Keep it in perspectiveFATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA
Americans are very proud of themselves -- and why not? A black man in the Oval Office is a very big thing.
Americans have discovered a star and made him president, as they have done so often -- Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, JFK, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Some stars are flashy but little more -- JFK, Clinton. Others are truly transformational -- FDR, Reagan. What President Obama will be remains to be seen, but he will excel in the public theatre of the presidency, which is both welcome and important.
That all being said, I checked out of this presidential election a long time ago. The last Obama speech I watched was his January victory address in Iowa. When Sarah Palin appeared on the scene -- another American with star quality heretofore unknown -- I watched her convention speech. After that, I discharged my professional obligation to keep up by reading the news, but I quit watching. Politics should never be too much with us, and electoral politics demanded far too much of us during this interminable presidential cycle.
Is it now finally over? One hopes. But Americans invest a lot in their presidents, extending to them not only the dual roles of head of state and head of government, but also something akin to cultural emperor. Many commentators gushed about how a President Obama would change the face of America abroad. No doubt true, but it is peculiarly American to think that the president is the face of America. Canadians don’t regard Stephen Harper as the face of Canada, nor do the French think of Nicholas Sarkozy in that way, even if he might. Italians are hardpressed to remember who is serving as prime minister; that ancient land does not regard her political leaders as definitive of the national character.
The words of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the great Democratic senator from New York, kept returning to me this long political season: "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."
My discomfort in this long campaign is that the categories of politics and culture seemed to forget themselves, with politics expanding to swallow up everything else in public life. Senator Obama got 52% of the vote and won; had he received 48% of the vote and lost, would American culture be fundamentally different? Politics would be, but America as a whole?
Yet electoral politics so dominated the past two years that Moynihan’s first truth was forgotten, namely that our common life together is shaped by much more than who wins elections. Elections are important, of course, but for the past two years the rest of reality that politics is supposed to serve became subordinated to it. The great machinery of American news has been consumed by tens of thousands of hours and millions of pages of gasbaggery on the election.
It has gone further than that. Comedy shows, movies, music -- all of it strove mightily to be relevant to the political question. But the point of healthy politics is to leave ample room for the pursuits of culture and family and community and church. This extended election has created a wholly disproportionate politics which contaminated much of what touched, including the Church. Moynihan’s second truth is in danger of being loosed from the first, with the consequence that politics is thought to be capable of remaking society as a whole.
Back in 1980, the League of Women Voters had to rearrange their Carter-Reagan presidential debates, having mistakenly proposed them to compete with Monday Night Football. A sensible nation does not give up football for politics. But this past Monday during halftime, the best highlight package in football -- Chris Berman’s Fastest Three Minutes in Television -- was replaced by interviews with Senators Obama and John McCain. Even three small minutes were not safe from politics. Electoral politics can be like a cancer that metastasizes to the healthy tissues of the culture.
So I switched channels and there was the beloved Bill Shatner on Boston Legal, arguing politics and finally confessing that he had voted for Obama. More politics. And to the prospect of a President Obama, he remarked that we might possibly awake to "a new America."
Well, no. America has a new president. That’s important. But more important still is the American founding inspiration -- often forgotten these past years -- that politics does not a nation, or culture, make.
Father Raymond J. de Souza, "Keep it in perspective." National Post, (Canada) November 6, 2008.
Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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