We Are All to Blame

The US government is (technically) functional again, and the national crisis has been (sort of) averted, for the time being.  But whatever our political persuasion, we all know that the recent government shutdown was only the latest episode in an ongoing pattern of melodramatic debt crises ending in hard-fought, down-to-the-wire agreements to kick the can a little further down the road.  And now as always, the question of the day remains, “Who is to blame for this mess?”

If this is our starting point for a national self-diagnosis, we are already asking the wrong question.  It’s true that the latest kerfuffle was largely driven by an apocalypticism over the implementation of Obamacare that is insanely disproportionate to whatever valid concerns there are about it, and it’s also true that the first and loudest screams of protest at any suggestion of blame to go around on all sides have been coming from an equally reactionary left that suddenly sounded as obstructionist as the GOP as the shutdown approached.  But now that I have probably annoyed everybody, I want to take it a step further.  It’s easy for Democrats and Republicans – congressional and otherwise – to throw stones back and forth to no end.  And it’s easy for me, as a staunch Independent, to smugly cry, “A pox on both your houses!”  But ultimately, responsibility for the state we’re in extends beyond congress and the White House.

The problem is not only in the way politics is practiced, but just as much in the way news is presented.  Partisan gridlock is being fueled by partisan news outlets – and, by extension, the audiences that feed them and are fed by them.  We may justly (or, often, one-sidedly) criticize our elected representatives for their unwillingness to work together, but if we selectively listen to news sources that instill bitter hatred in us toward half of our compatriots (a hatred which, as thoughtful commentaries by Frida Ghitis and Michael Austin point out, has become increasingly personalized), are we really any different?

It is sometimes said that in a democracy we get the government we deserve.  As frustrated as we all are with congress by now, they are, sadly, a reflection of ourselves.  Elected officials act with specific voter bases in mind.  When they act out of ideology, this is often an appeal to, and a result of, an electorate that rewards ideology.  Congress is polarized because America is polarized.

And yet, the extent of the frustration may be an ironically hopeful sign that the polarization is near the breaking point.  I’m not sure whether a silent middle is finally speaking up or some war-weary ideologues are reaching the point of laying down their swords (perhaps it’s some of both), but public sentiment at last seems to be turning toward fatigue.  The toxic political atmosphere we’re breathing has taken its toll on all of us, and more and more of us are saying we’re tired of fighting.  Maybe by next year’s midterm elections, enough of us will be ready to stop rewarding ideological gridlock with our votes.  And maybe we are already signaling a shift in priorities to those currently in office.

We haven’t seen the last of the nastiness, but hopefully we’ve seen the worst.

About Julia Smucker
  • http://digbydolben.wordpress.com dismasdolben

    Sorry, Julia, but the two predominant cultures in America CANNOT live together under one roof; the country is more polarized than it’s ever been and those on the battle fronts of this culture war , both of them, believe that they are fighting for a decent sort of civilization. There are very few things they can agree on; in my opinion, it’s time for these two cultures to go their separate ways. This time, secession must not be opposed, like it was last time. The Southern Protestant Fundamentalist Christians and devotees of the “myth of Horatio Alger” dearly want one kind of country, and the “progressive,” “diverse” and more or less secularist America of the urban hubs, the “rust belt” and the haute bourgeois enclaves, plus the “gays,” the ethnic minorities and the new immigrants want an entirely different one. One is not even willing to FUND the other, or fight the other’s wars. It’s over: America is a broken, fragmented, has-been Empire–and believe me, from where I stand, most of the people of the rest of the world are catching on to that mighty fast.

    • Julia Smucker

      I see some truth in your final diagnosis, but as fragmented as we are, I’m not sure the two sides in the culture war are as divergent as they think. What we have in America is not two cultures, but one broadly underlying liberal consensus that has become polarized between classical market liberalism rebranded as neoconservatism and a reactionary statism rebranded as progressivism – both governed by the axiomatic principle of individual autonomy. I realize that’s putting it in broadly generalized terms and there are all kinds of nuances within that, as well as (thankfully) pockets of people who don’t fit this dichotomous consensus (which should include Catholics, although we all too often mirror our culture’s divisions). But in any case you can thank (or blame) my co-bloggers here for leading me to this conclusion.

