees withdraw into a bastion of self-affirming sameness; disciples lock arms, signaling partisan virtue with unquestioning adherence to orthodoxy; and evangelists encourage tribal authentication with evermore rarefied acts of militancy. Theory and tradition wage a vicious war, while the moral high-ground is ceded to political expediency and narrow cultural dominion, subordinating truth, tolerance, and reason.

Both sides of the breach are caricatures of their foundational attributes. The left is illiberal in its demand for conformity, and the right is revolutionary in its subversive indifference to diplomacy. Ironically, the mantles are interchangeable.

A blend of earnest, anxious, and mean-spirited activism is consecrated at the core of each party, supported by rearguard dons who cling recklessly to power, regardless of the prevarications and preconditions necessary to maintain their grip. Voices of moderation are bullied into silence. Honest, open-minded attempts at understanding and reciprocal accommodation result in ridicule, hostility and excommunication—social and political drama of the most perverse kind.

The untamed instinct to neutralize extreme opposition by cleaving to the opposing extreme, and shouting insults across the divide, is both primitively self-indulgent and lavishly unwise. Dwelling exclusively in these diverging camps reveals a distorting hypocrisy and signifies the destruction of a unifying dream—the American dream. A more productive and sustainable response to this conflict is informed compromise and deliberate moderation, a centering and healing diplomacy, whether we wield the power or chafe against it. America has to rethink culture and change, and Americans have to outgrow the divisive vestiges of our tribal heritage. If not, the country runs the very real risk of becoming yet another cautionary tale of a great enterprise falling behind and failing or tearing itself apart.

A good place to start is a serious commitment to exploring and developing our empathy. Opening ourselves to other perspectives with the goal of understanding and the grace of good will, though not necessarily agreement or conformity, is the first step. Avoid virtue signaling, media echo chambers, and most of all, avoid authoritarian leadership, chief among the many societal traps that lead to homogeneity of thought and punishment of dissent. We must reverse the trend of political polarization; expand our circle of empathy; humanize our neighbors; find the personal resonance in outsiders to bring them in; build on diverse histories and create shared experience; smile at strangers; be open to change. When we practice this approach to human interaction, the invitation will more than likely be returned in kind, and the tribe of humanity will grow and thrive.

As we become more accepting, welcoming, and trusting of difference, our decision-making as a culture will improve and our understanding of the world around us will be enriched. There is an intelligence in groups of people with varied histories, experiences, and perspectives that cannot be matched by individuals or homogeneous groups. When a diverse group of people cooperates in a network of trusted relationships, there is integration of ideas and culture without appropriation; there is familiarity without judgement; and there is balance without abasement.

Empathy is the key to establishing the trust and exercising the wisdom that is within our collective reach. Yet the cultural gravity is shifting to the margins, pulling people apart, and exciting a fracturing wave of racial, cultural, and political exclusivity. We impose these boundaries reflexively, precluding the kind of proximity that builds and sustains empathy. Instead, we should examine and acknowledge our biases. We all have them. They are but one thread in the complex weave of our human nature. If we recognize our own imperfect aspects and adaptations as things we have in common with every other human being, and we open ourselves to mutual improvement, while still honoring the best of our existing traditions and beliefs, we will be one step closer to accepting the imperfections and, more importantly, the differences in others.

This is how we evolve, become a more perfect union, and revitalize the breathtaking, bewildering and, though imperfectly executed, brilliant experiment called America.

The Second Coming Reprised

After Yeats

Turning and turning in the Washington gyre
The politicians cannot hear the people;
The country falls apart; the center cannot hold;
The Southern Strategy is resurrected 
And loosed upon the world,
The brain-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of Democracy is drowned;
The center lacks all conviction, while the margins   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some correction is at hand;
Surely a reckoning is at hand.   
The reckoning! Hardly are those words out   
When a harrowing vision vexes my sight: 
Somewhere in sands of Florida   
A man with no morals and the ego of a spoiled child,   
A character as dark and dangerous as dictatorship,   
Is shambling his way to power, while all about him   
Reel the shadows of grasping sycophants.   
The damage is done; and now I know   
That two centuries of spotty democracy, 
Are turned to nightmare again by a narcissist’s dream,   
When a terrifying clown, his hour come round at last,   
Slouches toward Washington to be crowned.

The Execution

“The Quaker Reform has failed,” said the well-dressed governor, that towering figure of authority, who always seemed sincere. “Isolation,” he said, “brings neither repentance nor salvation; it brings only madness. And that is surely the cruelest punishment of all.”

He was content to make due in his single mind with the cunning of a one-sided truth. Yet the words he uttered were always correct, preferred, chosen to satisfy as many voters as possible and to offend none. It was politics, and he was a player—a good one—ingenious in fact, but only in the way some preachers are scholars: they read one book and think it’s gospel. His book, it happens, was printed at the polls.

“People don’t like to hear it, so we don’t say it, publicly,” he added, “but the goal has changed from saving the prisoner’s soul to breaking his spirit, and, if that fails, we sacrifice them to the collective. It’s clear that deterrence is marginally effective, that recidivism is the rule, and that we must be decisive.”

Like most politicians, he enjoyed the sound of his own voice, and as he filled his ears with that long tongue, it began to sound as if he were trying to convince himself, to sure himself up, while he waited for the last minute call he knew would soon come.

He continued, avoiding the name—that powerful invocation—of the man whose life he would spill. “He was innocent,” said the governor, “except of doing what was best for himself in a culture that told him to do so. Oh, he killed, but that killing, he thought, kept him safe. And now we kill to keep ourselves safe.”

He paused, and said, “Politics, it seems, makes princes of us all in Machiavellian terms. We’ll expose a vein or spin plumes of smoke from the noses of disagreeable men, who, strapped in and out-numbered, killers that they are, could be heroes in the bizarre ring of our culture, given a sword and a fighting chance and crowd to cheer.”

Getting up from his polished desk, he began to pace, saying, “In most respects, we are in complete harmony, he and I. Our only discord comes from our unequal positions, how we’ve maneuvered the tangled mappings of right to power, not at all from our purpose, which is simply relentless and incorrigible self-promotion. We all have such huge egos, but no idea of ourselves…”

The governor’s thoughts trailed off when the phone rang, but he continued to pace. He had always tried to move gracefully, because he knew people were attracted to that quality. But the weight of the moment made him clumsy and slow, as he calculated every step.

That night, there would be no reprieve, no stay, and no grace, but his staff agreed, it was a good and sincere killing, a last and most assured effort to find a place for the failed citizen.