Coronavirus and the return of politics
The notion of putting aside politics in the face of the present crisis is nonsensical. We long ago left politics behind.
"The coronavirus outbreak," a correspondent for National Public Radio sagely informs us, "is having an impact on politics." I daresay this is true. Would anyone disagree? But how can we measure the impact? We are not, most of us, competent seismologists even under the best circumstances; in the present situation, our instruments are liable to be defective, our readings erroneous, our ability to interpret them thus compromised.
Hence, I suspect, the reason why we are hearing over and over again calls, from leaders in both of our major political parties, to "put aside politics." This is misguided, even absurd. I say this not because I hope that economic relief to millions of American families will continue to be bogged down in disputes over delivery mechanisms or means testing, but because it begs an important question, indeed the most important.
For many of us, the premise it blithely assumes will be all but invisible, which is why I feel the need to spell it out plainly: How can we put aside politics when we have all but forgotten it? We have been growing steadily less political in this country for nearly half a century. The locker room of the Kansas City Chiefs, the table conversation of monks at Holy Transfiguration Skete, the banter of friends in an intramural softball league, a good-natured argument between husband and wife about what they are having for dinner or the occasionally shaky logistics of domestic waste removal: all of these are more political than the City of Los Angeles or New York State or (it should go without saying) the United States of America.
Can this really be so? I say it is, and the reason is that we have forgotten what "politics" means. Ninety-five percent of what we call politics is an epiphenomenon of whatever the bugmen at federally funded research and development centers are putting in their slide decks. The two-party system, with its personal antagonism as unreal as the conflict between Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog of blessed memory, is simply there to ensure that GDP has increased by whatever percentage the sophists, economists, and calculators have identified. When the cost of "owning" a share in most publicly traded corporations has increased at the end of the season or the year, we tell ourselves that we have done politics, and we turn away, if we can, to something else.
This is not politics. It is, at best, a collective denial of our political nature. Politics is simply a term of art, a very old one, for what it means to be human. Human beings are political animals, which is to say we are human in the presence of other human beings. Nothing could be less political than the way we live now, indifferent to or perhaps afraid of politics even in the face of the most urgent political opportunities (e.g., the homeless man shouting at no one in particular because he has been ignored so long that he wonders whether he or anyone else is really there). Those of us who are said to be meaningfully invested in American political life, middle-class and upper middle-class professionals, begin our days with watches telling us our heart rates; we shuffle off, with ears full of meaningless noise supplied by our little boxes, to desks (assuming we leave our domiciles at all) where we sit (or, absurdly, stand) in silence performing tasks prescribed by algorithms of one kind or another for a set period of time. Then we return home and use our boxes to have food brought to us by strangers and attempt to alleviate feelings of boredom also prescribed by computer formulas. If we desire parodies of intimacy, we may find them supplied, once again, via algorithm on our boxes.
This is why talk of putting aside politics in the face of the present crisis — to say nothing of a "Benedict option," a withdrawal from politics — is nonsensical. We have already left politics behind. We have replaced politics and the political imperative — the common good — with economics. (What the imperative of economics might be is a question that economists have in the main refused to answer, but as far as I can tell it is sometimes the facilitation of cupidity but more often than not a mere inexplicable addiction to arithmetic.)
We nevertheless require politics. This is, as I say, only philosophical shorthand for suggesting that we require humanity: human faces, human voices, and bodies and hands; gestures, embraces, jokes, secrets, wishes, songs, rooting interests, prayers. We require these things, I will not say every bit as much as we require food, water, shelter, medical care, but rather because politics was once understood as the essential activity into which all the aforementioned needs of our species were subsumed. The most sublime modern expression of this need is the moment in the Choral Symphony at which human nature rises above the music that serves as a merely abstract representation of our longings and aspirations: when a voice says the word "friend." "Whoever has been lucky enough to become a friend to a friend" not only understands politics implicitly; he or she is a politician, every bit as much as, indeed perhaps even more so than Sen. Schumer or Sen. Graham.
This, I suspect, is why as I write this young people are still flocking to the beaches in Florida, and why parishioners across this country are slipping quietly into the back pews of unlocked churches to assist at ostensibly private Masses. In our cities, millions who would otherwise have been content with politics riding shotgun or even taking the backseat to economics are suddenly, half-comprehendingly, beginning to dread "social isolation" and "self-quarantine" or whatever the currently approved neologism might be. They are simply (I say, with what I hope is already becoming a tedious emphasis) crying out for politics.
This is eminently reasonable. One regrets the fact that it is only when the political imperative is actively denied rather than simply held in abeyance that we recognize its importance. But having thus recognized it, how ought we to respond? If the worst projections of health authorities in this country prove correct, it may well be that for the time being the most ordinary expressions of our political wills shall have to be suspended for the sake of politics. But this does not mean we must put aside our longing. We can begin to satisfy it in our own households. The family, though it offers an analogy to the polis in the form of parental authority over children, is not pre-political. It is the kindergarten of politics, the space in which the rudiments of politics are learned both for their own sake and in order to make more advanced study possible. Most of us are not prepared for a higher course at present. Before we can learn political calculus or political chemistry and biology, we must learn political play and political snack time. The opportunity afforded to us by the present crisis is, as Pope Francis recently observed, to "rediscover the concreteness of little things, small gestures of attention we can offer to those close to us," for this is where "our treasure lies." This will be the germ or kernel of our new politics.
New politics? When? How? It would be pollyannish to suggest that coronavirus will single-handedly deliver us from economics. But sooner or later (to doubt it would be as absurd and even wicked, a denial of our humanity) the restoration will be accomplished, doubtless by means which it is impossible at present to foresee. We will find ourselves out of the sandbox, doing politics again. The new politics will be like and unlike all the old ones. It will be, one hopes, a politics in which our relationships are oriented in the direction of the highest goods toward which we aspire: a politics of peace and plenty. But it must also be a politics of things that we have long considered unpolitical.
What I mean is that there will have to be a place in our new politics for things that do not make anyone money, things that cannot be quantified or optimized or even measured in any conventional sense. This will be a place for cycling in ordinary clothes, for inexact backyard workmanship, for inept experiments in cookery, for amateur theatrics, for candlelit processions, for tiny hands that cast training rods in the orange water of a stream one last time as the sun strolls lazily westward, for night prayers, for final whispers of "I love you."