  • Ronald King

    Like Buddha said, “We have to know our hate before we can love.” At the source of that hate is fear of death of self and/or life as we know it. We give to the point where it doesn’t hurt rather than giving until it hurts and beyond. It is about self-preservation rather than self-emptying. We have basic beliefs about self, others and God which form the foundation of our divisions and conflicts and connect us through competition for power to control. Yes, we get what we create and it seems that we still have a lot of hate and fear still waiting to be accepted by those who have denied ownership. As long as that continues evil will exist in its many expressions in every minute of our lives.

  • Jordan

    While I understand where dismas is going with his post, Julia put it best by couching the great social divide as an “axiomatic principle of individual autonomy.” It’s often very difficult for Catholics — including myself — to understand evangelical Christian theology and theopraxis. The Catholic and evangelical Christian understanding of social action and social justice are quite different and perhaps non-reconcilable.

    The Arminian influences in evangelical Christianity have long emphasized the notion of “personal responsibility”. From one perspective, the heartfelt movement to be born again and accept Jesus bears with it the responsibility to care for family and give one’s wealth as generously as possible (the tithe, charity). These responsibilies are intrinsic to holiness. Hence, a fundamental rift exists between personal responsbility and state. If the state provides certain basic needs indiscriminately to all citizens through taxation, then a believer has ceded his or her personal responsibility to provide for their family and religious community. This diminuition of personal responsibility is entwined with moral conduct.

    Catholic social teaching is, however, deeply communal. The focus is not on an individual’s ability to be charitable as a means to holiness, but for believers to create commonweal between all human beings as a means to renovate the world. Even so, many Catholics are not committed to CST. This is where Julia’s thoughts are quite relevant — despite theological underpinnings, a certain selfishness negates any sense of moral obligation to care for the least fortunate.

    • Julia Smucker

      Jordan, I agree with your interpretation but would add that we Catholics should beware of the idols of individualism and statism on both the left and the right. The right, as you suggest, eschews responsibility to the common good out of deference to the god of personal choice, and yet is also beholden to a collectivist trust in the “protection” offered by the military-industrial complex and in some cases vigilantism; while the left reacts into a centralizing statism, believing that if “they” want less government then more of it must always be a good thing, and at the same time bowing down to personal choice in a more hedonistic sense, seeking immediate pleasure without long-term consequences. Again, I’m speaking in generalities, but my point is that the idols are the same whether dressed in red or blue.

    • trellis smith

      I think your analysis of the Protestant/Catholic divide is quite illuminating Jordan I believe it follows closely my own. I see it more as an understanding and emphasis on the different perception of the immanent and transcendant aspects of God. A catholic understanding and emphasis is on the immanent reality which finds expression in analogy, How God is like us or God is Love and we are each like each other. It has a more holistic apprehension of the world. whereas the Protestant emphasis is on the transcendant on how God is different from us and we are different from each other, From such an understanding arose the the scientific method of starting withn the specific to arrive at the general, thus a compartementalization and the valuation of autonomy.

      Both mentalities are equally valid when held in balance and tension though at different times the corrective is applied. One could argue that given the current state of ecological and economic affairs a catholic moment may well be upon us as a technological fix proves insufficent.

      Though I appreciate the balance Julia seeks I bristle at the moral equation given to statism and personal autonomy as I don’t see how one can have too much freedom as properly understood. It is for this reason the political reality is that we must argue from the concept of increasing personal freedom that government programs operate rather than restrict.

      • Julia Smucker

        I wouldn’t divide Protestants and Catholics along the lines of transcendence and immanence. Both are found in the Catholic tradition as well as most Protestant ones.

        As for the question of autonomy, it’s not a question of whether one can have too much freedom but of how freedom is defined (which you hint at when you add “as properly understood”). American society tends to define freedom in terms of the autonomy of the individual – being able to do whatever one wants – but in Catholic tradition it has a more teleological meaning: freedom is living as we were made to live.

        • trellis smith

          Julia, Just a quick reply. Actually in the initial ecuemenical dialogues after Vatican 2 this difference in emphasis by the Catholic and Protestant imagination if not theology is cited rather extensively and given historical analysis.
          Although the American idea of freedom does not have the teleological component as expressed in natural law theory (despite the insistence of the new natural law proponents) I don’t perceive the vaunted personal autonomy of Americans as devoid of personal responsibility.

          Dignitatis Humane and the respect that document affords personal freedom and conscience is about autonomy as a good and end in itself not merely instrumental, where even the sacred community cannot interpose. A shift was underway here for which PF may have made a corrective.

          • Julia Smucker

            I suppose you have a point here in the implicit caution you make against falling into caricature. I grant that an appreciation of personal autonomy is not necessarily devoid of personal responsibility, and that there is a healthy balance between the two, which we should all strive for. But I would still caution that when personal autonomy is idolized, which is a constant temptation in a US context, neglect of responsibility can be an all too frequent pitfall.

