Sunday, May 31, 2009


This blog is an attempt to think through the subject 'politics' to its conclusions, which may be variously labeled ontological, anthropological, hermeneutic, and theological. This means that at different times I will take politics to be about the orders and varieties of being, the cultural and evolutionary forms of human survival and flourishing, the interpretation and meaning of textual events, and the existential situation of human beings in relation to God.

My beliefs about politics stand in a perplexed and unresolved relationship to Catholic theology, but I would like to begin with the question of why I am fascinated by the political, and especially how this subject directly involves me in fantasies about power and my own feelings of powerlessness. In my daily experience, the persons who hold political power command a great deal of my attention. I read about them in online newspapers and listen to stories about them on the radio for several hours each day, and I talk about them constantly with friends and family. Their decisions matter to me a great deal, as do the explanations and justifications they give for those decisions. Choices about who has access to information, i.e., what is disclosed and to whom, bring figures from the media into play as equal objects of my interest. Most of the time I simply take this level of interest for granted and oblige the people around me to adjust to it.

In terms of my personal history, I was raised in a politically active culture in which being informed and expressing one's opinions on public affairs was a part of coming of age. My culture taught me to value political and intellectual independence, to hold unpopular beliefs in the face of opposition, and to use blunt sarcasm as a tool for gaining the floor and criticizing poor reasoning. Since I was raised in a very politically progressive culture, it was only natural that I rebelled against it during adolescence by becoming an outspoken libertarian. When I converted to Christianity in early adulthood, I renounced that position entirely and became a consistent advocate for a leftist approach to social justice issues. It is my firm belief that if Jesus' earthly ministry were to take place today, he would be rightly regarded as a threat to our socio-economic system, and so I can find no kinship with those who identify as Christians but give their support to the most extreme and brutal policies undertaken in the name of global capitalism.

I was a seminary student on the morning of September 11th, 2001, when terrorists used the airport less than seven miles from my house as a launching pad for murderous, sensational attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. The unmistakable intent of the terrorists was that the attacks be taken as a political event, not a criminal act, and that message made an indelible impression on me. In an enormously sensitive way, it made me acutely aware of my vulnerability as the subject of a particular political order, raising the twin questions in my adult consciousness of whether my government had provoked the attacks, and why God would have allowed them. This means that for me, what came under attack on 9/11 was the sanctity of reason itself, of a creation ordered for a purpose by a good God. I felt stripped of all comfort and dignity, painfully exposed to the fact of something deeply disordered in the fundamental form of my social, political, and economic life. My desire, then, was to understand it so that I could free myself from the pain and fear that I felt so strongly.

What I "learned" from the 9/11 attacks was a political message cast like a die into my emotional consciousness. It said that the world was under new management, that men of no conscience had assumed responsibility for its most personal and intimate details, and that I was powerless to challenge any of their decisions. From now on, they would decide all of the important questions, including power over life and death. My response was not to challenge this basic premise, but to join the resistance, as it were. I felt the painful loss of a metaphysical order - I intended to restore it. I felt marginalized and persecuted - I was determined to pronounce judgment against those whose passivity and complicity enabled the new regime. I felt demoralized - I would sacrifice myself as part of a secret plan to redeem the world from violence.

From this flowed all of the contradictions of my adult life. I became torn between irreconcilable desires, all driven by wild guesses about how to stop the pain: whether to restore the omnipotence of God or lead a revolt against it, whether to seek worldly success or lose myself in obscurity, whether to wed the secular and the sacred or divvy up their assets, whether to risk acknowledging my darkest emotions or dissolve them into the transcendence of a world-historical process beneath whose shadow I could remain safely formless and abstract. Perhaps most obvious to anyone who has listened closely during these past seven and a half years is that I cannot decide whether I am afraid that God is judging America or disappointed that she is not.

The seductive power of these contradictions is increasingly obvious to me. Thinking about politics feels like hoping for redemption. Imagining the miraculous restoration of a future order is like picturing a shortcut leading from the painful realities of the present to the fulfillment of my desires, without ever having to name them as such and so risk having to renounce them to the inexorable logic of internal self-criticism. In that metaphysical vision lie refurbished fantasies from my childhood: the public vindication of a prophet who was once a boy, the stunning ascent from prodigy to genius, the narcissistic gaze of the media illuminating at long last the manifold injustices to which I had been so cruelly subjected.

I have become so good at rehearsing my powerlessness that it's hard to remember I ever did anything else. This is especially ironic given my strong defense of publicly held values over private, and my criticism of religious and political cultures that base themselves on secrecy. The statements from pragmatists such as William James on the efficacy of true knowledge feel right to me, properly oriented towards the future and the common good, and I deeply want to believe in them. Yet it is unavoidably true that my fascination with the political betrays an erotic attachment to secret knowledge, one which exacts an enormous and painful cost. It is the lure of anonymity, the implied promise of a transaction in which my superiority to the ignorant masses is privately assured.

What I live with as the obverse of this is the continual anxiety that pervades everyone with something to hide: the fear of exposure, of losing what I've most sought to keep hidden, of public ridicule and humiliation, of having my prized possession used against myself by the same persons I hold in contempt. No secret society is safe enough for the recluse, the paranoiac nursing proofs of obscure grudges and triumphs, for the bizarre perfectionist waiting until the day that the impossible project is completed before unveiling it to the world. For that individual, appearances must be carefully manipulated in order to prevent the truth from being disclosed by the wrong person, at the wrong time. Living that life has become for me far too painful and costly, and the risk for the future is even greater.

My hope for this blog is that it may become one part of a larger project of reconnection and human interaction. I do not find anything inherently wrong with my belief that the political is one aspect of human life through which a loving God may be revealed, as long as there are many others.