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.


Anonymous said...

One of your best! You have tracked Obama's approach to leading this nation from the campaign until now with tireless awareness. The "third space" is a useful invitation for all of us since many of us may not have known that our morality had an imagination!

Anonymous said...

Much less venomous than usual.

Anonymous said...

A great leader lures our collective gaze upon that which most needs to be seen.

Sometimes we need to see difference. We must look deeply into those we most trust and admire - our political parties, our nation, our religious organizations - and have the courage to criticize, and the resolve to demand accountability.

Sometimes we need to see commonality. We must look deeply into those we most distrust and dispise - our enimies of all stripe - and have the humility to forgive, and the selflessness to identify with the broader, human family.

The challenge for great leaders is that in those moments when we most need to look honestly at our closest allies, we are blinded by the safety of tribalism. And when we most need to see the humanity in others, we are engulfed by self-righteous rage. No one recognized the importance of the national gaze more than Lincoln, and no one was more willing to direct it while ignoring the inherent political risks than he.

Obama has some of these instincts. I don't know how successful his policies will ultimately be. I believe, though, that his ability and willingness to transcend our national whims and draw our eyes to something beyond our immediate emotional investment will serve this nation in ways we hardly recognize at the moment.

It's been a long time since we've seen true political leadership in this country. Perhaps we've forgotten what it looks like.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this observation and your article, Suzi. As a citizen of Tucson and member of Congresswoman's Steering Committee, I welcome the new conversation and Tucson is already entering the discussion of new civil discourse from all parties, and feel that the President's speech recently was the call to move forward that important conversation.
We are ready to initiate leadership in that arena.

The new discourse must surely be the defining term of the future -- "leadership in the 'third space.'

Let the conversation begin!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, Suzi, for your observations and this article. As a citizen of Tucson and a member of Congresswoman Giffords' steering committee, the need for a new civil discourse has been strikingly apparent. The Congresswoman had already begun to work in that area -- and was working on both sides of the aisle.

Efforts have already been initiated throughout our university, civic and business community to open a new conversation, and appreciate our President's call to live up to our children's dreams of how our country could be. I will disseminate your article and the book you mention. We are moving beyond our geographic space to a much broader platform.

Let the new leadership of the future -- "the third way" -- begin.