Our Political Crisis

1. Often I say the political problem nowadays is a lack of understanding what is “public.” Privately, we’re excellent for the most part. We work hard, achieve much, give a lot, stay organized and are able to see trade-offs and navigate them well. But all that reasoning and skill which we apply to our private affairs dissolves quickly when it comes to public things. Ask some intelligent, balanced business owners about voting and a host of conspiracy theories and crackpot criteria come out of nowhere. Ask someone who’s tolerant of much in terms of his immediate family about the state of society and you hear this huge rant about how no one’s done anything right and the government promotes all the wrong things. And of course there is no need for anything remotely like a “political science.” Every politician is a crook, not one single law ever helped anyone (except the ones that do), every other person is an idiot or hateful or out to steal money from you.

Usually when I want to articulate a solution, I say something to myself like “maybe people should read more,” “maybe we need rhetoric and speechcraft back,” “maybe we need cheat sheets for relevant issues and info” (i.e. like knowing the federal budget is roughly 4 trillion). I typically think in terms of articulating problems and having people figure out what solutions are possible and which they want.

2. I realized today – the hard way – that the primary difference between private and public is this: you can’t be right about everything and expect to have friends.

That’s the real trap. We actually are right about a lot of things in our private lives. We have the luxury of success. Working hard does pay off for us (and yes, this is a rare thing around the world. Think about what working hard for a dollar a day gets you). Our success or perceived success validates us and now we’re right about everything. And that’s just not how anything political or social works.

Social is the more fundamental argument. Communication depends on a kind of skepticism about one’s knowledge. You can’t be sure you know everything about someone, that’s why you talk to them. If you knew everything about them, you wouldn’t speak at all.

But political phenomena, which includes basic needs like security, a marketplace, agriculture, rudimentary justice, doesn’t just build from the social. After all, if you have a bunch of guys with guns for security, you could just point at the enemy. Politics does tempt us with the idea that one person could be exactly right and should always be listened to. Why do we need to be social in any way, when we have the political right to ignore those who don’t know?

3. The answer is that private and public was never merely a quantitative matter, i.e. “few” vs. “many.” Rule for one doesn’t translate neatly into rule for a few and rule for many. It was always qualitative. A self is only known through others, after all.

Politics by its nature is an explosion of public and private. Strangely enough, it may be larger than typical social considerations (society?). Politics insists on hierarchy; pushes us to define man or types of men; seeks not simply “what is” but “what is good;” makes us think about the beings that rule us; gives authority, not just value, to opinion. The utilitarian tasks that don’t require anything but pointing are absorbed into a much larger framework where everything is on the line.

One could say that framework could be held by one alone. You don’t need opinions that are authoritative. And maybe that’s true – for God, at least, who has perfect knowledge. For the rest of us, there’s either admit you don’t know everything, or lose out on any company for the rest of your life. To be even blunter: our private lives are increasingly impoverished because we don’t know how to be political. We don’t know how to be wrong or deal properly with others being wrong. What made me acutely aware of this today was being the one guy nearing a PhD. in a room full of non-degree holders. I was the only one not insisting on my way or using every little thing to point out how morally and practically right I was. It was frightening, when all was said and done. No one could see how crazy the claims they were making on each other were, let alone could see that letting others be wrong isn’t always the worst thing.

4. Friends are a weird point between public and private. If you assume friends are an entirely private matter, you get few or none of them. Hence, people who have no one to serve as guests of honor at weddings. But friendship is definitely not the same thing as public service.

What friendship and public service aren’t is bullying. If you’re wondering why people are apathetic or hostile to the very concept of politics nowadays, note the tone all over the place. Making people feel comfortable and safe can’t be bad things. No wonder ancient cultures prized hospitality so much. They knew trust had to be built somehow.

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