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In praise of politics


Published: Jul 11, 2013

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Politics today is often marked by corruption, arrogance, selfishness, pettiness, stupidity and a catalogue of other human weaknesses and moral failings. After all, it mirrors the human condition. And, it has always been thus. Contemporary complaints about politics are echoes of ancient ones.

In “Politics as a Vocation” Professor Mary Ann Glendon recalls: “Take, for example, the notion that politics is inherently corrupt and corrupting. The belief that a person in search of a good life should remain aloof from the moral minefield of politics has been around for a long time.

“When Marcus Tullius Cicero told his closest friends that he was thinking of going into politics, they tried hard to dissuade him. Many of them were followers of Epicurus who taught that a wise man best preserves his freedom by avoiding involvement in public affairs. They said, ‘Just take a look around the Roman Forum, it’s filled with schemers and bribe-takers.’

“Cicero could not dispute that the Forum was filled with sleazy characters. But he turned his friends’ argument back at them, saying, ‘What better reason could brave and high-minded men have for entering politics than the determination not to allow the state to be torn apart by the cowardly and wicked?’”

All human endeavor potentially involves slippery slopes; temptations of conceit and deceit; compromises of moral rectitude, values and principles; and hypocrisies of kind and degree.

Politics is not for the fickle or the fainthearted. It demands more courage than many of its critics are able to “screw up” in order to enter the arena as celebrated by Theodore Roosevelt in “Citizenship in a Republic”.

“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds.”

Politics is a demanding vocation involving moral risks and sacrifices. But is not such risk and sacrifice the vocation of any human being who seeks to lead a moral, good and virtuous life?

Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela and Burmese freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi all committed their lives to political struggle, making compromises and deals, playing factions off against each other, many times not living up to their better selves and promises, all the while negotiating moral risks.

There are as many charlatans and hypocrites in politics as there are in other areas of human society. Consider some religionists, artists and businesspeople who delight in decrying politics and running down politicians. Though many of them may not have quite sold their souls; they have confined them to long-term storage.

Politicians need critics who are serious, unrelenting, passionate, intelligent and informed. Some critics are romantics turned cynics, believing that the morality of the individual is easily applied to that of the collective. This is willful naiveté. See William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warns: “The inevitable hypocrisy, which is associated with all the collective activities of the human race, springs chiefly from this source: that individuals have a moral code which makes the actions of collective man an outrage to their conscience...

“As individuals, men believe they ought to love and serve each other and establish justice between each other. As racial, economic and national groups they take for themselves, whatever their power can command.”

Niebuhr adds: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

A smug comfort to some other critics is a certain blanket of lazy intellectual and ethical analysis, and disingenuous thinking. It is the syndrome of the false equivalence, a pox on both houses, where all or most politicians are the same.

In voting, citizens sometimes have to choose between the lesser of two or more so-called evils. More often, they must discern which party or individual is more likely to advance the greater good.

Human beings weigh such choices in their personal and professional lives. This is the nature of the ethical life. To cop out of such a choice by refusing to vote is not a moral choice. It is a ducking of a civic responsibility masquerading as virtue.

There is another false sense of virtue of which Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1988 Letter to the Laity: “Charges of careerism, idolatry of power, egoism, and corruption, as well as the common opinion that participating in politics is an absolute moral danger, do not in the least justify either scepticism or an absence on the part of Christians in public life.”

Vaclav Havel, a playwright, political dissident and hero of the Czechoslovakian Velvet Revolution of 1989 rose to become president of Czechoslovakia, and then the Czech Republic.

Of a lifetime of political struggle he offered this testament: “It is not true that a person of principle does not belong in politics; it is enough for his principles to be leavened with patience, deliberation, a sense of proportion, and an understanding of others. It is not true that only the unfeeling cynic, the vain, the brash, and the vulgar can succeed in politics. It is true that such people are drawn to politics but my experiences and observations confirm that politics as the practice of morality is possible.”

Much that is disappointing and uninspiring about Bahamian politics says more about us as citizens than it says about the political directorate.

As far back as the struggle for majority rule there were those in the middle class who kept a distance from politics, fearing the loss of privilege. Of course, they were happy to reap the rewards of a struggle in which they had sown little.

Decades later, Keith Duncombe, having entered the political arena, lamented a certain mindset among many middle-class Bahamians who complained ad nauseum about politics, but who refused to get involved at any level.

In 2013, many of the bourgeois complainers remain as critical while recoiling from the hard work of politics, for all manner of reasons. That is their choice, a privilege won for them by those who entered the arena so that the former may enjoy the freedom to whine and complain.

But a privilege that the chronic naysayers and perpetual whiners may not be afforded is the conceit that they are somehow morally superior for having kept their distance from elected politics.

In praise of politics at the fortieth we rightly celebrate those who lent their patriotism and talents in the arena, whether behind the scenes or on the frontlines, men and women like: Dr. C. R. Walker and Sir Etienne Dupuch, Carlton Francis, Warren Levarity and Godfrey Kelly, Cyril Tynes and Dr. Mizpah Tertullian, Dr. B.J. Nottage and Charlie Maynard, Henry and Janet Bostwick, Michael Halkitis and Theo Neilly, Charles Carter and Mike Sands, Glenys Hanna-Martin and Pakeisha Parker Edgecombe, and many others. A democracy is as vibrant or as lacking as the citizens of talent and imagination who lend themselves, if only for a season, to the labor and moral risks of representative government.

A great peril of a democracy is when a political party or class is convinced of its near sole proprietorship of a country. The greater peril is when a citizenry acquiesces to such a conceit. To praise politics is to praise the citizenry’s vigilance and insistence on its rightful ownership of our commonwealth.

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