Nov 2, 2008

Humility in the art of the possible

There wasn’t more than a paragraph about Adlai Stevenson, in the little picture book of political history. But the picture did it. He was sitting there, Adlai Stevenson the presidential candidate, with a hole in the sole of his shoe. And I wanted to vote for him.

Stevenson and his liberalism were long gone, by the time I knew what politics was and was cramming American history at the public library. There was nothing about my Christian and Conservative understanding of the world, which would naturally draw me to Stevenson. There was no automatic affinity there, but I was moved.

It seemed to me that the photo showed someone who was optimistic, even idealistic, and yet aware of reality. The image showed someone who cared enough to wear a hole in his shoe, and yet someone knew what it was like to have that hole.

I was probably reading too much into the image, accepting too much of the stagecraft at face value. I remember it now not to say Adlai really was that way, but because it does capture what was and is important to me in politics. It’s important, to me, that my politics not be poisoned by either cynicism or ideology. I don’t want to disregard the way things really are, and I also don’t want to let limitations leave me paralyzed.

Which was really what I identified with in American Conservatism. As articulated by Kirk & Co., Conservatism carried a sort of central humility. It meant knowing who humans were, and not attempting to remake the whole world while disregarding social history. The response to a revolutionary move wasn’t, in this conception, to defend the status quo, preserve the power structure, or generally react, but, rather, to oppose the violence of make-overs, recognize the disguises of ideology, to be cautious and full of self-doubt.

There were two very concrete moments when I realized my conception of Conservatism was way out of snych, and the practice of Conservatism appalled me: 1) A young Republican leader aggressively opposed the idea that poor people should be helped, just not by government. He viewed the poor as lazy pariahs and “welfare queens.” 2) A College Republican argued that while proof of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction had not been offered, invasion in preemptive self-defense is right because we “trust the president.”

It seems to me that since the beginning of the Iraq war, “Conservatism” has been a very anchorless concept. Certainly, since Reagan, there’s been an elision in the idea, as the Conservatism we know is a composite. But at least since the Newt Gingrich era was replaced by the George W. Bush era, the character of Conservatism has been wildly adrift. What the idea means and how it can be measured has been redefined and redefined, though humility hasn’t been part of the conversation at all.

At one point, during the Republican primary debates of this year, the party pretty much said torture of suspected enemy combatants is a non-negotiable part of the idea of Conservatism. Sarah Palin described Conservatism as a refusal to "blink." Maybe the clearest moment, for me, was when McCain answered the question about evil. He said "defeat it," without offering any sense of Solzhenitsyn's caveat, that the line separating good from evil runs through human hearts. McCain, instead, fulfilled Kirk's definition of imprudence, "for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away."

Barack Obama's answer was different. I thought his answer, ridiculed as lilly-livered and weak, was marked by marked by maturity and humility, rather than hubris. He actually echoed the Solzhenitsyn statement, and displayed that awareness of failings, sense of caution, restraint, and deliberation.

"Now, the one thing that I think is very important is for to us have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, because a lot of evil’s been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil. In the name of good, and I think, you know, one thing that’s very important is having some humility in recognizing that just because we think that our intentions are good, doesn’t always mean that we’re going to be doing good."

In every unscripted sentence I have heard, Obama displayed this cautionary approach and his very careful thinking. His political practice has held this tenant of humility. I heard it ridiculed by the Conservatives who now own the Republican party, but I personally identify with the parsing, the hesitating, the careful consideration. That’s not a weakness, I don’t think, but a strength.

Joe Klein, the author of Primary Colors, points to this in a piece for Time Magazine. Obama, he writes, introduces a "quality to American politics that we haven't seen in quite some time: maturity."

"He seemed to be thinking in my presence, rather than just reciting talking points, and it took him some time to think through my question about gut decisions. He said the first really big one was how to react when incendiary videos of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's black-nationalist sermons surfaced last spring. 'The decision to make it big as opposed to make it small,' Obama said of the landmark speech on race relations he delivered in Philadelphia. 'My gut was telling me that this was a teachable moment and that if I tried to do the usual political damage control instead of talking to the American people like ... they were adults and could understand the complexities of race.'"

If this is liberalism, what Obama is doing, then I buy it. It is, actually, realistic and optimistic. It is opposed to cynicism and doesn’t ignore reality. His politics really captures what’s important to me in politics. I think it’s the best of the art of the possible.

I was flipping through some behind-the-scenes photos of the Obama campaign when I found it. He’s talking on the phone, there are papers everywhere. He’s leaned back, shoes up on a table, and there are holes in the soles of both of them.