Today is the Primary election in my home state of Connecticut, and of course I went and voted. As the prophet says: always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote.
I have written before about my passion for participatory self-government and Party politics. I wrote about why I am a Democrat, ten years ago, and I agree with everything I said back then. I might say it even more strongly now, if I were able to conjure the words. I can at least say it again.
I believe that politics is about community. I think that community is more important than any one policy or any bundle of policies; I think that community is more important than good government, honesty and integrity, or even peace and prosperity. The greatness of the election today is not that I voted—who cares about me?—but that we voted. We are all together in this. Every vote counts, but nobody’s vote counts for very much as a single vote. I don’t want to live in a nation where any one person gets to decide who runs the government, even if that person were me. In another note from that time, I wrote about holding your nose and voting, in which I said (and still believe) that searching for a perfect candidate was not only a waste of time an energy but was actually antithetical to our Madisonian system. The system wants us to settle on compromise candidates, who perhaps none of us really like but enough of us think is Good Enough, rather than holding out for some personal ideal that isn’t widely shared.
Today, I was thinking a little further along those lines, about how being part of a community means, to me, being able to focus outside myself for a bit. I’m not just talking about political Parties, of course. We’re part of a zillion communities, each of us, or at least I hope we are. I do amateur drama, which we in this country actually call community theater, so it’s right there in front of me all the time, but I’m also in a family and a town and a workplace and a circle of friends. I’m in a couple of social networks, which are their own sorts of communities. I’m a Giants fan, and a fan of speculative fiction generally and a handful of writers particularly, and I’m a fan of Elvis Costello and the Klezmatics. Some of those communities involve more or less active participation on my part, but they all have moments where what I want at the moment is different from other people want.
Politics is about community, and community is about not always getting what you want. I’m a member of a synagogue, and I’m in larger communities of Jews, including the local Hartford community, American Jewry and Jews all over the world, as well as the community of the Reform movement and of the Ashkenazic heritage, and the historic community of generations. I have strong feelings about what’s important to me within those communities, and there are surely times and sub-communities where I don’t want to be in community with folk who want different things, sure. But I can absolutely sit down and pray with people who use the wrong tune to yismachu. Somewhere in there is a balance, or a series of balances, where my preferences and priorities and other people’s preferences and priorities can be temporarily satisfied, and I can be part of a community, even if I’m right about yismachu and they are wrong.
There’s always a terrible temptation to act as if my own feelings (and comforts and prejudices) are worth defending just because they are mine, and that others’ are not, just because they are not mine. There’s a temptation to block an intersection so that nobody can gain that extra car length that I deserve, and in truth the guy who is cutting in front of me doesn’t deserve it any more than I do, so why not? But if I can see the traffic as a community, not perhaps quite a voluntary one but a community anyway, and ease up on my own place and think more about the flow of all the cars, I can see why blocking the intersection is an asshole move.
For fifteen years or so I’ve had, in the back of my head, a notion sparked by the Judith Shklar essay Putting Cruelty First: that there is a difference between people who consider the chiefest of the besetting vices to be cruelty and those who consider it to be pride. Pride, in this case, being the sin from which all other sins derive, as the proud man puts himself above any restriction or rule. I should re-read that essay every few years; it’s a good one, and don’t (seriously, don’t) take my notion of it as being Prof. Shklar’s fault in any way. That notion, erroneous as it may be in the interpretation of the essay, is that Prof. Shklar felt that the religious/conservative mindset put pride in first place, and the atheist/liberal mindset put cruelty first, and that much derives from that distinction. As a religious/liberal, of course, I have issues with the whole thing… She writes that “may be one of the costs of putting cruelty first [… is it] leads to an ethic for isolates.”
More and more, I think, I’ve come to the notion that she’s right about that, and that it’s a real and serious problem for the whole notion of putting cruelty first. More and more, particularly as I fear that our national love for democracy, for participatory self-governance, is waning, I value community—and pride, to me, is not the pride of putting myself above the Divine and the Rule, but of putting myself above the community. More and more, I see the problems of people who care a great deal about being right and a lot less about being part of something bigger than themselves. Or perhaps it’s that more and more I find I don’t care very much about being right.
The primary election (remember that?) is part of that—I’ve talked a bit recently about the problem with election-focused democracy is how to keep participating when you lose elections. And the answer I’m finding powerful at the moment is community. The same way you pray with people who sing the wrong tunes, or drive with people who block the intersection, or the way you order pizza with people who don’t like hot pineapple. Ease up on the pride, stop caring so much about being right, and focus on being part of a community.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,