Thursday, January 13, 2011

Children and Childish Things

Sometime after I read Ezra Klein's terrific post about politics through a child's eyes it occurred to me -- and I apologize if others have already noted this, but I hadn't -- that Barack Obama's choice to frame his speech in Tucson that way was fascinating, because the one thing I'd guess people remember from Obama's Inaugural Address was his insistence that "the time has come to set aside childish things."

Can we reconcile these two apparently contradictory pieces of rhetoric?

Yes, we can (as they say). 

But it takes me to a different place than where Klein winds up in his post (and, to be clear, I'm not claiming that this is what the president meant).  Here's what I loved in his post: (I have to quote the full paragraph, because it's just so good):
But what's funny is that I don't think the 9-year-olds are totally wrong. I've met a lot of members of Congress, and I do think most of them are good, or at least are trying to be. Serving in Congress is actually a sort of crummy life: You live in a small apartment, you spend most of your time missing your family, you're constantly in airports, and when you do get home you barely have time to see your kids because you're running to meet with constituents. It's a grind. And -- this is where kids and adults alike overestimate politicians -- you're not that important. No one cares about the speech you just gave or the amendments you just proposed. The media generally doesn't pay attention unless you become part of a controversy, or say something dumb. You have to do what your leadership tells you. You get yelled at a lot. Most of the people who stick with the job stick with it because they believe they're doing some good in the world.  
But then he concludes:
But when the public looks at them, they don't see it. Sen. Evan Bayh once told me that "we've got good people trapped in a dysfunctional system." I still think he's right about that. The individuals are trying hard, but the whole is a lot uglier than the sum of the parts. At some point, however, it's up to them to change that. The problem is, no one member of Congress, and no one party, has much incentive to start.
See, I can't buy that.  Oh, yes, there are plenty of things in the way Congress runs that I'd like to tweak, or even reform in larger ways.  But fundamentally, I think that politics, at least at its best, is about good people who are really, honestly, going to disagree.  They're going to disagree because their interests are different, their ideas about what government should do differ, or perhaps because they're in groups that see the world very differently.  Or maybe even just because they're competing for office; power isn't zero-sum, but electoral politics is.

My experience with most people is that it's very, very difficult to accept that.  We want white hats and big bads; we can't quite see why everyone, at least everyone who is well-intentioned, can't just work things out.  Without the sausage-making. 

But that's not what real politics is. 

So, yes, and apologies in advance for stretching out a bit here, but I hope people can follow Obama and see politicians through a child's eyes and recognize that most of them really are public spirited and well-intentioned -- and also follow Obama and put away childish things, and accept that good people can fundamentally disagree with each other, fight hard against each other, engage in calculated and maybe even devious maneuvers, act out of self-interest, and otherwise behave like real, complex, people. 

Politics?  It's gonna get messy.  Don't let that deter you from jumping in.  Don't give up on it.


  1. Another way to reconcile the speeches: children don't expect adults to act like children. Ideally, those expectations are met even when the expectations that the world is simple and clear are not.

  2. Interesting post. I sometimes fear that a problem with America is that we have devolved into 300 million special interests, with the game of political partisanship reduced to trying to tickle more of those special interests then your opponent.

    That's a bit of hyperbole. Still, the next time a commenter rants about the irrationality of the 21st century Right, consider that somewhere north of 50% of those 300 million special interests receive some entitlement or another, leading to a question: what would it look like to be a rational conservative in such a place?

    (It would look like being out of a job.)

  3. I think Obama was over-idealizing childhood, as adults often do. It doesn't take kids long to realize that politics is vitriolic.

    Perhaps my first 'political' memory is of hearing Robert Kennedy give a passionate speech against the Vietnam War. I don't recall any excessive rhetoric, like 'blood on their hands', but it was abundantly clear that he was charging his political opponents with responsibility for unnecessary deaths.

    RFK was shot not long after. Like Giffords he survived the shooting, and the doctors were optimistic. I remember learning of his death from the PA system of my third grade classroom.

  4. Cf. Krugman today

    But the truth is that we are a deeply divided nation and are likely to remain one for a long time. By all means, let’s listen to each other more carefully; but what we’ll discover, I fear, is how far apart we are. For the great divide in our politics isn’t really about pragmatic issues, about which policies work best; it’s about differences in those very moral imaginations Mr. Obama urges us to expand, about divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice....

    One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

    The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

    There’s no middle ground between these views.

  5. Jack Conway and Rand Paul held a local debate for Kentucky's PBS network; it was an interesting contrast to the meme-mania that dominated the MSM coverage of their Senate race. At one point Dr. Paul called out the irrationality of a Federal Government that took in $2.4 T and spent $3.5 T.

    The moderator followed up with a comment about Paul's libertarian views hating all government, and Paul, who apparently felt safely out of earshot of Fox News, shot back: "Its not that I don't believe in the Federal Government. I believe in a $2.4 T Federal Government, in fact. I just don't believe in a $3.5 T Federal Government".

    I'll bet that even many liberals agree in spirit with Paul's comment; recognizing that the scope of a $3.5 T Federal Government extends well beyond the goals of the social safety net that ASP laid out above. The problem for either Paul or the liberals is how the heck to dial back a $3.5 T government to a $2.4 T government without losing your job or killing your party.

    No one knows the answer. Perhaps the reason the Right engages in extremist rhetoric in the national media is because they have no idea how to achieve the rational objective that Paul candidly outlined for local PBS. So the conservatives lay out impossible goals (eliminate the social safety net), because everyone knows those objectives are facie unreasonable, thus providing the right cover for not trying to do what they actually want (dial back a $3.5 T gov't to $2.4 T), but lack the courage - or mandate - to achieve.

    I guess what I am arguing is that we're not as far apart as we seem; while extremism can sometimes be an expression of irrationality, it can also reflect the fact that the rational road is practically impossible, which is where I think the conservatives - and to an extent, the liberals - find themselves in 2011.

  6. The first thing that popped into my mind with that question was that very distinction is demanded in the New Testament (Mark10:15 v 1Cor13:11) between childlike and childish. I think the distinction translates easily and well: childlike is the embodiment of hope and faith/trust, whether it be in God or in democracy; childish is petulance and pettiness.

    Pretty easy to identify with as a parent of young children -- the wonder they have over the simplest things and trust it is or will be as it should be vs. the willingness to go to the mat over a broken crayon.

    To translate: childlike it to be confident that the process (eventually) produces what we need in the body politic; childish is to imply that everything is illegitimate because it isn't exactly as you want, whether you advocate for "second amendment remedies" or that a certain president is a "sellout" for making compromises -- not that the examples are equivalent.


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