September 2010

  [NOTICE that I wrote this before the November 2010 midterm election, when Democrats (briefly) held leadership in the Senate, House, and Presidency. I'm sorry to say I was much too prophetic. Unfortunately, it's still pertinent for upcoming elections.]

  This essay is about politics, not religion, but if you are a subscriber to, or are interested in, the teachings of Jesus, you might think a bit on one of my favorite Bible scenes. It's in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 10. Let me set it up for you: Jesus is getting his disciples (his followers, his staff) ready to go out and be his representatives in the world. He's not going to be around, so it will be their job to get his message out, and hopefully get it out the way he wants. He tells them that it's not going to be an easy job. ("Some won't welcome you, or listen to what you have to say.") More than that, it may get downright hostile ("I'm sending you out like sheep among wolves.") He gives them two pieces of advice: first, do your best, but if anybody's not interested, move along. ("Shake the dust of the place off your feet.") Second, all the time you're out there for me you should be [and here's my favorite verse] "wise as serpents, and harmless as doves."

  Other translations of that phrase in other versions of the Christian bible include:
-Be shrewd as serpents, and innocent as doves
-Be sensible like serpents and guileless like doves
-Be shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves
-Be wary as serpents and innocent as doves; and finally, from "The Amplified Bible:"
-Be wary and wise as serpents, and be innocent - harmless, guileless and without falsity - as doves.

  I'm not going to get into a discussion of whether snakes really are wise, and doves really innocent. Take those adjectival descriptions for what they are: old, old labels that have saddled the poor animals with human traits. I want to talk about Jesus' point, which I think is this:

He recommended an approach to life that is one of cooperation (working together, reconciliation, giving benefit of the doubt, understanding, healing wounds and not causing new ones).


He was saying that this kind of meekness only works if applied within a framework of moral and intellectual toughness (know where you're headed, understand the situation within which you're living and working, demand accountability of yourself and of others, discern other people's motivations, work for that magical "level playing field"). Be nice, but be smart. Be smart, but be nice.

  Can we apply Jesus' approach to politics and the governance of our country? I think so. If the biblical overtones bother you, forget about Jesus and just think of the advice as a model for good business administration and good "people skills." Believe me, our country is never going to come back together again until we are able to combine a whole lot of snake shrewdness with a whole lot of dove innocence.

  The modern-day Republican Party has shown us that they are snake shrewd. Looking from the outside in, it appears that they always have an agenda, and members support that agenda, or else. It seems that individual thought is disapproved of, and often punished. Party leaders are clearly adept at blocking any ideas not their own, and of using almost any means to get what they want. I didn't say they were as "wise" or as "sensible" as serpents, but they certainly are shrewd. Smart? Yes. The dove part (you know, nice)? Well, not so much.

  The modern-day Democratic Party, on the other hand, is the epitome of niceness. Democrats welcome diversity in just about everything; in fact, encourage it. They are the cooperators; the "let bygones be bygones" people; the "let's look ahead, not back" group; the "let's find common ground," and "let's look out for the little guy" party. Sounds pretty Jesus-y nice, right? What about the wise as serpents bit? Well, not so much.

  I won't say any more about the Republicans here. We've had most of the last 30 years to observe their serpent-to-dove ratio at work. It's the Democrats who are now (by numerical definition, anyway) in control and in the leadership role. How is that working out? So far, the signals are definitely mixed.

  I voted for Barak Obama because he was the only choice available that wouldn't have given us four more years of lots of snake shrewdness and no dove innocence. But he was close to my last choice among the Democrats who started in the race for the nomination. (Once again, our long, long, long, money-driven, attrition-based primary system had forced those who might have been the best candidates out of the race before most of the Nation had a chance to vote for them.) I didn't want him as my choice because - although he was clearly going to be far, far better than his Republican opponent - his philosophy seemed to be to stop further damage, but not to forge ahead. What I have seen so far bears out my early feelings; I see some shrewdness, for sure, but it is the political type, play-your-cards-right shrewdness - not the let's-really-make-a-difference type. I don't think that's what we need. Here's my take on what appear to be the two key elements of the currently favored Democratic modus operandi.

*   *   *

  "Let's move on." We hear this almost every day from President Obama or from one of the others in Democratic leadership. The ideas behind it seem to be: first, since we can't change the past, we need to look to the future; and second, the country has had enough; we need to heal. Is this "dove innocence?" You bet; what could be more reconciling than "let bygones be bygones?" It sounds good, but let's test it in a few specific circumstances.

  A drunk driver has crashed into another car, and killed three people - "We can't change the past." 

  A husband has beaten his wife so badly, she's in the emergency ward - "Let's move on, and let the relationship heal." 

  Your daughter has taken a drug overdose - "That was yesterday." 

