Wed, 27 Oct 2004

Don't Vote?

Somebody still reads this blog! A message arrived from my non-voting colleague, Jonathan Wilson of Acadia Divinity College: "Don't vote! ... Not because the parties are compromised but because the system is. Big money, entrenched, self-interested power decides whom the people get to vote for."

Jonathan isn't objecting to voting in any modern nation-state; he tells me he will vote in Canada if and when he is qualified. (The country that produced its current Liberal Party is better? Hmmm.)

As usual, Jonathan and I agree even as we disagree; the theological assumptions we share inform the political assumptions we don't, to produce interesting results and fruitful discussions. (So you will never find the two of us facing each other on "Hardball.")

Political theorists have shown that no voting system can be truly neutral. The peculiar dynamics of America's federalism, its first-past-the-post (winner take all, rather than proportional representation) system, and its constitutional balance of powers produce peculiar results. Incidentally, I prefer this system over Canada's Westminster model. A different system would produce a different variety of favoritism. Perhaps it would be a better one; perhaps not. As a conservative I approach reform with a built-in skepticism: how would the players of the old system rig the new system to favor them? What unintended consequences would accompany, distort, or reverse the intended ones? The McCain-Feingold campaign finance "reform" whose effects are being felt in this year's 527s is a good example of why I would rather not tamper with what has produced workable results in the United States for two hundred years.

It's true that "big money, entrenched, self-interested power" has a disproportionate say in selecting candidates. Yet the Democratic Party's incoherence and the Republican Party's weakness did too. I don't go for the "tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum" marxist account of American politics where the stakes in one party or the other winning are inconsequential because the same powers survive every change of administrations. Trial lawyers, teachers' unions, big labor, African-America, and the extremely rich want Kerry to win because the stakes are high for them. Likewise for Bush's supporters among Chambers of Commerce, the moderately well off, the less populous Rocky Mountain states, the Christian right, the military, and so on. We face two uninspiring candidates who are struggling for 51% not because they are so similar that they are indistinguishable, but because they have had to work so hard to create a winnable coalition that they have exposed the fractures in their own diverse bases. In European politics, coalition-building follows voting; in American politics, it's more the other way around. At one level I am voting for Bush because, while I find the Republican coalition incoherent and mildly offputting, I find the Democratic coalition fundamentally self-contradictory and extremely offputting.

Yet at a deeper level (and loyal readers of this blog can look back to my posts last summer for evidence of my convictions), I am voting against the candidate of big journalism. I refuse to reward the disgusting behavior of our country's (really our world's) journalists. The traditions of honest journalism are a huge countervailing force to the big money and entrenched, self-interested power behind the American political process. This year more than ever, it seems, they have decided to hold their tongues and mete out misleading "coverage" until their man gets elected.

If they had the courage to use it, journalists would have the prophetic power that puts truth-tellers "over nations and kingdoms" (Jeremiah 1:10). Instead, they have settled for false prophesying: "'every one is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, every one deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, "Peace, peace," when there is no peace'" (Jeremiah 6:13-14). The past few months have seen the spirit of false prophecy spread and flourish even after unprecedented misbehavior (The New York Times, CBS News) and criticism. "Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush" (6:15a). Today's journalists don't know how to blush, do they?

As powers and principalities struggle for dominance through both parties, and as (mainly) Democrats resort to disenfranchisement-by-lawsuit and outright voter fraud to prevail in this election even at the price of the good faith of the world's oldest democracy, I still view journalists' false prophesying as the greatest compromise of the formal and informal system by which America is governed. My vote against Kerry is an admittedly imperfect sign that "'therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown,' says YHWH" (6:15b).

That day may not come in 2004, but it will come. This disillusioned former journalist is looking forward to it, and rejoicing already.

09:40 (file under /topics/politics)

Mon, 25 Oct 2004

My Mind Is Made Up

I finally made up my mind about what to do politically this year.

First, I registered nonpartisan ("decline to state").

Coming from a Republican family, I feel a twinge of familial guilt when I think about this. This does not trouble me; moving away from one's family traditions should produce anxiety and even guilt, if the family is a good one – and mine definitely is. But ever since I read in college of a Jesus who calls his followers to leave everything and follow him, I have become accustomed at least to the idea of feeling that loss. The gain is better – a hundredfold better – but that doesn't mean the loss isn't real. I remain proud of my family's politics – and I even still think my "Now More Than Ever" button from 1972 is cool, especially in the effect it has on people without a sense of irony (e.g., many liberals and, alas, a few conservatives too).

