Friday, June 28, 2013

There’s More to Life than Politics – Isn’t There?

“Man,” Aristotle declared long ago, “is a political animal.” Perhaps too political.

Sonny Bunch, managing editor of the Washington Free Beacon, has written a few times about his frustration with people so consumed by politics that they can’t separate it from the rest of their lives. “I’m not talking about people getting worked up about politicians,” he writes:

We live in divided times, so things are bound to get heated when talking about elected officials. I’m talking about people who say “I want nothing to do with [Person X] because he is a conservative/liberal/Republican/Democrat in his personal life.

We do indeed live in divided times, an era in which Americans are more polarized about politics and culture (and the intersection thereof) than at any time since the 1960s, and possibly even since the 1860s. The nonstop din of our ubiquitous social media has widened that polarization, as armies of political foot soldiers of the left and right skirmish online, pointlessly spewing 140-character vitriol at each other. There is precious little political engagement anymore, online or off, that does not consist of plain bullying. Bullying wins enemies, not converts.

For people obsessed with politics, friendships – even relationships – can narrow to political alliances. As Bunch puts it,

politicizing every aspect of your life, allowing politics to determine your every move, and judging everyone you meet online and in person by how stridently they agree with the positions you support, is immensely, horribly destructive to the very fabric of our society.

He quotes from the blog of journalist Rod Dreher:

What a strange culture we live in, in which people are expected to approve of everything those they love believe in and do, or be guilty of betraying that love. I have friends and family whose core beliefs on politics, sexuality, religion, etc., are not the same as my own, and it would not occur to me in the slightest to love them any less because of it... People are somehow more than the sum of their beliefs and actions.

This can extend to a narrowing of our cultural tastes as well. So “how can we expect to have a fully functioning society,” Bunch wonders, “if we spend all of our time adjudicating whether or not the people we read and the culture we consume is of the correct political persuasion?”

I would take his argument further and assert that politicizing every aspect of your life is corrosive not only on a societal level but on a personal one as well. I’ve experienced it myself. I make my living at least partially by publicly engaging in the clash of political ideas and ideologies, sometimes to a combative degree, and it’s easy to find yourself sucked into the bottomless vortex of politics at the expense of other interests, other pursuits, other dimensions of the human experience, unless you pull yourself back from the brink. Otherwise, you become the sort of person Sonny Bunch complains about, who “can’t set aside their political hangups enough to enjoy a realm unrelated to politics.”

I know what he means. I have found myself at dinner parties with people who can talk all night about the players and odds of every 2014 Congressional race in the country but who either have zero interest in, or are incapable of, discussing (non-political) books or music or films. There’s something about politics that can become so all-consuming you don’t even realize how narrowly it ultimately defines you.

Fortunately, I’ve never been a political person at heart. Culture and history fascinate me; politics in the strict sense bores me. I am interested in politics to the extent that political ideologies manifest themselves in the culture, so it is sometimes a challenge for me to see the culture except through that lens. It doesn’t help that in my lifetime American culture itself has become a political battleground (it could be argued that this is true of cultures in all places and times, but that’s an essay for another day).

People are somehow more than the sum of their beliefs and actions, as Rod Dreher put it. These days the trick – and I have yet to master it myself – is to be attuned to that and refuse to limit yourself to being a purely “political animal.”

(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 6/26/13)