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Archive for Sunday, April 6, 2008

Divisions help keep partisans in check

April 6, 2008

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Normally, I despise columns that begin, "There are two kinds of people," and then proceed to declare some half-baked dichotomy between Us and Them. Obviously, there are more than two kinds of people, probably as many as individual human beings. Each of us is a species unto himself, as unique as a fingerprint.

Nevertheless, murderous distinctions come naturally to us. And if it weren't for generalizations we'd have to learn everything all over again every day. So for the sake of simplicity, let's say that there are two kinds of people: For instance, those who look to government to solve all our problems and those who think we can best take care of ourselves. Those who think government is a sugar daddy, and those who think it's a bloodsucker. One philosophy favors regulations to protect us from risks, predators and our own bungling, the other accepts life as a crap shoot and believes that human dignity depends on taking responsibility for our own lives.

One side castigates the rich as "rats in the barn" who take more than their share of the pie. The other side gripes about "hogs at the trough" who live on the dole. One side wants an equal share of the pie for everyone, the other wants to make the pie grow larger. One fears plutocracy, the other bureaucracy. One is demonized as "greedy," the other as "envious." Individualism, free market and property rights on the right, victimhood, central planning and community on left.

Common sense suggests that both sides have strengths and weaknesses, good ideas and bad ideas, base and self-serving schemes as well as lofty and magnanimous goals. Nevertheless, both sides insist that they're in exclusive possession of Absolute Truth and aspire to obliterate the other side. If we sat down and talked, we might discover that there's not that much we disagree on. But that would require us to listen. And we'd have to relinquish the infantile tribalism were so addicted to.

A recent letter to this paper claimed that our national personality has "two distinct sides." One side obsessed with xenophobia, militarism, unequal distribution of wealth, destruction of competition and the environment. The other side tolerant, humble, cooperative, peaceful, committed to social justice and environmental stewardship. No ambiguities here. No such thing as a human nature both sides share. Isn't it remarkable how we're divided so neatly into Good Guys and Bad? There are two kinds of people - isn't that our theme?

This mindset drives our two political parties. Democrats and Republicans both think that they're members of two entirely distinct species, that their own party is the vessel of Goodness and Righteousness and that they can depend on their representatives to uphold the sacred ideology, regardless of the quality of their characters. They write off the sins of their own team as peccadillos and dismiss the other team's virtues as frauds. A kind of racism infects the game. A recent New York Times essay described some Democrats as almost physically nauseated by the report that Republicans had moved in next door.

Heaven knows how each of us ends up on one side of this division or the other. Maybe it's parental influence, maybe it's in the stars, maybe it's some kind of biological, Heraclitean duality that keeps us humans fit by antagonizing one another. Whatever the reason, we're hard-wired to shake our fists at one another.

Frankly, I have no idea what either of these parties stand for anymore. I've voted for Republicans and Democrats and been disappointed by both. But lively conflict between them is a good thing. It keeps us from falling into the excesses and shortcomings of either side. The worst thing that could happen would be for either one to win a permanent dominance.

In spite of an endless succession of spectacular scandals and misuses of power, passionate partisans persist in believing that some politician will lead them to the promised land. They're more than ready to put their fates in the hands of some ego-driven hustler who's never met a payroll or punched a clock, who thinks the rules apply to everyone else, who looks upon his or her supporters as nonentities, the "little people."

Keeping politicians on a tight a leash ought to be our ultimate goal. The most we can hope for is that they don't make too much of a mess and keep their corruption on a minor scale. Let's put grandiose plans to "change the world" on the back burner. We face enormous challenges just to stay afloat. How about just few modest, concrete reforms, such as removing the bloat and hypocrisy from our 10-ton tax code and requiring our failed, monopolistic, spendthrift public school system to compete with the rest of the world?

People: Don't let politicians take credit for what you accomplish by getting out of bed and stepping up to the plate every day. Don't let them boast that they "grew the economy." Government is not the engine that "moves this great country forward." Do your best, raise your children well, make the most of your precious time on earth and America will prosper. The strength and future of this country lies in you. Both kinds.

- George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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