Unusually for me, I am reading two very different books simultaneously. I have neither the attention nor deftness of mind, normally, to read more than a single book at any given time. Roy Jenkins' Gladstone: A Biography coupled with Paul Tillich's The Courage To Be are an interesting duo, to say the least. The first, a witty and engaging survey of that singular giant of Victorian politics; the second, the most popular work of that odd combination of German theology, existential philosophy, and American indulgence certainly seem an odd pair. Jenkins' combines a biographer's insight with a practical politician's grasp of the possible (Jenkins was a Labor MP for many years, serving as Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer in various Labor governments until that party's collapse in the 1970's; he now sits in the House of Lords, and has left the Labor Party, which has become indistinguishable from Thatcherite Toryism, far behind), and his discussion of Gladstone's career often involves a survey of mid-Victorian social and political realities that are far more clear than the fanciful notions of other, less knowledgeable, historians.
Tillich's remarkable achievement is to distill in a short work the essential elements of that most elusive quality because it is the most demanding of the classical virtues. At the heart of so much of our current malaise lies fear, and courage not only takes in fear in order to transcend it, by stripping the facade created by fear, what Tillich calls "masks", we already being the journey to overcoming fear and facing reality with true courage by recognizing it for what it is.
Politics is usually not a forum in which courage is conspicuous. Democratic politics, by and large, discourages not only courage, but honesty as well, because the choices we face are often unpalatable, and the solutions out of favor with the ruling class. As John Quiggin notes in a post at Crooked Timber, the public continues to support a more firmly left-wing set of solutions to our current problems than is acceptable by our elected officials. The turn to the Republican Party by the majority of those who voted in last November's elections is explainable at least as much by the large group that refused to vote because they have become disenchanted by the Democratic Party's weakness as an inherent trust in the approach of the Republican Party.
In this I must confess my own complicity. Despite my own repeated assertions that I understood Barack Obama to be resolutely centrist, I allowed myself to believe it possible that, given his across-the-board rejection, during the campaign, of the Bush Administration approach to pretty much everything, change would come quickly and decisively. While there were certainly some early moments that would give most comfort - the Executive Order calling for the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison for instance, now long forgotten - the result of the past two years has been the realization that the President is, despite his repeated insistence on hope and a Kennedyesque call to arms and support among so many young voters, a creature of the limited, and unreal, politics of our time.
While our current budget impasse is a glaring example, one could name so many instances where the Obama Administration has not only continued policies one would think it would end, but expanded them - domestic surveillance, military tribunals without due process for those who continue to be incarcerated at an open Guantanamo Bay prison, the expansion of our military commitment in Afghanistan without any clear strategic goals, the participation in the misguided NATO mission in Libya - that it is clear now our support was the triumph of self-delusion over clarity of thought. I, for one, believed the President to be better than his record, or at least that such would be possible given the latitude of action granted any President, particularly one elected with such broad support and with a commanding party majority in both Houses of Congress. We are where we are not only because the current Republican majority is an alchemy of unreality and political insanity, but because the President is tepid, silent, quick to compromise rather than stand for policies the American people support, and, at the end of the day, far more weak than any Democratic President I can remember. Even the claimed weakness of Jimmy Carter was as nothing to that of Barack Obama.
Our moment calls for clarity, honesty, and, as I have been repeating, courage. The times have not produced anyone able to address them, but done quite the opposite. Thus, for the moment, despite its seriousness, I find myself firmly believing it far better not to involve myself in matters of public import. Should circumstances change, that may change as well. By and large, with events of the past two years as a guide, I doubt any such change will occur.
Yes, by the way, I still feel quite dirty by even contemplating how odious is our current discourse and the practical consequences that are flowing from it.