Tuesday, January 13, 2004


In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt maintained that political activity is an intrinsically valuable dimension of human life, not just an unavoidable duty or mere practical necessity. A more muscular—or visceral—celebration of politics appears in Carlin Barton’s recent Roman Honor: the Fire in the Bones. Both books look back with more or less overt nostalgia to the political culture of pre-Alexandrian Greece and pre-imperial Rome, an irony, really, since the choicer spirits of those periods became fed up with politics themselves, repelled by its mendacity, brutality, and sheer noise, and opted instead for art, philosophy, or religion. For my part, I feel I certain sympathy for those involved in this internal migration, though I don’t think that disengagement was any more moral defensible then than it is now. Besides, I don’t think the flight from the public life was motivated solely by a hatred for politics. The alternatives were simply more attractive.

It is very, very easy to mutter, “Politics, we hates it!” and turn to more rewarding pursuits, and that’s all the more the case because so many of us have rather limited expectations for the possibilities of politics. We’re not the ones who thought that it is desirable or even possible to impose a New World Order on the unwilling or bring the Millennium through cultural war. We weren’t trying to make water run uphill. We were handicapped by a certain optimism, believing that commonsense measures at home and abroad could suffice because underlying trends really weren’t unfavorable. Domestically, we saw no challenges that could not be met by pragmatic measures well within the American political tradition. Wealth, we understood, is never created by ideological formulas but by human effort and technological progress. In foreign affairs, we recognized that American hegemony would be temporary, but we believed that the inevitable relative decline of our power didn’t have to involve either military defeat or national decadence, that our time of responsible and honorable stewardship could lead to a more lawful and humane world if we could only avoid arrogance and paranoia. We thought we could have been a blessing, and that that would have been an altogether better outcome than a ten-year stint as suzerain of Uzbekistan.

On a personal level, it is hard for individuals who already possess a sense of their own identity to pursue politics with passionate intensity. Unwounded in the tender places of our self-regard, we just aren’t interested in seeking solace in the pornography of patriotism. It isn’t exactly original to point this out, but the folks who dream of Universal Dominion, Magic Fortresses, Invincible Weapons, and even War in Heaven are the weak and powerless. If you are at least partly content with your merely human, but real capabilities, fantasy politics has little appeal.

In a rational world, the important things would be playing with your kids, reading Ovid, improving your short game—anything but politics. In the real world, unfortunately, fantasy rules and therefore politics.

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