Page Two: Balancing Act

Several tiny steps in search of a dance to winter – and a dance toward launching into reverie

Page Two
This column is the first part of an interlude between the content of last week's column and the one previewed at its end. In order to get where this appears to be going, it seemed that certain thoughts and structural constructs should be at least offered up first.

1) Robert Frost said that "poet" is a gift word. You can't really call yourself a "poet"; instead, in order to earn that label, you had to be called that by others. There is a small dictionary of gift words currently in wide usage that have questionable validity when one bestows them on oneself. Claiming their connotative and denotative meanings for oneself is sheer arrogance. In every sense, they are words that have to be earned by one's conduct, character, and practices over very long periods of time. Self-anointing with one of them does not automatically annul or deny the necessary traits associated with the word's meaning, but neither does it in any way validate the meaning, guarantee that it is being appropriately applied, or lend class to one's actions. Most often, for the wary, such assertions are seen as a step back by the claimant into uncertain, questionable shadows rather than toward the light.

Many people, for example, all too easily declare themselves "patriots," while their actions and beliefs in no way justify that title. Those claiming one or more of these kinds of gift words as a way of describing themselves ignore the high performance standards of behavior that need to accompany them. The act of self-proclamation inherently argues against the worthiness of the application. Almost casually, many of the self-anointing assume that the very act of claiming the word for oneself grants one the attributes associated with the word (no matter how unearned). Often, rather than trying to make sure their behavior is such that it matches the descriptive title they've claimed, they are too busy judging and condemning others for not approaching the same standards. Simply assuming that semantic proximity grants them the appropriate authority, those who claim to be "patriots" criticize others as being active traitors or mindless, compliant sheep far more interested in getting along than in taking on the challenges of true patriotism.

2) Some of these gift words, such as "patriot," are quite specific; others are much more general – such as when one asserts his or her opinions are the "truth" or that he or she is on the side of "good," while those with whom they disagree are "liars" or serve "evil." Others of these words are self-forgiving. Essentially, they represent a single person reaching a jury's verdict of innocence in his or her own favor – or at least the claim to an objective, appropriate dismissal of any questioning of the moral/ideological/social basis by which beliefs and positions have been arrived at or on which they are based.

When one makes the quick assertion that one is not prejudiced, racist, biased against people of color, anti-white, ideologically dogmatic, anti-Semitic, anti-papal, anti-religious, religiously intolerant, anti-labor, or anti-management, that assertion is often rendered highly questionable. The same is true when it is denied that one is classist (either one of upper class claiming no bias toward other classes or one of the lower class claiming his or her views are untainted), elitist, anti-elitist, or distrustful of foreigners, among many such categories of predetermined, judgmental dispositions. In other words, these people vet their own statements. They are willing to assert clinically that they've arrived at their opinions unaccompanied by any kind of taint.

Instead, they are willing to assert factually that their statements and opinions represent pure thought untethered by any bias, including unconscious, subconscious, learned, and/or overt. The complex, emotional, and intellectual makeup of individuals makes it impossible to understand, know, or trace such factors as thought processes, external and internal influences, or what is learned and what is biological. Actually, those words in this context are grotesquely inappropriate. This situation argues against the very assertions being made. Openly acknowledging that one might not fully understand all that is involved in the development of opinions would be more reassuring than these self-issued clean bills of ideological and belief-system health.

More often than not, when an opinion is introduced with a statement insisting that pure reason and perfect knowledge were the only factors involved in reaching it, there is no way to take it at all seriously. This is not to argue that every statement is inherently crippled by prejudice. However, when concerns over unrealized factors that may have affected the development of thoughts are dismissed out of hand, rather than being reassuring, it is instead profoundly disturbing.

3) Many of those who claim to be among the few true patriots find the assertion is its own justification, never really feeling the need to question or prove either their love of country or constitutional fidelity. All too many claim a fundamentalist, orthodox devotion to the U.S. Constitution without having read it or, if they have, referring only to their self-edited, "Reader's Digest condensed versions," which almost always have more to do with personal imagination than the document.

