One of my Lenten disciplines is going to be to avoid political outrage on the Internet. I think I've found a helpful mantra this morning, ironically, in a political-economic blog.
From Megan McArdle: A useful insight about the office of the President, one that extends to politics and politicians in general, and applies to both Dems and Repubs:
To me, a better explanation [for the Obama administration's treatment of accused leaker Bradly Manning, which some argue constitutes torture] --one that explains the fact that there's not that much daylight between Bush and Obama on these issues--is that being president makes you want to do these things. The president has access to more information than the rest of us...
Not only does the president hear about threats we don't, but he's the guy who gets in trouble if any of these threats come off. The combination of heightened threat-alertness, and personal risk aversion, makes him willing to do bad things to avert the potential threat. And since the president knows that he's a good person, and the people around him are basically good people, he's willing to trust them with power that no institution should have.
...I mean, I used to think that Janet Reno was evil--SWAT teams and tanks in child custody disputes? Really? Then we had a succession of new Attorneys General who all seemed to err on the side of megalomaniacal overreach. At which point I decided that it probably wasn't the person; it was the office. When you're sitting up there in that lofty perch, hearing about all the bad things that are happening in the country, and you know that you could do a lot more to fight them if you just had a little bit more power--well, sure, maybe it's not a good idea in abstract, but you're not going to abuse it, you're just trying to solve problems. Et voila, Waco.
So too, I suspect, with tormenting prisoners, and civil liberties. Maybe if Mark and I were president, we'd support this stuff too. Which is not, by the way, an argument for doing it. It's an argument that we need to serve as a check on the president. Because we're not going to fix it by just electing a better person to be president. Whoever we elect will still be president, with all that implies.
I think this is a good insight because it can help us avoid the temptation to assume bad faith, stupidity, or consciously evil motives -- personal evil -- in the officeholders we disagree with.
I think if we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we all tend to give the guys "on our side" the benefit of the doubt while assailing the integrity of the guys on "the other side." It's subtly dangerous to our own spirits to divide the political-social world up into good guys and bad guys.
Good ideas and bad ideas, or good actions and bad actions -- sure!
Good people and evil people... stupid people and intelligent people... noble people and base people... not so much.
(And watch out for the temptation to insist, "I'm not saying he's an evil person, I'm saying he has evil motives!" Since you can't actually observe motives the way you can observe actions and statements, and can only guess at them, to declare someone's motives bad is really just a circular way of declaring him a bad person: you believe the motives to be bad because you believe him to be bad and therefore incapable of having good motives. Fess up.)
I get really tired of the "Obama is evil" movement, and am equally tired of the "Bush is evil" movement. Similarly tired of the smaller "He or she is evil" movements that play out in smaller theaters, like the one going on now in the Wisconsin State Capitol building.
McArdle suggests that maybe it's just being President that tempts human beings to do apparently bad stuff. Gee, I can't imagine that -- holding one of the most powerful offices in the world, a severe temptation to evil acts and omissions?!? Sarcasm aside, it also seems pretty obvious to me that men with different leanings would be tempted to a slightly different variety of evils, but also that universal desires -- say, to increase one's own personal power, or to be thought well of by others, might lead to startlingly similar behaviors even by men of quite different political beliefs. Hence McArdle's suggestion that this theory explains why President GW Bush's reviled policies towards certain prisoners appear to have been continued rather than reversed under President Obama.
I think we would do well to reserve our indignation towards the personalities of our political opponents, even in the most upsetting of policy debates, even the ones that seem to us the starkest battlegrounds between good and evil. Better, I think, to recognize that high offices themselves constitute high opportunities to commit dreadful sins and injustices. Yes, they also present opportunities to do great good... which means nothing more than opportunities to commit terrible sins of omission.
And it's really just our preference for some sins over others that leads us to condemn some sinners over others, I think. They're all freaking sinners, as are we.
During this Lent, one way I'm going to temper my political outrage is by avoiding the blogs and websites that tend to exacerbate feelings of irritation. (That's not all political blogs and websites, incidentally -- some of them generally inform and entertain me without making me angry, at least if I don't go on to read the comments.) But since it's impossible to avoid political information and opinion entirely, I think it will also help to have in my pocket the little mantra: "It's not the person, it's the office." Because without the publicity and power the office has granted, the officeholder's flaws would never, ever have become so magnified as to attract and hold my attention and my judgment, through my own distorted lens.