Care and Politics

new year symbols

The Jewish New Year is upon me. It is a propitious time to restart writing posts to this blog. I have finished a draft of my book and now have recovered some time to do this. I have thought about what would be the most appropriate subject to begin again with. The main book themes are flourishing, complexity, and care. Care, or, better, the lack of it, in the immediate political campaign strikes me as most relevant at this moment.

Care for both worldly and transcendent phenomena is central as part of any movement toward flourishing. Care, as I write, is a way of acting that focuses, as does human consciousness, on some object and acts accordingly. The substance of a caring act takes into account what is going on at the object instead of the needs of the actor, unless the object of care is also the actor. If this system works, everyone’s needs do get taken care of, similarly to the outcome of the actions of the self-interested human being of Adam Smith, but with a huge difference. To keep these two very difference ways of being, let me call actions of care, relational, and acts of need, transactional.

The context of care is connectedness and relationship; that of need is independence and transactional. In the latter, the others involved take on only instrumental features; their own essences fade from view. Caring requires a sense of the targets and, consequently, a sense of their essential features. People, who are involved show up as other humans, just like the actor. Other living beings also carry a sense of the wonder of life itself. Whatever artifacts are involved are employed transparently and serve as tools, not masters of the situation.

An invisible hand is at work here just as in Smith’s economic model. He wrote about it earlier when he coined the phrase, invisible hand, but it was about a different model of human being. It was relational, not transactional. Years earlier he saw the essence of humans as sympathy, but used in the same sense as we use empathy. I try to picture the difference. Hugs instead of e-cards. Conversation instead of text messages. Cooperation instead of competition. Not always, but a world where the balance has shifted toward the first action, not the second. A world where flourishing for all can come forth.

That is the world I write about, a world of possibility, but what about the world of the present. Hardly. I cannot dredge from my memory a more opposing image. What I am about to write transcends my particular position. I am and have acted as a liberal Democrat all my life, but that’s not the base of the following comments. I find the political rhetoric of today completely lacking in any sense of care. Care is completely absent from Trump’s talk and promises. There is not much evidence either in Clinton’s. Bill Clinton is remembered for many things, but one was this utterance “I feel your pain.” Making America great again is devoid of any sense of the humanity of our citizens.

We always will need new policies because the world is always changing, but policies based on some set of metrics, usually economic in nature, can never incorporate pain or any other human quality. Hillary represents policy wonkdom, whose ways are the ways of numbers. It is possible that both candidates are caring humans, but, if so, that sense is missing. I could go on with many more examples, but I can turn to my real concern without them.

Our political campaigns have always served to paint pictures of the great currents of beliefs about what is against what should be. The “what is” is not a pretty picture if one looks at the sweep of American history. The “what should be” has been the centerpiece of American politics from the get-go. It served as a rallying cry even before the nation was constituted, but it needs to be questioned, something that is missing.

A right to life is indeed very clear and inalienable, but rights to liberty and happiness are not so clear. That makes their inevitability equally unclear. Worse, it makes their meaning in practice the result of power differences, instead of some coming to an agreement that works for all citizens. Liberty as complete autonomy aligns with Smith’s needy individual. So does happiness when measured in any quantitative factor. Means to acquire either are transactional, not relational. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of politics springs from just this reading of the declaration of independence.

I have no easy answers, not even complicated ones. I do know, however, that until and unless top-level political rhetoric changes its tune toward the inclusion of the language of care, the amount of pain, real and metaphorical, will continue to increase. Whether some difference exists or not in the caring hearts of the candidates, what matters is what they say and how we interpret the words as signals of what they will do. Neither has been effective in their appearances in the media is conveying any sense of care. People are hurting all over the world. They need a hug as well as a hand.

For all who read this, “L’shana tovah.” Have a good year. This is an abbreviated use of the real phrase in the liturgy, but the meaning is the same. Here is the whole: “l’shana tovha tikateyvu,” which means literally, “May you be written [in the Book of Life] for a good year.”