Wednesday, April 7, 2010
I have problems of my own. You have problems of your own. In the final analysis, the only things you and I have in common are (1) we each have problems and (2) we each have to find their solutions on our own.
Personal troubles are a nettlesome thing, if you ask me. I had to replace an automobile recently, and I found the time spent on the internet and traveling to and from dealers and test driving vehicles to be frustrating. I’m facing a visit to my heart doctor in the next week and he’ll report the results of my latest echo stress test. I expect a favorable result, but you never know. The wireless router in our house died and our local-area network with it. Buying its replacement required me to learn more about wireless technology than I wanted to – which was just enough to know I had to get someone technologically competent into my house to set it up.
I find myself quite exercised over the escalating volatility in our politics. I’m troubled by what is said and how it’s said. I’m even more disturbed by what is done and the threats of what may be done. I rue the rhetoric and covet civility. What I don’t do is take this as my personal problem – it belongs to all of us.
It was C. Wright Mills who first made the distinction between “personal troubles” and “public issues” in his 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination. He does so by noting that troubles are private matters in which an individual’s values or habits are threatened, while issues are public matters in which shared values and practices are put at risk.
I think of it a little differently. A problem or trouble that is unique to me is a personal problem. If I can’t solve it or overcome it on my own initiative or with my own resources, then that’s just tough. With pity aplenty, I just have to live with it. On the other hand, if a problem or a trouble is more broadly shared with others and more commonly found, such that I am not the only one with it, then it is a public or social problem, whether I can solve it on my own or not. In fact, solving it on my own does little to rectify the situation as it besets others. A social problem begs for a social solution, whether or not the social problem is universal or more limited in scope. If I lose my job and I’m the only one, pity me. If I am one of millions who have lost their jobs, pity us! If I’m the only one, there’s probably something wrong with me. If I’m but one of many, there’s a very good chance the problem is located somewhere else. At the very least, that is worth considering.
I think the condition of our politics at the moment is a public issue, a social issue in the sense in which Mills speaks. As such, its resolution requires more than a personal response (though expressing displeasure to our elected officials is an appropriate action). I recently noted in a foreword I wrote for a friend’s upcoming book that the place for passive non-participation is a movie theater and the place for active non-participation is a sports arena. The place for neither is the public venue where our policies and legislative initiatives are debated and decided upon. Perhaps the fact that the legislative proposals of late have been so contentious has contributed to the volatility in the political sphere. Or maybe the volatility in the political atmosphere has contributed to the contentiousness. It could be a bit of both, but one thing is certain: No one is well-served and no one’s inclusion in a host of social problems is mitigated by political leaders whose best arguments are ad hominum and whose intent is to inflame their political base with appeals to thoughtless emotion and demagoguery.
In their book, The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970, Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab note that extremist movements on the political right generally arise as a result of the real or perceived loss of power and status that accompanies social and economic change. On the other hand, extremist movements on the political left arise when there is the real or perceived opportunity to force social change and displace those groups who heretofore enjoyed power and status. That being said, it is noteworthy that a bit of extremism is evident on both sides of the political aisle in this country over the last twenty-five years, and especially over the last ten years. At the very least, one must wonder whether those who intend to occupy a middle ground politically and socially can aspire to an environment where reasoned discussion is possible, equally plausible alternatives are identified, and more egalitarian solutions to our social problems are achieved.
What we need from ourselves and our politicians, as well as our social and economic leaders, is the cultivation of a set of virtues that dislodges the vices presently in control. I am reminded that for Aristotle, becoming the best person one could possibly become entailed practicing the virtues known as the excellences of character; we cultivate the virtues by the simple act of engaging habitually in those behaviors. For him, these virtues were courage, self-discipline, generosity, friendship, fairness, and justice. And for him, these excellences, these dispositions of habit, these virtues, were the midpoint between extremes. So, for example, courage fell between the extremes of aggression and cowardice; generosity fell between extravagance and thrift; and friendship fell between domination and capitulation, and so on. What we need from ourselves and our politicians is the middle ground between extremes, and however we may describe those extremes, they will undoubtedly be moderated by the virtues of civility, magnanimity, honesty, modesty, liberality and compassion.
And yes, it would be a good thing to contact your elected officials at all levels and alert them to this call for occupying the Aristotelian mean between excess and deficiency. Tell them, please, there’s room for improvement in their demeanor, and assure them, please, that you’re making the effort in yourself.