  A man is bleeding to death from an accident - "It was just a freak event; probably won't happen again." 

  A friend gets mad, and calls you a son of a bitch - "sticks and stones will break my bones, but..."

  The truth is, you can't just forget the past. Both the law and human understanding tell us it's wrong to let the drunk driver go without some kind of reaction. The whole history of humankind tells us that spousal abuse does not heal itself. If your child almost dies from taking drugs, you're probably going to want to know why. Freak accident or not, the bleeding man will die if you don't deal with his "past." Despite the old "names will never hurt me" protestation, they do hurt and they do jeopardize (sometimes, end) friendships.

  The Democrats were recently elected to the Presidency and to a majority in both houses of Congress because over half the people who voted felt the country needed a change in direction. That's politics. But this time around, the concerns weren't just that politics were becoming "too liberal" or "too conservative." There was a strong feeling in the country that power was being misused, ethically and perhaps criminally. Allegations include violations of civil rights, false imprisonment, torture, lying to Congress, waste and fraud in government contracting, and failure to enforce laws meant to protect the public. There was also major concern that the needs of the majority of the public were being neglected - that The Government was working only for Big Business and Personal Gain. The outcome of the election was clearly not about "Vote Democrat;" it was about "Vote Change."

  Did the past Administration act immorally or unethically? Many of us think so. Did they act criminally? Many of us suspect they did. Are we out for revenge or retribution, and do we wish to embarrass them? I don't deny a certain desire to "see the bastards get what they deserve," but I don't think that's the principal motivation for wanting past practices discussed, analyzed, and acted upon if warranted. I think the voters for change recognize that "looking ahead" only works if you've first "looked behind." Bruises and scratches do heal themselves in time - maybe with a band-aid or a little ointment thrown in - but major ills require significant treatment, often including surgery. Our country has been through a period of MAJOR ILLS, and it won't heal itself.


  The other major operating principle of the Obama Administration to date has been to strive to achieve unity across party lines, to reestablish cooperation and bipartisanship. That certainly sounds "dovey," but how about the serpent quotient? On a scale of one to ten, I'd put them somewhere well below "one." Personally, I call their approach just plain stupid. We have had years of experience with the Republican mentality to know just exactly how much they "cooperate," and that amounts to not at all. When I think about how the Democrats have so far squandered their "majority," and about how weak and ineffectual every Democratic "win" has been (think, health care, for example), pictures from three old stories come to mind:

  In Picture One, Charley Brown is about to kick the football that Lucy is holding for him. He knows - he has to know, after all these years - that she is going to release the football just as he kicks at it, and he's going to fall on his ass. Yet, something compels him to think that this time will be different. Score 10 for the doves, 0 for the snakes.

  Picture Two, a man is in an otherwise empty room, arguing with himself. Every time he gets a good idea, he argues himself out of it. He tries to think of every possible objection - valid or bullshit - that might come up. Without leaving the room and finding out what the real issues are, he makes a decision that accepts as valid every premise his alter ego brought up. [I'm not sure I even give him a good Dove Score on this one; surely doves aren't that stupid.]

  Last Picture: Two rival college football teams are scheduled to play the Big Game. The visiting team gets snowed in, and never makes it to the game. The home team finally wins (by a field goal) in double overtime.

  In fairness to the Democratic Administration and Congress, they have scored a field goal or two but, even with the Republican team sitting on the sidelines, they haven't yet managed a touchdown. This seems to me a serious situation, with time rapidly running out in the game (i.e., approaching the mid-term elections). The Republicans need only one good score to win this particular confrontation, and send the Democrats back to minority status. If recent surveys mean anything, and if traditional mid-term voter apathy keeps Democrats and independents away from the polls, that one good Republican score seems almost inevitable.

  The disillusion and disappointment of losing - and after only two years - the chance to set the United States back on a positive track would be crushing. I suspect it would be the end of any progressive movement in the country for the forseeable future. But even worse than "losing" is what we and the country will get with the current group of Republicans if they "win." I'm not usually an alarmist, but I think we could be looking back on the Reagan-Bush years with a certain wistful nostalgia, if the Republicans enact even a little part of what they claim to want for the country.

I started with a bible story; let me finish with another one, this one a pretty scary one if put in the context of our current situation in this country. In Matthew 12:43-45, Jesus tells a story of a man freed from an "unclean spirit." The man wanders around for awhile, but doesn't find anything that satisfies him, so he returns to his previous condition. But he doesn't just go back to dealing with one "demon;" he brings back with him "seven other spirits more wicked than himself," and "the last state of that man is worse than the first."

I have a feeling that those "seven other spirits" are already waiting at the door. Time is running out for some "snake smartness" to arrive at Democratic Headquarters.




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