Friday, October 10, 2008

Incindiary politics can get out of control

The rhetoric of the presidential race in the US has become insidious and incendiary. There could be more danger in the rhetoric of character assassination than we suppose. Somehow until I reached a mature age I failed to see how dangerously influential the ideological activity of leaders including the learned elite can be. The educated professional elite, leaders in thought and public education, at least many of them, joined in Hitler’s Third Reich, for transparently self-serving reasons. The professional elite in South Africa aided and abetted those figures who conceived of and operationalized apartheid; without the involvement of the educated elite the fifteen percent could never have controlled the other eighty-five percent. Even more troubling to me is the role of the learned elites in formulating the ideas that eventually would rend apart the country of Yugoslavia, breaking it into Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia (and so on). It was the ideas of the intelligentsia that created the movements of fear that became genocidal among these populations. It was fear, joined with hate, that trashed personal friendships among the Yugoslavs that had existed for decades. Eventually fear as well as the arrogance of racism drove ethnic cleansing.

So I wonder about what could come out of the incendiary speeches being given by the contestants for the presidency now. Our country has been intensely divided for years and the strategic decisions of politicians to deploy “wedge issues” in election campaigns has had much to do with hardening these divisions. Leaders matter. Good leadership matters. What we have had in our country is such intense partisanship among our leaders that inevitably the public has similarly formed into two irreconcilable blocs; it is as if the two sides live in different worlds. No matter how outrageous are the accusations, some people will fail to see them as calculated measures to gain advantage, to win public support for specific agendas. For them the assertions are not metaphorical but real. Some people will take the extreme attacks on character literally. If any of them were to act on the claims being made, someone could die. Society could become even more dangerously polarized. At some point we have to beg the two sides to be civil. We are trying to choose a president: the process simply cannot become a knife fight in a phone booth.

Let us pray for statesmen who will avoid the character assassinations of the past and seek to treat their opponents with ordinary courtesy.

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