Saturday, November 13, 2010
The Sound of One Hand Clapping
As President Obama doubles down on civility and extends post-election olive branches to the GOP, leading Republicans have sent warnings to the administration to prepare for constant investigations and ideological stand-offs. A cartoon entitled "Reaching Out" in my local paper pictures Obama, with his long arm outstretched to shake hands, standing opposite an unpleasant, big, snarling dog, whose teeth are bared. The collar around the dog's neck bears the name of Mitch McConnell.
"Welcome to the Great American Cleaving," NY Times columnist Charles M. Blow wrote this week--where talking across the table has been reduced to yelling across the chasm and where, instead of moving toward the middle, we are drifting toward the extremes. Republicans are not looking for compromise. The new Republican majority comes to power with a sour intention to make no deals and take no prisoners. They are not consensus-builders, Blow says. "That ripping sound you hear is the fabric of a nation."
Welcome to the world of once overlapping bipartisanship, transformed now into the sound of one hand clapping.
What is the sound of one hand clapping anyway? It's the most famous example of a Zen koan, i.e., a kind of paradoxical riddle that resists being solved by rational thought. When meditated on, koans are meant to help the mind transcend ordinary thought patterns and arrive at a more enlightened place. But can the mind, which is always bound by dualities, ever transcend the law of opposites? Definitely not these days, it seems. The American public is hardly in a meditative frame of mind. Instead, it is bloodthirsty. And the result, according to Hendrick Hertzberg,, "is a kind of political cognitive dissonance." For Obama and for the country, he claims, the next two years look awfully bleak. There will be no more transformative legislation.
A friend sends me a quote by Epictetus. "You can be happy if you know the secret: some things are within your power to control and some things are not." Obama may be unable to control the Republicans--who may, or may not, be able to control the Tea Party (we don't know the final story on that yet). But at the deepest level, he obviously has an inner conviction that the presidency carries with it certain responsibilities and obligations with respect to the office, one of them being the supreme importance of bipartisanship. It is, after all (and always has been), the very bedrock of American constitutional democracy. Bipartisanship is an institutional fact, meaning, there is good reason to respect those powers even if we don't feel like it--and to find, as Obama so eloquently puts it himself, "the sweet spot that works for both."
But what happens to the presidential ethos when one half of the government "goes rogue?" What happens when absolutely nobody wants to buy what your selling? When even your erstwhile supporters criticize you for continuing to dance long after the music has stopped? What happens when you intend to still keep these principles in mind, even while your critics accuse you of "endless placation?"
Obama's critics feel he is sounding more and more like a broken record, given that the time when Republicans would consider compromise with a Democratic president is long gone. What the White House seems to have forgotten, according to one commentator, Trey Ellis, on the Huffington Post, is that "we elected a commander-in-chief, not [a] mediator-in-chief. A mediator rarely offers his own opinions but steers both sides toward civility." Ellis goes on to offer the telling example of Obama's response to the new Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, when Boehner declared that the recently enacted health-care bill "will kill jobs in America, ruin the best health care system in the world, and bankrupt the country." Obama's response was that "There are going to be examples where, I think, we can tweak and make improvements on the progress that we made." He meant to show his willingness to improve on the bill, but not to repeal it.
Really? Ellis is appalled. '"The president and I are both writers," he states. "He should know better. Does he really think he can battle active verbs like, 'kill,' "ruin,' and 'bankrupt' with, what, 'tweak'?"
"Therein lies the tragedy of Barack Obama," in the opinion of one of my favorite bloggers, Tom Degan. "He has tried to maintain the appearance of being 'above it all.' He has tried to be too much of an amiable gentleman--when he should have been fighting these plutocratic thugs with all the rhetorical thunder he could muster...The last thing in the world [Obama] wants to do at this stage in the game is to even think about 'working with' these reactionary assholes. As history tells us, that's impossible. He must realize this by now. Or does he?"
This is, indeed, the historic Zen koan of our day. "Mr. President," Degan further exhorts, "you cannot--you will not-- be able to 'meet them halfway.' Don't be an idiot. By now it should be obvious to you that they want to destroy you. And they will destroy you--if you allow them to."
"To fight or not to fight?" Obama must be asking himself the Hamlet question even as I write. This is a man who, when he ceremoniously took the political podium, dug in his heels as the very embodiment of a post-racial, post-partisan, post-red-state and blue-state America. This is a man who believes, above all, in the value of finding common ground, points of agreement, and "overlap." When it doesn't work, as someone pointed out, he keeps on doing it. Meanwhile, a post-election CBS news poll determined that Americans are clamoring for compromise--more than 70% of those polled want Obama and congressional Republicans to make concessions and work together. Such is the nature of political koans at a time when many people would rather torment the president than actually accomplish the business of governing.
Last week, my friend Jane Vance sent me this detail (see above) of two overlapping goblets from one of her new paintings. It was just after I'd visited her, and she served me wine in the most extravagantly beautiful ruby-red glass I had ever seen. In truth, I couldn't get over how beautiful they were. Jane told me the glasses were a recent present from a friend. Then, on my email a few days later, this image arrived, and my first thought was, what a perfect metaphor for bipartisanship. I wrote her back, saying, "You'll just have to endure your glasses becoming politicized, because that's the lens through which I see everything these days."
Jane wrote back, "My goblets can handle politicization. The intoxication of proximity and the exhilaration of contact: these are the venerable political and personal arts we would do well, with our best goblets, to celebrate."
Ah yes, I thought, of course. If only it were, but it's so absolutely not, what is happening over there on Vinegar Hill.