Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pure. Well not exactly.

Even Ivory couldn’t be called 100% pure.  The claim its makers did make (99.44%) was constructed, as much promotional hype as reality.  Take your pick, neither 100 nor 99.44%  necessarily means the best or even better cleaning.  And that’s even more so with politics.  As said in my last post, if you want purity, get out of the political kitchen.  Linking purity with politics is an oxymoron.  Clearly that’s something those engaged in the unfolding Republican Presidential primary either don’t know or want us to forget.  From Iowa into New Hampshire and now South Carolina, claims of purity are getting a real workout.  One contender after another is promoting himself (the single herself has left the stage) as the real, or shall I say pure, conservative.  That’s of course in contrast to his impure opponent.  It’s a uniquely Republican debate.

Pure in a political setting suggests being in possession of the truth, the kind of absolute truth claimed by the religious right with which some of these conservative candidates closely identify.  Democrats and especially liberals are more circumspect about possessing the truth.  But there is another reason they don’t engage in this purity rhetoric.  Thanks in large measure to Ronald Reagan, liberals and liberalism has been demonized — the L word.  While there is more than ample reason for Democrats to explore liberalism and to re-identify with it — a subject for the future — for now we should be grateful that the GOP’s great (and seemingly only) hero saved us this public pursuit of purity.

Like anyone who preaches a message of the only truth, these absolutists see their political ideology as 100% pure and thus somehow sacrosanct.  Their truths include that only smaller government, lower taxes, and less social programming will solve all our ills and bring on prosperity.  It’s a pure truth that lends itself to no compromise and no one represents it more clearly and purely than Ron Paul.  It is that purity, and most especially his being so up front and consistent about it, that has made Paul so attractive.  To be sure, many of his most loyal long-term followers and more so his recent converts (which include some very strange bedfellows) don’t spend much time considering the consequences of his pure message.  Considering how change-resistant we Americans really are, it’s unlikely many (if any) of them would welcome how translating the rhetoric into reality would impact on their individual or communal lives. 

In a short New Yorker piece, Enemy of the State, Nicholas Lemann spells out where government-shrinking, the purist kind espoused by Paul and that echoed by Republicans out on the hustings, leads.  If rigorously put into practice …Paul’s vision, he writes, would mean A minimal state, without welfare provisions for the unemployed.  A quarter of a million federal workers…joining those unemployed.  Foreign policy and national defense reduced to a few ballistic-missile submarines. The civil-rights legislation of the nineteen-sixties repealed, and in a financial crisis …no regulation that might have prevented it, no government stabilization …and no special help for working people hurt by it.

Oh, but that’s in the fine print, and to focus on logical implications is to miss the point.  Talk is cheap.  Paul’s edge comes in large measure because he never has to deliver — as say does a president, governor, or mayor.  No need to put up, so none to shut up.  And in Paul we can see the polar opposite of what we simple mortals face.  Most of our problems don’t lend themselves to pure solutions.  Our everyday real world and how we address it has more in common with President Obama or any one of his predecessors than those purists on the campaign trail.  Sure the Tea Party folk who were elected to Congress will tell you that it’s possible to remain pure, but look at the result, the havoc they have caused.  Having the objective of halting the wheels of government makes great headlines, but its pontificating purists don’t have to get social security checks out, fill pot holes or send someone’s loved ones to war. 

So all this debate about purity rings pretty hollow, a sharp departure from reality.  I’m no fan of Mitt Romney, but the charge that he is a flip-flopper is totally disingenuous.  Not only have all his office holding opponents made pragmatic adjustments in their public lives, most (including Saint Paul) have likely done so at home.  Navigate a marriage or raise a child without the occasional flip-flop and you’ll deserve a place in Guinness.  There is no purity in the life of, by definition, imperfect human beings.  The purity espoused in all those pronouncements and debates suggests a stubbornness that obviates the give and take that make America what it is, that make it possible.  And this isn’t a matter of ideology.  It would apply to pure liberalism as well as pure conservatism, neither of which have a lock on truth — the right and only way.

My purpose here is not to suggest that heartfelt beliefs and core principles are not important.  There should be options that go beyond the pale, places where we take an absolute, even purist, stand.  One would hope that all those who serve, or seek to serve, in public office live by some purist ideal, that they possess core values.  In a fundamental way, we depend on that being so, which accounts for why we are so often disappointed.  It’s that experience and disappointment that suggests each and everyone of those self-proclaimed purists engaged in the who is the pure conservative debate is blowing smoke. It's not that what they're selling isn't pure, just that its pure malarkey.  What is it they say about glass houses?

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