Monday, August 8, 2011

Animosity, Revisited

This morning I re-read what I wrote the other day, about the animosity that infects much of the political discourse in this country today. I was prompted to take another look because I was intrigued by the huge response it got at my site on the Huffington Post, when I cross-posted it there. Few of my musings attract as much attention as this one did and I'm grateful, of course, for the conversation.

To judge from the responses, the piece was read primarily as a defense of President Obama, and indeed it was that, in part. But only in part. I thought it was a rather carefully nuanced exploration of what I thought to be attitudes about Obama rather than an assessment of his performance in office. At least I intended it as such. Some readers, though, chose to see what I wrote as an uncritical paean of praise, and a rejection of all arguments to the contrary. They felt the need to reassert their own, sometimes angry, sometimes even bitter judgments of his failure to live up to the promises they believed he had made when seeking their vote. Re-reading my words, I believe that I tried to acknowledge my own disappointments on this score. I myself had wished for faster and more radical change, and am chagrined by what is at best slow progress toward a more humane, just and rational America.

There were others who deplored a perceived weakness, a failure to stand up to the opposition, an overly eager willingness to compromise or, worse, capitulate. My article invoked Sun Tzu's great treatise on military--and political--tactics, The Art of War, as a way of understanding the value, sometimes the necessity of retreat and retrenchment; that working with the opponent's strengths as well as with his weaknesses can make good tactical sense in the right circumstances. We can disagree, of course, on the rightness of the circumstance in the current political stalemate, but surely not on the notion that standing immovably on principle does not inevitably produce the desired results, and may produce the opposite.

In any event, I had not intended to express uncritical support for the President. I agree with those who made the point that he actually needs our criticism. If it was a defense, it was not against the content of the criticism directed against him, but of its self-righteousness and the personal animosity with which it is so frequently expressed. We all have to be so bloody right. We seem unable to conceive of any iota of rightness on the other side, and are as uncritical of our own thinking as those we assail for being so bloody wrong. My plea was for us all to get our egos out of the equation and see our way clear to some thoughtful disagreement and discussion and, yes, compromise, in order to escape the deadlock in which we find ourselves.

Animosity, surely, proceeds from that insistence on me being right and you being wrong. It's this that puts us at odds. One of the greatest lessons I learned was from a wise counselor to whom I had turned to advise me on a difficult, confrontational, and seemingly irresolvable situation which at the time threatened my very livelihood. He picked up a cushion from the couch and asked me what color it was. It was red. No question. Inarguable. "So what if I told you it was blue?" he asked. Well, quite obviously he'd be wrong. No question. It was red. I could see what was in front of my very eyes, couldn't I? So then of course he turned the cushion around and it was blue.

I keep a coin on my desk these days to remind me of this advice. It's painted blue on one side, red on the other. Red coin, blue coin, take your pick. My piece was not about Obama. It was about us, and about the poison we seem willing to inject into our own veins--and into our body politic--with our stubborn animosity and our refusal to see anything but our own side of the coin.

I had to smile when one reader, charmingly, invited me to "put down your tambourine and get a grip." Well, actually, not me, but "you guys"--presumably myself and those who wrote in agreement with what I had to say. He had noted that I come from a Buddhist point of view. So what does the dharma have to do with all this? For me, it's not about religion; the dharma simply offers more reasonable, sensible and practical guidance in politics and political discourse--as in all human matters--than any other source I know. And in my judgment we could use a lot more reason, good sense, and practicality in our political discourse, as well as in our politics today.


mandt said...

Peter, just read the HuffPo----excellent feedback. Clearly people are highly involved. My conclusion: When politics become polite, the battle is lost.

Romany said...

Very, very well said, Peter.

Richard said...

I gave up being right all the time and having the last word. One person can't be right for all of us.

One principle I do try to keep in mind is the one you outline here. Yes the other side might be against us, but that doesn't mean they're stupid or have everything wrong.

I love the cushion and coin story.