Thursday, September 20, 2012

Hidden Camera Soundbites and Gotcha Politics

By now just about everyone has heard the comments made by Mitt Romney at the fundraiser this spring. People are a little upset. Obviously, putting a specific number on the people who are entitled and lazy was his biggest mistake (although there's some other terribly unfortunate comments on that recording that aren't getting the same kind of press). Making it a specific claim and not a generalization is going to hurt his campaign down the stretch.

However, I'd prefer to talk about the generalization itself. Again, outside the specific number, I thought about the last election and President Obama's comment that some people react to the challenges of society by "clinging to guns and religion."

I'm struck by the similarity of these claims. Obviously they're generalizations from opposite sides of the aisle, politically - but they seem no less important for a solid public debate. The media gets riled up protesting how thoughtless the candidates are for making such outrageously unflattering claims.

The problem is: they're partly true.

I wasn't outraged at Obama for talking about people clinging to guns and religion. I know a lot of those people. It's a natural human reaction. When things seem tumultuous in the world, we seek out security. One of the places people find security is in God - another is in their own ability to control a situation (for many, with a gun). Certainly the President (candidate, at the time) was speaking derogatorily (I'd've preferred compassionately), but the truth of the statement stands.

When I heard about the Romney comments, I was upset at his use of a specific number - that's dangerous territory (especially because - as just about every media outlet in the world has explained - the number is silly) - but I also understood the implication. Some people are overly entitled, steeped in a culture of victimization, and often unwilling to work for what they deem is owed them. This number is far, far below 47% of the population, but it's not zero. I know some of them, too.

I think this response is equally about security. A lot of times these people live in unstable environments, where there's no guarantee of a place to live, food on the table, or a job to go to. As a response, they cling to the idea that society owes them something - and they want government to cash that check. They want the safety and security of (a quite literal) check in the mail.

Romney's lack of compassion is no less troubling than Obama's. Although I suspect that these two, both steeped in ideology and partisan politics, can't fathom why so many people who they'd love to help if they'd just be allowed to do so, could possibly think the other party would do it better. It's more an exasperated frustration over a different way of thinking than it is any real animosity.

From a theological and philosophical perspective (As I've written before) I do think society owes all of us some basic things: healthcare, nutritious food, education, shelter, a full day's work, and a loving community. I'm not convinced government is the way these have to be provided.

When these sorts of honest statements are made public, it is a great opportunity for us as a people to discuss how we want to live. There's a place for discussing how much government intrusion we want in our lives - but beyond that is a discussion of how we want to live with each other.

There is a basic dignity in all persons - something God-given and inherent. We do have a moral obligation (if not an existential one) to treat people in accordance with that dignity.

There exist people in this culture (likely some part of this exists in all of us, as it is indicative of the human condition) people who want the security of being left alone, self-reliant; and there are people who want the security of dependence, that they'll be ok even if they're not able to provide for themselves. Likely we've all experienced both of these desires at one time or another.

It seems that by refusing the acknowledge the truth and validity of both these positions, we're unable to win the right to speak into them - to remind those inclined to self-sufficiency that we need each other and we must stick together in tough times, and to remind those inclined to dependency that they have something essential to contribute.

It's almost as if we use the lack of political correctness as an excuse to avoid hard truths. We want to take the easiest path in times of turmoil; we must not let ourselves or each other do so.

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