‘Politics should take up maybe a tenth corner of a good citizen’s life. The rest (of life) should be philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture, and fun’ — David Brooks
The national scene has been so dominated by politics for the best part of this year that we might be forgiven to think that it is all there is to life. From the time of the termination of the much-announced ‘remake’ to the time of the ‘ememist’ turnaround towards Labour and their subsequent on-off mode, the people have had their share of the moods and mood-swings of the main actors. Given that no relationship between parties is permanent in our local politics, we will have to await the future to know the fate of the immediate off mode between Ememem and Labour post-election. What was very clear, equally immediately, was that it was very predictable.
We will leave it to the astute political observers and seasoned analysts to go into the whys and wherefores of the respective victory and defeat, and wins and losses sustained in this latest twist in our political history. Suffice it to say that the causes of defeat and of victory will not resolve into the singular view of the victory being a rejection of the outgoing government rather than a positive vote for the new one: many more factors would have been at play to have resulted in such an overwhelming mandate being accorded to the new triumvirate.
As the people now place their hopes and trust in the new dispensation to meet their expectations and fulfil the electoral promises made so as to lead the country into safe haven, the end of year festivities will at least provide a more than welcome break from the sword of Damocles that the almost year-long political uncertainty caused to hang on the country. And then, come January, the people will wake up to the realities that await them.
At this stage, I find the views of David Brooks, well-known columnist of the New York Times, very pertinent and interesting on more than one count. They are to be found in an article titled ‘The Stem and the Flower’ which he wrote in the December 2, 2013 issue of NYT, which was reproduced in the Reader’s Digest of August 2014, and from which I quote. ‘In the garden of democracy,’ said Brooks, ‘politics should support, not dominate, our lives.’
Since, as mentioned in the opening paragraph above, politics has dominated our lives for the best part of this year until the general elections of 10 December, I am sure that we would all like to consider what the columnist has to say further. He starts his article with a question: ‘How much emotional and psychic space should politics take up in a normal, healthy brain?’ He proceeds to analyse the matter in two extremes.
The first one is about those who are ‘completely cynical about politics’, which is the ‘luxury of privileged people’ who live in a functioning society and can afford to say that ‘politicians are just a bunch of crooks.’ You can, by implication, choose to ignore them. Not so if you are in a country ‘without rule of law… where tribalism leads to murder’ in which case ‘politics is a vital concern.’
The other extreme is about the ‘overpoliticised’ bunch who ‘form their identities around politics and look to it to complete their natures.’ Brooks places these folks into two categories: the aspirational, who ‘hope that politics can transform society and provide meaning’, symbolised by US President John Kennedy. Was his call to ‘ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country’ an implied acknowledgement that ‘politics can rarely deliver’ because soon enough the ‘limited realities of government reassert themselves’?
Brooks gave as example the ‘inevitable letdown’ that was happening to President Obama’s supporters. One may wonder whether that letdown is hardwired into any form of government, since all governments seem to have a natural burnout period, starting to become unpopular after a while however enthusiastically they were voted in initially. Hence the mid-mandate phenomenon, when the leader who was expected to transform the country finds his popularity dipping at the mid-term polls. Look at what is happening to French President Francois Hollande, for example.
The second type of the overpoliticised bunch ‘look to politics for identity’, treating their ‘political affiliation as a form of ethnicity.’ Is it because they need to ‘complete their natures’? – one interpretation of this could be that their natures are somehow deficient and they seek to make up for that through political wrangling and leverage. These are the people who ‘drive a lot of television’ and who fall upon their political partisanship ‘to give them a sense of righteousness and belonging’, an ‘emotional addiction that can lead to auto-hysteria.’ Are the unfortunate incidents of clashes that occur around the local ‘bazes’ at election time an expression of this hysteria?
Whatever be, Brooks advises that ‘politics should not be nothing in life, but not everything’ considering that ‘except for a few rare occasions – war, economic recession – government is a slow trudge, oriented around essential but mundane tasks.’ He illustrates this by a commonplace example. ‘Imagine,’ he writes, ‘you are going on a picnic. Government is properly in charge of maintaining the essential background order: making sure there is a park, that it is reasonably clean and safe, arranging public transportation so as many people as possible can get to it. But if you remember the picnic afterwards, these things won’t be what you remember. You’ll remember the creative food, the interesting conversations, and the fun activities.’ Government is about creating ‘a background order, but it is not the main substance of life.’
However true this may be, however, it is a fact that government does impact several aspects of our lives in ways big and small. Perhaps this is especially more felt, or needed, in countries where the rule of law is weak and tribalism tends to prevail or dominate. Tribal behaviours can be seen, alas, among the seemingly most sophisticated but are cleverly masked. Although they are more apparent at the time of the campaigning for elections, they never fade altogether, remaining as a subterranean undercurrent that can cause a lot of harm. But we are a paradise island, aren’t we, and we are not prone to such sins.
Looking to the future, now that the electoral fever has died down, the end words from David Brooks are wise counsel: ‘Unless you are in the business of politics, covering it or columnising about it, politics should take up maybe a tenth corner of a good citizen’s life.’ What about the remaining 90% then? Ah, that’s the interesting part: ‘The rest (of life) should be philosophy, friendship, romance, family, culture, and fun.’ (italics added)
Sounds like a very good prescription to me.
* Published in print edition on 19 December 2014