Friday, January 28, 2011
Beyond Polarities: Occupying the "Third Space"
Someone sent me a thank-you note recently which contained a quote by William Hazlitt that I quite loved: "The mind of man is like a clock that is always running down, and requires to be constantly wound up." Hazlitt never knew about blogging (obviously), but the quote captures the state of me and my brain cells these days. Sometimes it is really hard to get into writing-wet-suit gear and dive in.
One thing did wind me up this week. I finally got to see "The King's Speech." and went straight to heaven. You wouldn't think the relationship between a reluctant would-be king who stammers with his speech therapist could take you there but, trust me, it does. I used to think Ralph Fiennes had the best eyes in the business, but now, he has been toppled, just like some Middle East despot. The entire center of gravity in "The King's Speech" emanates from Colin Firth's eyes. They allow you to track the agony of a suffocating affliction in a way that will haunt you forever.
As for my synchronistic hit this past week, it arrived while reading "Don't Look Back," a profile in The New Yorker (by Ryan Lizza) of the 57-year-old, six-term California Republican congressman recently elected Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Darrell Issa. Lizza refers to Issa as "Obama's tormenter," since he is now the head of a committee which "may at any time conduct investigations of any matter." In the middle of the article there was a cartoon inserted of a homeless (or jobless) man sitting comfortably in a chair on the street, his legs crossed, and holding a saw in his hand. Nearby is a sign which says: "Tattoo Removal, $50." Synchronistically the perfect image, I thought to myself, for Republican overkill. Current Republicans have taken reductionist views to the point where if the government takes any positive action, it is considered bad. To be a Republican now means that the government only takes negative actions: cutting taxes, cutting services, cutting regulations, and the like.
Issa is the man who once described Obama as "one of the most corrupt Presidents in modern times," who believes climate change is a fraud, and who has publicly made known his intention to harass the Obama administration with endless subpoenas and investigations, as a way to distract and weaken the President before the 2012 election. Meanwhile House Republicans say they want to cut $100 billion from domestic spending this year, even if it means throwing thousands of federal and state employees out of work. One Republican Study Committee has called for the elimination of the Legal Services Corp., which provides legal help to people who can't afford a lawyer, the elimination of Amtrak, NPR, and NEA subsidies and community development grants, and slashing the federal work force by 15 percent. Darrell Issa intends to be the background music to all this, taunting the alligator and throwing up roadblocks, while Tea Party-backed candidates , in alphabetic order, have served notice that there will be no compromise in matters of federal debt reduction.
One account I read on Ben Smith's Politico blog states that it took less than three weeks for the new Republican Congressional leadership to claim credit for job growth after they had prevented tax increases for the rich. The landslide election, combined with the recent tax vote, they said, had sent a positive signal to businesses and provided the certainty they needed in order to expand.
Right after the midterm "shellacking" that gave Republicans control of the House, New Yorker columnist George Packer predicted that the level of extremism and partisanship would go way up. There would be little mercy and a great deal of rancor, he said, adding that we are facing one of the ugliest political periods in his lifetime.
And then the gun shots rang out in Tucson.
Suddenly, incentives rose for not riding the horses of invective full gallop. Unchecked venom had become a bomb with the fuse lit. I saw the faces of Congressmen on TV that day and the next, and every single one of them looked ashen. The issue of partisanship had taken on a whole new dimension: no one was exempt. Flaws in the democratic system had (once again) revealed themselves as potentially fatal. You could smell the fear in the air. Warfare politics had just produced this sickening testimonial. Yet, in some ways, it was a gift. The President got his unexpected chance, and he took it, and he ran with it.
Stepping into the breach, Barack Obama reverted to his indelible, core posture: occupying the "third space," where people can be civil, exchange ideas, and interweave competitive relationships without rancor. He soothed, he inspired, and in the aftermath, he exemplified the kinds of bridging that will be needed for all future governmental tasks. A lack of civility did not cause this tragedy, the President assured, but only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation. Instead of pointing fingers or assigning blame, he exhorted us to "use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together."
I pull an unread book off the shelf, "Necessary Wisdom: Meeting the Challenges of a New Cultural Maturity" by Charles M. Johnston. Tell me something relevant to what I am writing, I ask, opening the book at random and hoping for something useful to reveal itself. Sometimes this works, sometimes not.
"In chapters ahead," it says on p.75 where my hand falls, "we will examine a wide array of major future social challenges: issues of the environment, ethics, education, labor relations, health care, and more. In every case, we will find traditionally liberal and traditionally conservative viewpoints inadequate either for providing the needed solutions or for even fully framing what needs to be asked. Decisions in times ahead will require an increasing ability to think in terms of the whole living picture."
And from the previous page: "The back-and-forth warfare of partisan politics serves increasingly only to mire our good intentions in bureaucratic gridlock. Left opposed to right is simply not big enough to hold the new questions. More and more we should see leaders setting aside party ideologies to propose programs inconceivable from either side alone and inconceivable even through compromise."
So, if the Tucson tragedy can teach us anything, it will be this germinal truth--in today's world, using a saw to cut the mustard is not going to work. Identifying with one half of a polar opposite and disowning the other is not going to work. This doesn't necessarily mean, as Johnston points out and as our President so astutely understands, being friends with everyone. But it does mean entering into a creatively potent relationship with your adversary. And this is something Our Man in the White House knows how to do better than anybody. He knows how to live in Johnston's "third space." He knows this is the place that will offer a new start for putting together a new picture. Only time will tell whether the rest of us are willing to join him there.