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Walt Whitman's answer to Joe Wilson

The writer said the way to raise the sorry level of political discourse is to raise the level of culture.

September 14, 2009|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ

Go ahead, hit me with all the Tipper Gore jokes you want, but I'm beginning to think that U.S. political news, like rap music, needs a parental warning notification.

Every few years or so, we have a collective paroxysm over the bad behavior of this or that group of public figures. We fret over what the antics of sports stars or celebrities teach our children. Whether they're taking illegal steroids or partying without their knickers, we hope and pray that the kids won't mimic them.

Now, after this summer of bad political behavior -- full of hecklers, birthers, truthers, death panels and guns -- I think it's time to take up the cause against poorly behaved politicians and citizen activists alike. Do it for the children!

It wouldn't be so bad if politics weren't viewed as the be-all and end-all of American culture. I mean, I'd be happy if someone like, say, South Carolina GOP Rep. Joe "You lie!" Wilson had the courage of basketball star Charles Barkley to stand up and say, "Hey, I'm not a role model just because I got elected to Congress."

But you know that won't happen, because despite all the evidence to the contrary, we like to delude ourselves into thinking that politics is an honorable profession guided by only the most moral and high-minded of individuals and intentions.

Otto von Bismarck, the 19th century German chancellor, is famously said to have remarked that "laws are like sausage. It is better not to see them made." As much as I agree with his assessment, I also recognize the dangers of looking away from the sausage machine. Indeed, one of contemporary Germany's foremost intellectuals, Wolf Lepenies, argued a few years ago that the German elite's disdain for the lowly practice of politics (and preference for high culture) essentially allowed the Nazis to emerge unchecked. So dismayed were they by the everyday horse-trading, the elite left politics to others.

But if none of us can afford to turn away, what can we do to make political discourse and behavior more palatable?

First off, we should stop romanticizing politics and view it as a means to an end rather than as an end in itself. We need to lower our expectations and exchange nostalgic images of Jimmy Stewart's wide-eyed idealist in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" for the morally complex reality of John Travolta's surly Southern governor in "Primary Colors."

We're not selecting saints here, only mere practitioners charged with advocating the electorate's wishes within the confines of a byzantine legislative system. It's not unlike hiring a lawyer or an agent, someone to whom we outsource unseemly or specialized matters.

That said, we also need to understand that the sorry political conduct we're seeing is a cultural and not just a political phenomenon. In 1871, Walt Whitman published an essay titled "Democratic Vistas" that sought to tackle the problem of nasty political behavior. Unlike his Pollyannaish paeans to the glories of individualism, in this essay Whitman confesses his concerns about the "appalling dangers of universal suffrage in the United States." He describes postbellum U.S. society as sailing "a dangerous sea of seething currents and undercurrents" tossed and turned by the "blind fury of parties, infidelity, [an] entire lack of first-class captains and leaders, [and the] plentiful meanness and vulgarity of the ostensible masses." Whitman warned against Americans thinking that politics and policy were the sole foundations of a strong democracy. On the contrary, he argued, democracy was nurtured by higher aspirations than electioneering and governance. "That which really balances and conserves the social and political world," he wrote, "is not so much legislation, police, treaties, and dread of punishment, as the latent eternal intuitional sense, in humanity, of fairness, manliness, decorum, etc."

That intuitional sense, as he put it, was fostered by a strong dedication to the nation's literary, artistic and intellectual life. And as much as he hailed "with joy the oceanic, variegated, intense practical energy" of the United States, he knew that it amounted to little if its citizens did not "unerringly feed the highest mind, the soul."

In other words, the problem with politics will not be solved by politics. The only way to raise the sorry level of political discourse is to raise the level of culture in general, which brings us back to poorly behaved starlets, baseball players and politicians.

Perhaps we should be looking elsewhere for inspiration in the first place.

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