            You certainly hit close to home with Dignitatis Humanae. On reflection, I would differentiate between the freedom to obey one’s faith and conscience, which may entail great sacrifice, and a more self-centered notion of freedom that claims the right to do as one pleases, sometimes with disregard for the harm this may cause to others (politically charged slogans like “my body, my choice” and “…when you pry it from my cold dead hands” spring to mind).

        • trellis smith

          i am no doubt too chauvinist to think that the problem or the temptation of freedom is one of idolization, but rather of ingratitude and the unwillingness to take our freedom seriously for which your examples are ones I might cite.
          We may never agree, so different our approaches, but that may not be what is required.

          • Julia Smucker

            I’m not sure where chauvinism comes into this discussion, but you may be right about ingratitude (and flippancy, if I may paraphrase) being part of the problem.

            Just one clarification: I don’t see freedom itself as the idol, but rather a misguided idea of what freedom is. The best example I can think of of freedom falsely defined is a credit card commercial a few years back that talked about being able to switch between rewards programs at will and then proclaimed, and I quote: “That’s freedom.” The background music then crescendos into the foreground: “I’m free to do what I want…” That one stuck in my mind as one of the more blatant lies in advertising I’ve ever seen. That’s the definition of freedom we’re being taught, often subconsciously.

          • Ronald King

            This is one that stuck with me: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose…”

          • Julia Smucker

            Do you mean this as a positive or negative example, Ronald? I’m curious what the context was for this quote.

        • Ronald King

          Julia, I believe the context is dependent upon the reader. My Aunt Honore who is 93 and whose birthday I am Honored to share will die sometime today. My Mom told me this morning. With tears and laughter we shared our love for her Sister and my Aunt who never married and had no children except the six of us brought into this world by Mom and Dad and the grand nieces and nephews that she loved as her own. Mom told me as she held Aunt Honore’s hand and felt Aunt Honore squeeze her hand that she also observed that her face had lost the wrinkles of 93 years and had taken on a sense of peace. Aunt Honore has nothing left to lose and she is now free to be at peace. It seems now that in losing everything she has gained the freedom to be at peace. She and Mom shared that moment of freedom with each other this morning in the mystery of love which had bonded them for nine decades since their Mother died when my Mom was 10 months old and the three girls were in a catholic orphanage for 8 years until their dad brought them home. That love endured through the pain and fear which accompanied them throughout their lives. Now, when all the hopes and dreams have vanished all that was left was the freedom to feel the love that united them and gave my Mom and my Aunt a final moment of peace which could only be experienced with the loss of everything which we cling to.
          I hope this makes sense.

          • Julia Smucker

            This is beautiful and poignant and more than explains what you were saying. May she always be at peace and free. Blessings to your family.

        • trellis smith

          @Julia, Chauvinist about the idea of American freedom and couldn’t agree with you more about its trivialization.
          @Ronald King’s, May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

        • Ronald King

          Thank you Julia and Trellis. May all of us find that freedom and peace.

        • http://digbydolben.wordpress.com dismasdolben

          Beautiful families make beautiful people, Ronald. God bless and keep yours.

          • Ronald King

            Thanks Dismas. You must have a beautiful family

  • Kurt

    One of the grievances this country was founded on in our Revolution was that any slight against the King could get a person in deep trouble, jail or worse. Hence the right to say whatever we want, no matter how critical, against our governmental leaders is sacred.

    However, it has gone overboard. The Christian virtue of charity needs to be re-adopted and applied to even those in public office. It needs to be less socially acceptable to make false or unknowable personal criticism of those in public life. Say what you want about policy and programs, but stop the attacks on persons and particularly uncharitable declarations about their inner intentions.

    It is not a fact that the President and Mrs. Pelosi want to kill babies, even though you can be kicked out of a Right to Life meeting for stating this. And it is not a fact that Speaker Boehner and Rep. Paul Ryan want the poor and the elderly to die on the streets.

    The President, the Speaker, Senator McCain, Governor Romney are all decent and honorable people who care deeply about this country. As are most in public life. Yet we have made a sport out of not just opposing policies we disagree with, but in personal attacks.

    • Melody

      I totally agree with Kurt’s last two paragraphs.
      And “…we have made a sport out of not just opposing policies we disagree with, but in personal attacks…” pretty well sums up the root of our collective polarization.

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