The following thoughts are not a commentary on politics, but rather a politics on commentary. In the course of reading thoughts and debates amongst my peers on current political issues, I do not claim to have all the right answers, but I can tell when someone really has no answer. When it comes to claiming one’s position, especially in the realms of politics and religion, I think it fair to say we have fallen into a state of “sound byte” or “bumper sticker” philosophy, where holistic ideas are replaced with short, witty statements or singular words that bear either a positive or negative sentiment. Unfortunately, due to the quick excitement of wit and the ease of not expanding one’s attention span, short quips once endowed with great meaning have been emptied. Thinking has been replaced by a shell, the image of thinking. It is in regards to this image that I write today.
When people speak on either side of a political issue, especially as highlighted in the recent government shut down, the word “bipartisanship” continues to recur like the empty clanging of a tin bell. Everyone in the television news thinks we need more bipartisanship, so naturally everyone who watches the television news thinks we need more bipartisanship, and to this moment I have not the slightest clue what these people are talking about. Bipartisanship might simply refer to respectful talk and debate on a topic. We would certainly prefer if our representatives talked with each other, but as is made clear in diplomacy and history, not talking remains a legitimate tactic to achieving one’s ends, and talking does not ensure agreement, especially when the two parties wish they were not talking. Probably, bipartisanship would be better defined by its intention, that is, the ability to compromise and come to a mutual decision. Clearly agreement and compromise is a rightful political measure, but what shall our two parties agree upon? If the question is whether to chop off one’s arm at the shoulder or not, is the compromise to chop off the hand? If one relies on the principle that maintaining a full and operative limb is necessary for healthy living, where we place the stub on the mutilated arm makes little difference, especially when returning to its prior state is impossible. Assume we compromise and chop off the hand and oddly things do not bode well. The only reasonable next action in that situation (or so would say the pundits) would be to continue to chop further and further up the arm since we cannot restore the hand anyway. Ideally, the condition should get better at later state as the original argument dictated it would. They would declare that things are not better because we have not progressed enough. However, on returning to first principles, we realize this argument is flawed. Under what pressure do we claim that a man should abandon his first principles?
And here we discover the next empty word, that doctrine known as progress. Notice the argument employed to continue mutilation of the limb relies on its necessity, or its eventual continuation and its inability to return to a previous state. Progress has become an argument in itself. How often do the moderns speak of making progress, or criticizing those who hinder progress? People prefer to be moving in some direction, but when two parties disagree inherently on that direction, compromising a principle is no compromise at all. If two men, bound together, found themselves at a crossroads, and one believes quite strongly the best route goes east, and the other is rather convinced the correct route leads west, it is difficult for me to see how going north or south accomplishes anything. More often, we find the plea is the case of stalemate, where one party argues, “From here we shall go nowhere, let us go East, for it is better than sitting still.” But his companion would again look at his map and argue that East would lead to despair, that only West shall accomplish anything worthwhile. The man wishing to go east may make some form of compromise, perhaps offering some food and a promise that at the next intersection they can follow his lead. The problem is, at the next intersection, they follow the same man east once more. If the path eventually leads directly off a cliff, I would argue remaining at an unmoving stalemate would be the second man’s moral obligation to ensure. The argument of progress can easily be used to lead us to either heaven or hell, because progress alone is a doctrine solely of movement, which is temporary, and not of an end state, which can be much more permanent. The question in this form of argument is not one of bipartisanship or progress, but rather one of who is holding their map upside down.
An intelligent friend of mine once remarked to me that the United States should be more like Europe in its politics, where there is much greater consensus and much less extremism. Apparently, there are fewer radicals and fringe groups in places of power in Europe. For example, the Tea Party in the United States fills the papers and headlines in our time as the radical right-wing fringe group, but there is no modern day Jacobin movement in France or any British party wishing to restore the Empire. But from where has the modern Tea Party grown? If the modern Tea Party is based on anything, it is based on principles and a rejection of the current political mold, a mold only based on principles when it suits its adherents (in other words, not based on principles). Principles commonly act like dogmas: They are difficult to change and refute once accepted and appear as madness to those who are foreign to them. However, it was not good politics, but principles (right or wrong) that drove several minor colonies to revolt against the most powerful Empire in the world in 1776. Such dogmas are madness to the modern’s skeptical mind, but they are a madness more effective and enduring than the softness of modernity. The problem has never been extremists in politics; the problem has been finding the central position. How can we declare insanity when we cannot yet define sanity? Good politics fail to impress me; good principles, popular or not, always do. Europe may not have any fringe groups, but we may in a grand historical perspective find their center dangerously far left with no hope of returning to a sense only found outside of the modern perspective. In short, the labels of “radical” and “fringe” do not make any declaration on what is right or what is true, and when used alone to form a point, are more akin to ad hominem than any real argument. Perhaps the absence of a notable left-wing fringe group in the media reveals that we are member to the left-wing fringe.
In concluding, my purpose in writing this, if anyone will read it, is only to express my frustration with the use of “bipartisanship”, “progress”, and “radicalism” as arguments and reasons for such and such in current debates. They are buzzwords with no inherent intellectual value, but carrying a grand amount of public sentiment. As principles in themselves, I believe them inextricably flawed. When a movement progresses that thinks differently from your own, whether right or wrong, there generally exists some truth or goodness to be gained from it, and the use of such words to ignore them entirely is a hypocritical blow to thought. Define your principles and why you believe them. Then ask yourself, if the entire world demanded you abandon them because you were the only one who held them, would you? In the words of Chesterton, “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”