Politicos and Prophets

There are home truths that few politicians acknowledge

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There are home truths that few politicians acknowledge. Occasionally, though, a politician throws caution to the wind. In his “American malaise speech” broadcast on national television in the summer of 1979, Jimmy Carter told the country that “All the legislation in the world can’t fix what’s wrong with America.” That’s a first home truth.

Here’s a second. We need more honesty and less baloney. But what’s gone wrong? And why? Jimmy Carter was blunt: “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now worship self-indulgence and consumption.” If you want updated proof of his assertion, consider that this year Americans spent $1.7 billion on Valentine’s gifts for pets (Market Watch, Feb. 14).

Now comes a third home truth, one on which Baptist and Catholic can agree. We need to repent. Saying this calls to mind the New Yorker cartoon of the bearded prophet schlepping about with a sign that says just that. So, let ’em laugh. I’ll borrow from a Flannery O’Connor short story. Her sad-sack character Shiflet has just abandoned his new and disabled wife in a diner. Driving away, he sees a sign that warns, “Drive carefully. The life you save might be your own.” That’s the cue for us. “Live honestly. The lives we save may be our own.”

But do we see the sign? Few politicians call attention to it. And, truth be told, too many “prophets” speak mostly for themselves. There are lots of reasons for such shared malpractice. Still, we can trace one of them back to Plato. In his Republic Plato admits that his ideal city will have to rely on a myth of origin. Farmers and workers and even the guardians must learn that they belong in their respective classes because each was infused with a specific metal, be it gold or bronze or some admixture.

What does Plato’s myth have to do with us? There’s one difference. We have competing myths, or narratives as we like to say. One is that we are where we are because of the work that we do. Another is that we are where we are because of the luck of the genetic draw. Yet another is that we are where we are because malign forces (for example, the elite or the wealthy or outsiders) put us there. Another myth, of course, is that once we properly identify the malign forces at work there is a political solution that will put us where we really should be. Well, one myth or many myths, they remain myths.

Jews and Christians have long challenged such myths. They have, sadly, often succumbed to them. But the Good News is that, with God’s grace, we can find our way home, find our way to a share in God’s own life. But politicians don’t talk this way. It would be un-American! No, it’s the Carthusians who say “The Cross is steady while the world is turning (Stat crux dum volvitur orbis).

 

Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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