Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Promise of Politics

Have you ever felt frustrated because you cannot put into words a feeling that you have about what is happening in the world today?  It happens to me all the time, and I turn to the philosophers and literature for help in framing my thoughts.

Seeing on my television screen the events that became labelled "The Arab Spring" filled me with hope for the decline of totalitarianism; for a new world understanding of the human condition.   More recent events have dulled that hope, but not distinguished it.  Hope remains alive in me because there are people like Marie Colvin who are prepared to live and die in the cause of accurate reporting from war zones.  There are many more thousands who live and die for their causes, who will not give up, who are not prepared to live in the hopeless, isolated conditions that Hannah Arendt describes as "desert".

It is to Hannah Arendt that I turned to help to sort out my muddled thoughts about politics, about action and about the human condition. She was writing at the time of the Cold War and trying to encourage people and nations to offer understanding and common humanity to each other.

In the introduction to the 2005 edition of "The Promise of Politics" Jerome Kohn writes:
".. [Arendt's] writings are even more demanding of attention today than when they were written or in 1968.  Politically speaking, the Cold War dominated the 1950s and 1960s, but our current "war on terror" is not cold at all."

I remember the Cold War.  I began teaching at a time when we worried about how to look after the children if the "four minute warning" sounded.  The protocol included an orderly movement to the cellars, rather like a more serious fire alarm.  Looking back to the days when the older pupils were only four years or so younger than myself, and the daily lessons continued just the same, it is hard to remember the fatalism that attended the possibility of us all dying in the most horrific way.  In those uncertain times the only thing I was sure of was my duty to put the pupils first.  Raymond Briggs' book "When the Wind Blew" reinforced those feelings that no cellar, garden shelter or indoor cubbyhole could ultimately alter our fate.

At that time the worst did not happen to us.  But the worst has happened in so many ways to so many people over time, and is still happening.  

One could become so disillusioned with politics with so much at stake.  Politicians strut about the national and international stages, making promises, making alliances, making digs at each other and at the countries they represent, giving interviews to the media, and generally acting as if they have the answers, or at least as if they know what they are doing.  I have some sympathy with their condition.  It is similar to the condition in which I found myself in the 1960s.  Except that I hope that I did not make digs at my colleagues, or at teachers in other countries who had their own pupils to look after as well as their own hopes and fears.

Life must go on.  Education, The National Health Service, and the Welfare System must all be funded, as well as defence, overseas aid, and so much more.  Taxes must be collected.  Benefits must be given.  Standards must be kept up.  Satisfactory progress will not do.
It all makes me think of the stuff that was piled onto the horse of the White Knight in "Alice through The Looking Glass".

I think we are all White Knights in a way.  We are mostly well-intentioned, woefully ill-equipped for the hazards we face, less than skillful riders, desperately trying to keep our balance.  Yet we hope against hope.  We try do our best.

The way Hannah Arendt describes "action" is the human capacity to begin anew.  In being born we are in ourselves a new beginning, and we are able to make many beginnings.  She disapproves of adjusting, or settling into the conditions as we find them, into "wasteland" or "desert", where there is space between us and other humankind.  If I read her correctly, we are both human and political because we have speech; because we have the capacity to endure the passions of living under desert or storm (totalitarian) conditions and the capacity to "summon up the courage" that lies at the root of action.  The meaning of action being:

".. venturing forth in speech and deed in the company of one's peers, beginning something new whose end cannot be known in advance, founding a public realm, promising and forgiving others...."

By this token, politicians are not political if they are just "adjusters" of the status quo, or followers of political theory.  Any person who has the courage to speak out, to reach out to others in order to understand them, who creates "oases" of friendship, love and beauty, or is involved in community projects, is political.  

Kohn, in his introduction, says of Arendt's view of the meaning of political experience:

"If human courage, dignity and freedom are integral to that meaning, then we might decide that it is not politics per se but its prejudices and prejudgments that we should be free of.  After so many centuries, however, such freedom probably can be attained only by judging afresh each new possibility of action the world presents."  

Arendt says in her epilogue:

"If they who must spend their lives in the desert, trying to do this or that, constantly worrying about its conditions, do not know how to use its oases, they will become desert inhabitants..."  

She goes on to quote Hamlet:

"The time is out of joint, O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right."

It is easy to recognise that sense of things being in such a mess that it is too big a task to sort it all out, and of wanting someone else to take the responsibility.  For Arendt, though, the promise of politics seems to lie in her words,

"The world is always a desert waiting for new inhabitants to begin it anew."

Perhaps those of us here already could begin to think, speak, act, and relate to each other with new courage and dignity, in friendship and in common humanity.  Everything begins somewhere.