Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Middle Politics

I get a bit nervous whenever I let this blog venture towards politics. Partially, that’s because, no matter what I say (or, how wonderfully intelligently I may say it) I know that I’m going to anger at least a few people, and probably start a long, often interesting, but often frustrating comment stream*. Mainly, though, it’s because I’m not a political expert, nor am I a political pundit, and I try to stay away from pretending that I am. Too many Rabbis have gone wrong by assuming that, just because we’re experts in one area, and get to talk about it, publically, quite a bit, we must equally be experts in other areas, as well.

* interestingly, my Facebook feed of this blog tends to get many more comments than the actual comment section on the blog. Someone should figure out how to unify those two into one stream…

But, that apology aside, I’ll risk another foray into political-land. I read an article this morning in The New Republic which I found interesting, in large part because it says something about politics that I’m often trying to say about religion: it’s best when it lays somewhere in the middle.

In talking about Libertarian Rand Paul, who has been in the news quite a bit of late, the article tries to deconstruct what, exactly, is wrong with his politics. And, in doing so, it describes all politics as the balance between two valid desires: the Hobbesian desire for a government to protect us from injustice in the world, and the Lockean desire to protect us from injustice perpetrated by the government itself.

Taken to an extreme, the Hobbesian pole leads to totalitarianism, while the Lockean pole terminates in the quasi-anarchism of the night watchman state.

One of the recurrent themes in my teaching (including here on this blog) is the utter importance of balance, of finding the truth between the two extremes. The world is never black and white; it is always gray. Truth always lies away from the edges – the extremes contain truth, to be sure, but it’s a truth which is usually wrong because of it’s single-mindedness. Think of it, if you like metaphors, as an overwhelmingly powerful spice: disgusting if taken alone, in its pure form; wonderful and enriching if used in moderation along with other flavors.

Well, as someone who always likes to see the virtue in “the other side” I really appreciate the way that this article points out that political disputes in this country are often not between right and wrong; they’re more often between which of those two poles will win out. Do we want to err on the side of the government protecting us, or on the side of protecting ourselves from government? Do we want to risk the government oppressing us, or do we want to risk the world oppressing us?

Most of those debates will continue to go on, of course. How we balance those two poles will always be one of the factors which divide our political world. But, seen through this lens, it becomes apparent that the only guaranteed mistake is to not seek a balance at all, and try to find the answer in either extreme:

Those who give up on that effort and seek instead to realize one notion of justice to the exclusion of the other are history’s political mischief-makers. When untempered by Lockean considerations, the pursuit of Hobbesian justice justifies tyranny in the name of moral righteousness. It is thus a serious danger and a potent threat to civilized life and human freedom. The single-minded pursuit of Lockean justice, by contrast, with its paranoia about imagined wrongs and relative indifference to expressions of actual human suffering, is merely callously ridiculous.

It’s as good of a guideline as any: don’t trust the extremists. Ever.

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