There can be good clean fun in the political give and take. The sport of politics can be as enjoyable as any other hobby, snack, or professional wrestling. Debate is fun for some of us, and the pleasure we take is in the debate itself, not the issues. I’d rather be interesting than right, sometimes.
So I have a hard time taking an absolute position against politics in toto. Politics can be okay. It depends.
But these days things are not so innocent and it seems to be getting worse. A lot of people believe in this stuff in a way that I am not comfortable calling safe or fun anymore.
I like to write in noisy sports bars sometimes. It helps me focus. Buffalo Wild Wings is a constant in my writing routine. This is also because I like to watch football and I don’t own a television. I go to “write” or “grade.”
A few years ago, in Crawfordsville, IN, I went to write and watch the Sunday night football game on an evening that, to my surprise, coincided with pay-per-view WWE (or F, or whatever) wrestling. The kind of show where giant, glistening wrestlers hit each other with chairs and fake plots play out with terrible camera angles and indoor fireworks.
The place was filled with enthusiasts, many of them wearing t-shirts with their favorite wrestler. They cheered and called the “moves” aloud and goaded their opponents. I’ll never forget it.
I don’t have any big objections to violent sports. I played football and rugby and I enjoy watching boxing and mixed martial arts. But, besides being annoyed that my football game not playing on the big screen, I was even more unsettled by the fact that these people seemed to be acting like this stuff was real.
And it was real to them. They believed in that shit like it was Santa Claus.
Of course my football, you could argue, is every bit as fake and produced, but that would be to miss some of the essential elements that makes the NFL just barely redeemable. There is some skill and chance involved, for now.
It was pure nuttery. The sort of thing that sane minds just cannot do. It was cheap, ugly, and witless. I could understand watching this for the sport of making fun of it or for the love of kitsch pop-Americana, but none of that was present that evening.
Lucha Libre at least has some decent gymnastics.
The problem was metaphysical. People were confused about what was real and what was not real. And they were very happily confused. And they acted like idiots.
I think we are confused today in a similar way as these wing-eating idiots based on two partially true — but wholly false — assumptions about who is getting more than they deserve. It is kindergarden-variety pettiness.
On the Right, people are convinced that all the poor are lazy and manipulative, using the economic classes above them to get something for nothing. On the Left, people are convinced that all the rich are lazy and manipulative, using the economic classes below them to get something for nothing.
One way or the other, they are sure that they’re getting screwed, royally.
If you listen to both of them, they are both losing badly. On the Right, the socialistic secular liberal relativists and the gays and Obama are destroying everything and no one is waking up to realize it. They are the few who really get it. On the Left, the fundamentalist religious conservative bigots and rednecks and Sarah Palin are destroying everything and no one is waking up to realize it. Each side shares the martyrdom stories and gotcha lines that prove that they are losing and everything is bad and what is wrong with these people? They have their own words to use and fling and pat each other on the back and tear their garments with memes.
I live in both of these worlds, with wide spectrums in either direction and niche groups, too — the Leftists who hate Obama and the conservatives who are disgusted by Palin. Distributists. But I see the general trends, too. And these trends seem to be winning the day.
Far, far worse, this very real fake wresting is turning us into giant assholes who seem to love nothing more than to hate each other and act like mean, nasty, and terribly jealous and paranoid — and often scared — schoolchildren.*
I don’t think this is true in the world of flesh and bone, in the world of people and babies and jobs and groceries, because it is not what I experience personally; no one I know who is willing to stop acting crazy can seriously verify or defend it either. It’s all hearsay or anecdotal nonsense. Something you heard from someone sometime or saw once and decided that that was the way the world works, everywhere.
I don’t think that the poor are the problem but I also know that poverty can create systematic and institutional behaviors and outlooks that are self-destructive and make poor people look bad and be annoying at best and dangerous at worst. There is nothing wrong with poor people, but I am not eager to hold them up as a model of human achievement. When we get into specifics this gets even more qualified and real. Poor people also hold a treasure that can make it sound like I idealize the poor. Not “the poor” in some heady abstract, but have you ever been hosted by a family that has no running water and spends their month’s salary to feed you dinner, with joy and honor?
I don’t think that rich people are as rich as we think they are. They often live beyond their means and project a profound poverty. Plus, no one seems to want to be called rich. It’s tacky. But there is a dignity that comes with quality and quality is expensive. Nice things need not be vain, many times they are practical — practical luxuries. At the same time, there is a hollow blindness that afflicts the rich with a sense that they own everything they have in a very simplistic and individualistic way. When you get into specifics this also gets more qualified and difficult. Bill Gates paid for all of my post-scondary schooling, but, in many ways, I think he’s more dangerous than a serial killer.
You cannot love or hate the poor or the rich in the abstract, without qualification, without an encounter. At the same time, there are virtues in the poor that are harder to find in the rich, as the Gospel teaches. Things are not flat nor are they equal in a simple way. It takes effort and real understanding to make some sense of it all.
The same goes for capitalism and communism, freedom and control, subsidiarity and solidarity. They are balancing acts, they require serious attention and cannot be polluted by the garbage flying around everywhere. We tend to use hybrids and hedge our bets and hide our imperfections that show that our ideals never make into the final product.
There is something deeply wrong. It is not merely that people are wrong. This isn’t getting the answer that doesn’t fit the question. It is a deeper loss, a more profound error. It the loss of the person. The face. The touch and the pain of really being wounded. I think we project pain into these plastic, bloodless fights to avoid facing the real wounds we hide and try to ignore.
The Catholic Church is not immune to this, not one bit, but it does have a voice that speaks in tones that are capable of piercing the Right and Left political borders and offers a healing that is not easy. All it might give us is the real stuff. Real wrestling. The actual brokenness that is there and not the routine and daily outrage.
Francis has, in many ways, become a distraction. We’ve made him into one. We have turned him into a fake wrestler, and we will turn him into anything, anything but a pastor, a shepherd, a healer, a servant. He just keep coming.
This is not a rejection of Francis or even of ourselves. At the root of it all, it is a rejection of the love of God made real in the person of Jesus Christ. Christmas comes early and often and loud and harmlessly buries the silence of the Incarnation. We await the Babe, not for his words or his speech. We await his presence. His body is a sacrament because it dwells and we adore it. Nothing more, not yet. The rest is still to come.
Put aside the fear. Cleanse yourself of the jealous envy of those who you think are getting a better shake or chance or nicer things without deserving it. Let paranoia melt into the real fears and problems and death. Prepare the way for something new.
What is hope?