Why nonpartisan? I have several reasons:

A. I am increasingly convinced that the logic of political parties is a bad idea for Christians. I am still comfortable with Christians voting – that is, with our being free to respond when the country consults our judgment about what courses to follow. I have at least one colleague who refuses to vote on the ground that they would be complicit in the acts of a compromised power, but I tend to see voting in terms of Joseph serving under Pharaoh or Daniel under Nebuchadnezzar. We are gifted with the Spirit of truth-telling, and voting is a limited but effective way of it. However, a political party is something else: a coalition of people whose group identity becomes too determinative and too centered on power for its own good. The sociological dynamics of "Republicans," "Democrats," "Libertarians," "Greens," etc. are not healthy. And that is to say that they are sinful. The corrupting influence they have on those who are attracted to them is something I want to discourage.

If it is not obvious to you that patriotism and partisanship are both out of hand among this country's Christians ...

... perhaps it is now.

I will be happy to vote in open primaries, if California gets them this November, but not closed ones.

B. I don't think America's two significant parties are serving it or the world well right now, and refusing to join them is a way of saying so. As a shopper, I believe it is fine to leave a store, even a restaurant, without purchasing anything. It sends just as real a signal to the marketplace as buying or selling. In 2002 crowds of people who rarely go to movies went to see "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" on the word-of-mouth advice of friends, showing that a huge market was going underserved by the usual Hollywood garbage. This seems a good time to tell our political parties that we don't like what we see. Last October California recalled Gray Davis and elected Arnold Schwarzenegger in a convulsion from the "none of the above" vote finally being offered something it wanted. The California legislature has begun to realize it cannot ignore that signal and survive.

While I have until now identified with Republicans, I am not happy about their spending habits in Congress, their demagoguery with the FMA, their aloofness and refusal to talk straight to the American people, or their readiness to embrace statist means to promote their constituents' economic and social interests. Yes, I know: they want to rule, and doing these things helps them do it. It also makes them less appropriate rulers. I understand the strategy; I just don't believe Christians should identify themselves with these kinds of compromises.

I am even less happy with Democrats, whose teachers' unions are destroying schools for my children and especially other people's children, whose paradigm of racial reconciliation is a counterproductive relic of the sixties, whose systematic incoherence over the War on Terror is downright dangerous, and whose spokespeople's elitism, arrogance, and judgmentalism I am simply unable to stomach.

Even if I thought parties were okay for Christians to join, I wouldn't want to send a supportive signal to either of these two. I am thrifty when I shop, and I'm going to be thrifty when I vote. If they want my vote, they can come and get it. Mine won't come cheap.

What about single issues many Christians regard as having overriding importance – for instance, abortion? My feeling is that vices like abortion and substance abuse will decline in America not when they are made illegal, but when they are made unacceptable. Despite the rhetoric from both sides, I sense that Republicans are closer than Democrats to resonating with that vision. Nevertheless, patient, loving, noncoercive Christian witness to the way of Jesus Christ is the only real resource for truly making that happen. Success does require group dynamics and distinctive politics. They worked in ancient Rome and they can work again here. But the appropriate 'party' in which they will work is not the state or its political institutions, but the Church that lives them out regardless of their popularity.

C. Evangelicals' growing identification with the Republican Party and desertion of the Democratic Party may be understandable, but it is perilous. I quote from one of my courses' textbooks, Lesslie Newbigin's The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Eerdmans, 1989), page 138:

Adrian Hastings in his history of English Christianity in the present [twentieth] century has reminded us that for the first two decades of this period the Christianity of the English Free Churches was interpreted as almost necessarily involving support for the Liberal Party. When the Liberal Party destroyed itself, the Free Churches suffered a blow, a loss of identity, from which they have hardly begun to recover (A History of English Christianity: 1920-1985, 1986). It does not require much knowledge of history to recognize that, with all its grievous sins of compromise, cowardice, and apostasy, the Church outlasts all these movements in which so much passionate faith has been invested. In their time each of these movements seems to provide a sense of direction, a credible goal for the human project. The slogans of these movements become sacred words which glow with ultimate authority. But they do not endure. None of them in fact embodies the true end, the real goal of history. That has been embodied once for all in the events which form the substance of the gospel and which – remembered, rehearsed, and reenacted in teaching and liturgy – form the inner core of the Church's being.

Liberal Protestant churches are not surviving the collapse of the liberal consensus of the mid-twentieth century. Even if the Republican Party is becoming a majority party (I think it probably is), it is not going to last. Do we want evangelical Christianity to go down with it?

So much for party affiliation. What about the current election?

In California's wacky state politics there are lots of propositions to say 'no' to and a few to say 'yes' to. But those matters are for another post, which I will certainly not get around to writing.