When one argues with a true believer that his or her lack of understanding of the Constitution disallows the loyalty to it that he or she claims, the response is almost always outrage. Even when one points out how such people's beliefs overtly contradict, or at least demonstrate no allegiance to, constitutionally specific mandates, there is no defense mounted; rather, the response is usually an attack on whoever is offering those thoughts.

The Constitution assumes that citizens hold often violently conflicting opinions. Yet it is constructed to facilitate the most vigorous debates, while at the same time not privileging any school of thought over the others. In this context, debate and disagreement among a relatively evenly divided body of elected representatives achieve the best legislative answers. The more one ideology and/or party dominates the legislative process, the more the government's functioning is handicapped and possibly damaging.

Those who denounce liberals as traitors, conservatives as fascists, or the whole government as being run by secret cabals, even if they are right, have abandoned constitutional principles. The resulting claims that they would govern to restore the true Constitution to prominence are beyond meaningless. If one really believes that the people in power in our government are truly evil, deliberately malevolent, and determined to do harm to the country and its people, then championing the Constitution is foolish, because it would be useless and inappropriate in such a world. Its most pervasive, unquestionable, and integral assumption is that even the most extreme ideological conflicts are between principled citizens who love this country, no matter how violently they may disagree about how it should be run. Certainly the Constitution understands and allows that the government may suffer traitors and that any legislative deliberative body may be plagued by those who are corrupt in that they privilege their own interests above their concerns about and commitments to the health of the country. The more evenly divided the government is between the two parties, the better it is for all of us and for the country.

4) One of the most critical distinctions is between a principled position and a partisan one. A principled position involves commitment to a law, a rule, and/or a code that is applied essentially in the same way in every situation. A partisan position is one for which ideological and/or party loyalties are the guiding principles. The latter is more a makeshift definition, though one that can be driven as intensely by different moral and/or policy beliefs as by party loyalties.

There are legitimate and genuine disagreements over how to read, interpret, and apply the Constitution. Central to my view is that it is a very consciously living, ever-evolving document. Overwhelmingly, it prioritizes the ongoing electoral empowerment of all citizens. Consequently, the key focus of its design is on the ongoing functioning of government and maintaining the overall population's role in that functioning. This view directly contradicts those who believe in discerning original intention or faithfully adhering to certain mandates. This is an especially controversial position, because it argues that the Constitution is about the ongoing role and function of government, its relationship to elected officials, and its relationship with the public.

In this view, the Constitution is rooted in the future, designed to be adaptive rather than primarily set in stone, with the spelling out of very specific takes on concepts – big government over little government, states' rights over federal control – of temporal and relatively minor importance. The priorities are much grander and include full representation of citizens, the independence of elected bodies, and the integrity of the judiciary. Central to the Constitution's goals is the inability of one group of citizens, one party, or one ideology to completely control the government in regard to policy and execution. In this take, the government functions best when both parties have forced it to near gridlock.

The first six years of the Bush administration saw all branches of the government in Republican hands, accompanied by as much of a purging of staff as possible, a vetting for every job possible along party lines – even when it wasn't appropriate – and endless talk of one-party rule. Whereas I differ with the Republicans on all different kinds of policy points and perceived mandates in general, the center of my opposition is as much about one-party dominance as it is anything else.

Recently, Democratic leaders have been talking of the need to make gains in the 2010 off-term elections in order to maintain and expand Democratic rule, especially in regard to striving for a veto-proof control. The exact opposite – substantial Republican renewal in those elections – is what I'm hoping for. In my fantasy life, their wins would not be enough to restore them to complete control, but rather just the number needed to weaken Democratic dominance by achieving a closer partisan balance in the House and Senate.

More to come, including: back to Obama, Republicans, the future, and Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five.  

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