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Politics is the Art of Advocacy, Negotiation, & Compromise

vigorous puppy's picture vigorous puppy
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There is no escape from it. Man (in the gender neutral, all-inclusive sense, please) is a political being. As soon as you put two or more people with even slightly conflicting opinions or competing agendas into the same mental, physical, emotional, financial, or moral space, then you've got politics. If in any sense those two or more people share or compete for the same resources, all the more so.

You may hate politics in the macro sense, the level at which we negotiate our working relationships as a society. You may refrain from voting. You may cynically dismiss any claim that a politician is a public servant. You may ridicule the two-party system in American politics for not providing robust and diverse alternatives. You may ridicule Washington politics for its seemingly limitless permeability to well-financed industry lobbyists over the real interests of the American people as a whole. But even your refraining from the vote or your relatively passive and cynical criticisms are political acts. Just weak ones. So, don't vote. Write a novel. Express your feelings. Vent your concerns on a message board. These are all political acts.

Meanwhile, you and your girlfriend are sitting in a coffee shop. You work nights and it's just over two hours until your work shift begins. She wants you to join her for a movie at a theater near your job site and then allow her to drop you off at work so that she can use the car for the rest of the evening. Then she'll come back and pick you up. That's her plan, her agenda.

You don't feel like seeing a movie, you don't find the choice of movie she wants to see appealing, and don't want the stress of the mere 15 minute margin of time you'd have after the movie ends to get to your workplace and clock in. Furthermore, the last time she borrowed the car while you worked, she was half an hour late in picking you up. You would like to sip you coffee, chat with her, maybe take a leisurely walk for 15 or 20 minutes, and then drive her home. The house needs cleaning and she's unemployed and way behind on her share of the chores. She doesn't need to take the car and go shopping for things you can't afford. You want to arrive at work early and leave the minute your shift is over, your car waiting for you in the parking lot and a clean apartment when you get home.

Clearly, there is a conflict of wants here. If you're both adults and relatively sane, you can probably settle this without a knife fight and without third party arbitration and even without splitting up. If you're a decent guy, you can maybe persuade her to save the movie-going until your day off, and allow her the car if she'll promise to be waiting the minute your shift is over. Hopefully, you can do this without pointing out that you own the car, earn the money, and that you're physically bigger and stronger than she is. Hopefully, you can negotiate a compromise that pleases both parties, and you can do so without belittling your mate.

This is human. This is the art of politics.

Dogs don't have it because they don't have complex symbolic interaction and they don't have long-term projects or goals. But humans have language and a concept of tomorrow. We have bills to pay and things that need to get done. Some of those things require cooperation. Some of those projects require more than the intimate negotiations of the couple in the coffee shop. Sometimes we have bridges to build or Nazis to fight or criminals breaking into every parked car in the neighborhood. Sometimes we have home invasions where seventy-year-old men are duck taped to chairs while someone raids the medicine cabinet. Sometimes the duct tape and the wooden chair routine are too humane for the tastes of the criminal, and the old man is bound and gagged and thrown in the trunk of a rusty Buick. Later, he gets dropped from a train trellis into the icy river waiting below. Sometimes that old man is your father or grandfather or the only person on earth who was ever nice to you while you grew up in a bigoted neighborhood.

Sometimes, nothing you can do as an individual makes sense or puts things back in perspective or regroups your faith in life as worth living. Sometimes advocacy, negotiation, and compromise, while necessary considerations, turn out to be futile, because you're dealing with criminals or terrorists who don't care for peace or for reason. So you then have the political decision to make between apathy, private vengeance and vigilante justice (if you're capable of it), or demanding recourse through legal channels.

Sometimes, when you're face-to-face with reality, you'll be glad we have police officers. You'll be glad there's a court system. You'll be glad we have army, navy, and marines. The vicious world we live in requires these things. People who eschew Reason, Humanism, and common decency force our hand. We have to treat their actions seriously without degrading ourselves to the same level.

These are just a few examples of ways in which we can't escape our reality as political beings. Even working for The Cult, much less momentous but still personally felt conflicts occur. Those of us on staff end up negotiating conflicts between strangers. Well, let's not say "strangers." Near strangers. Acquaintances who often haven't met in the flesh. Colleagues, rivals, debating partners. Yet here we are, sharing a mental, emotional, intellectual space, devoting our free time to one another. It's at least as intimate as sharing a meal. This forms the fabric of a community, albeit unbounded by geography and many other conventional markers, linked only through some common interests. Nonetheless, this means politics. We have a community and we want a community where people can disagree respectfully and express themselves on points of difference to heart's content. Ideally, we hope, people can express themselves intelligently and well, and without undue personal rancor or vitriol.

If I'm moderating a dispute, my action is not the action of a private business person, hoping to smooth a conflict between two customers in the self-interested hope that both remain my customers. If one party in a dispute has a free membership and always will, while the other spends the meager 40 bucks a year for access to the Workshop and Writers' Resources we provide, this doesn't make the slightest damn difference to me. I will evaluate the merits of each argument, to the extent I feel compelled to get involved in the bloody thing at all, without the slightest concern for the virtually non-existent financial ramifications. The Cult as a business is an incredibly marginal entity relative to The Cult as a community. It's community involvement and community service that keep me here, often spending more time on these boards than I can really afford or justify.

And people do things like that. We are community seeking, community supporting, community building and sometimes even altruistic in our actions. We have our own personal motivations, to be sure, but these motivations aren't always base or narrowly self-interested. On the other hand, so much of human life is, emphatically, nasty and narrowly self-interested. America is a country of Business, serious Business, money-making, money-hoarding Business. And through the lens of Business, the little guy is either a tool, a customer, or an impediment. Business, per se, will use every last drop of your vital fluid, and then cast you aside and select someone new. How is it, I wonder, that the ultra-right wing faction, so politically vocal on these forums, those voices of distrust that revile politics to the nth degree of paranoia, yet fail at all times to bring a voice of dissent or even criticism against the evils, abuses, excesses, and thinly veiled slavery commenced in cubicles every day in the name of commerce and considered normal by big and completely inhuman and icy corporations. The voice of the Left, of political necessity and contingency that we cannot escape, of freedom achieved only through solidarity and a realistic appraisal of our predicament-- where is that Voice? Who speaks here in the name of Human Culture? Where is a single voice that proclaims Culture as superior to mere commerce? Who will say that collective political will and advocacy is a necessary antidote to the abuses and excesses of Capitalism? Where is that voice? It's a human voice, even more subtle sometimes than my own, musical without Wagnerian Romantic excess, flutelike and yet reasonable, pleasing and more euphonious than my own coarse growl, and not heard in these corridors nearly often enough.