Nothing in the past months, or years, has changed my mind about the presidential election. Just about every issue I have with the Democratic Party played a part in its choice of John Kerry for president. It is trying to rule by being centrist and leftist at the same time, a prescription for disaster. Its economics look backward to stasism rather than forward to the dynamism which, whether we like it or not, will be characterizing the world economy for the foreseeable future. Kerry's vision of diplomatic and military leadership, if he even has one, reflects the thinking of his party's defeatist wing, which in the present context probably portends setbacks in Iraq, U.S. retreats, emboldened Islamists, an even less just Islamic world, and more terrorism worldwide. His campaign's cynical and transparently incompetent use of military imagery grates even on me, a pacifist and lifelong civilian! The Democrats still can't stop thinking of Europe more as America's future than as a dead end America turned decisively away from in 1980. While less opportunistic than Republican economic policies, their own policies tend to suffer from unintended consequences that hurt the poor, greedy constituencies that tax and regulate themselves into comfort, and dreams detached from reality.

This country's left has always had a "healthy" self-image as the hope of the world. Since the late 1960s it has also had a deeply unserious side. I tired of both these character traits even before I was out of college, and since then my tolerance for them has risen little. The left could do America a lot of good, but first it needs strong dose of humility and reality. Its thought police need to rise to the robust practical and intellectual challenges they have been ignoring for decades. Its hegemons need a generation of youngsters to reject its axioms. Its statists need to discover that compassion does not rely on coercion. Its perennial critics of the west need to discover the good in their enemies and acknowledge the evil in their friends. Its intellectuals need to learn that they aren't right just because no one they know disagrees with them. Its advocates need to stop resorting to caricature, vilification, intimidation, censorship, fraud, and the presumption of moral superiority. (This seems to be a larger problem on the left right now than on the right.) Finally, the left's many good, thoughtful, and faithful people need to take it back from the people who have ruined it.

Electing Kerry president will not deliver that medicine. It will only advance the disease. The Democratic Party had its Tony Blair moment after the 1994 congressional elections when Bill Clinton shifted it to the center and created the most successful Democratic era in presidential politics since the 1960s. When Al Gore campaigned from the populist (and arrogant) left, he betrayed that legacy, squandered the Democrats' best position in decades, divided the party, and lost the election all at the same time. America needed a vital but responsible opposition party after September 11. Instead, it was stuck with Tom Daschle, Nancy Pelosi, Michael Moore – and now John Kerry.

Kerry is no Tony Blair. He is not the man to lead a recovery in the Democratic Party. Under him and without George W. Bush on whom to fixate, Democrats' papered-over fissures would only worsen. Kerry's administration would be structurally unable to satisfy its constituents and America would be caught in-between for four pretty important years. The unserious left would interpret its win over George W. Bush as a vindication of both its goals and its Machiavellian methods, with probably disastrous results. Democrats need more time in the political wilderness to sort out their identity and vision for the country. Maybe this will take four more years, perhaps eight. It will take at least two years just to become worthy as an opposition party. It will also take someone else than John Kerry to lead it into that better place.

I haven't said much positive about George W. Bush, have I? No, I haven't. W is a better president than I could ever be, especially in these very challenging times, and despite his weaknesses he is still not as mediocre as Kerry. But he has been "just OK" as a president, which is to say he has been a disappointment. I have already lodged some complaints about this administration and the party that created it, and my liberal colleagues here at Westmont have lodged further substantial complaints about Bush, his administration, his policies, the way he has been waging this war, and the Republican Party he is creating. As long as those criticisms are responsible, fair, and free from the hyperbole and paranoia that now characterize a lot of language from the left, I grant the force of many of those criticisms. I don't blame people for wanting a president besides George W. Bush.

But I will vote for W – more than anything as a vote against John Kerry. Kerry is a complete zero. If Republicans are implicated in Bush's mediocrity, then the party that nominated Kerry is implicated in his nothingness. Not only have the Democrats not sold me, they have pushed me farther away than ever.

As you (the Americans among you, anyway) make up your own minds this week, may God bless you.

10:12 (file under /topics/politics)

Fri, 15 Oct 2004

Pop Goes the Bubble

The current issue of Westmont magazine features an article of mine called "Pop Goes the Bubble: Adventures in Christian Culture Crossing." Part of it explores lessons I have learned blogging and websurfing in the last several years. Here is an excerpt:

We evangelical Christians are not the only ones who stay within our comfort zones. Everybody bubbles: social classes, genders, ideologies, tribes, tongues, and nations; journalists, experts, professors, and professions; churches, webloggers, and even San Francisco’s subcultures. Humanity is not so much a global village, one big family, or a sea as a lather – a thick layer of bubbles jostling, colliding, seeing others only through the distorting curvature of their own dividing walls, interacting with strangers only at their common surfaces, and generally minding their own business.
All of these children of the Father belong to the Son (John 17:10). So the good news of his Kingdom has to be bubble-crossing and bubble-bursting. Following the Son demands that we take on the discomforts of his apostleship, whether that means reading unfamiliar sources and taking them seriously, going on missions and cross-cultural off-campus programs with eyes and ears as open as our mouths, living with roommates we didn’t choose, or just crossing the road to help strangers.

Shabbat shalom!

17:37 (file under /topics/publishing)
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