Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Elijah Missed Another Good Meal


I was told last night, under a full moon identical to that which shone twenty-eight years ago and fifty-six centuries ago (and on the first day), that the term Israelite means “God-wrestler” and that the face of the angel that Jacob clutched was shockingly his own. The first I think is profound, the second an easy piece of theater, a scoop of tasty symbolism, posing as something important, like the clever answers of the “wise child” who played a brief role in the evening readings.

The door is opened for symbolic invitation. The cup, or cups for some, is placed meaningfully. The careful sequence of mnemonic rituals is thoughtfully played out. The questions and the readings are executed with diligent patience. ... This melange of wisdom and carnival – the product of memetic millennia – provides a degree of satisfied completeness for many of those who do wrestle with the harsh philosophical exigencies of sentient chemistry.

Most, I think, no longer wrestle. They have their pat answers, or they avoid the questions. The suffering, however, continues unabated, sometimes because of those responses, but mostly because that is what Life has to offer.

For myself, I accept neither the pat answers nor the life-affirming stoicism expressed in the words of the evening. The idea that suffering is God's medicine is repugnant to me, for though I recognize its allure, I seek a real cure.

We are not doing well on this planet, not because we are incapable of doing better, but because we will not agree on how to proceed. We are still at the mercy of the current – the thoughtless and heartless process of mechanical social consequences – because we have not yet clasped each others hands to pull ourselves toward firmer land. We have not yet addressed those social processes with a mechanic's paternal detachment. Fix the problem! Don't try to convince yourself it's an illusion.


The Jeremiahs want us to believe that the ravages of history have been punishments for sinfulness and unbelief. Would a good God do such things, we wonder? If not, he allowed them to happen, and that is most of the reason that people cannot restrain themselves from wrestling with God. But this is not right. Blaming God, if God there be, is counterproductive. I think we need to recognize that most of our suffering is purely self-induced, if not self-inflicted. The things we suffer are neither intentional nor merited, but they come, for the most part, as consequences of our incompleteness and our ignorance. Disasters afflict us because we do not directly address the underlying problems and we do not take the necessary steps to fix the machine.

Why do the armies of Babylon descend upon us, burning the storehouses and breaking the grindstones. They do this because we have not become Babylon and Babylon has not become us. There are no hands linked across that river. In fact, the Israelites could not reliably recognize even themselves as one people, could not participate in their own consensual decision-making without the harsh whip of a ruler to drive them to an imposed unity. Only in exile could they maintain that unity -- by the process of natural selection as much as anything else.


To be clear, I am not advocating a One World solution on the order of the UN. Wishful thinking is no part of my prescription. I am saying that expecting sovereign nations to solve problems of significant magnitude is just as silly. The model doesn't work. Our failure is a little less depressing than some others, but it is clearly not up to the imminent crises.

We are today little different from the Israelites. We have a Constitution, but we have no trust in each other. The country that represents the best of our hopes is only fifty percent legitimate. People have quarreled with my definition of legitimacy here, considering it to be rather something conferred by outside observers, like a good reputation, but I must persist in stretching it a little to cover a broader frame. The legitimacy of government, I say, is not a legalistic toggle, a decisive status anointed from without. It is rather a continuum of social virtue, measured by the degree of satisfaction, even joy, that members feel in contributing to the whole. Yes, they trusted in David as they would in their kin. And in Solomon. But the power and wealth which always corrupt eventually drove the upper folks away from the lowers. When democracy departs, Fear eventually becomes the ruler. And when the ruled must prove themselves worthy ... yes I am loyal, and I honor the king above all ... then the legitimacy of a government, as I am now defining it, is weak. It is a ruler who should prove loyalty to the people, not the other way around.

Even within a democracy, however, that ideal is only nominally adhered to. Candidates only have to be trustworthy compared to their opponents. It's like the old joke where a man puts on his sneakers to run from lions. “Why,” his friend says, “you can never outrun a lion.” “No,” he replies, “but I only need to run faster than you.”

In a nation such as the US, the political distance between the leaders and the citizens is so great that there is no way to pass truth back and forth. The US was a lot smaller and a lot simpler in the beginning, but I'm not sure the fundamental problem of accurate leadership was ever any easier. The President often tries to “break out of the bubble” to interact with “real” people. It can't be done though. It's like the Truman Show. The lives of leaders in America are completely controlled by the commercial opportunity they represent. If we want to cut through that clutter, we obviously have to install some intermediate steps. Somebody has to collect the honest messages of the people and present them for the rest of us. How can someone be in a place where they understand both the message and the President? The answer is that we have to create those positions, a sort of collective ombudsery. (Maybe I'm advocating an ombudsocracy). Well then, how will that person or persons avoid the same kind of pressure and scrutiny that apply to everyone at such rarefied political levels?

Here's the trick. Let them retain their anonymity. Think of such people as representatives from the Ministry of Magic to the Prime Minister himself. Some sort of shibboleth allowing contact to be made will be necessary. I don't know how Blackberries work, but I'll bet something could be worked out involving public/private code exchanges.

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