The moderators of the recent Democratic debate have received much criticism for questions that seemed to be peripheral to the campaign, questions like lapel pins and campaign gaffes, questions which the critics consider irrelevant. They should have concentrated, the critics say, on the “issues.” But there are at least three problems with this critique: One, in respect to the “issues,” there is very little difference between the candidates, and much less worth debating; two, the issues they are discussing are not the real issues which face us, and; three, we are not ruled by “issues,” but by persons, and it is important to know what kind of persons we are electing. The moderators' questions did go to the subject of character and attitudes, and therefore cannot be characterized as irrelevant.
Concerning the first point, the candidates share the same approach to the problems, and there is little to discuss. Concerning the second point, the “issues” they do discuss are not always the real issues, or are not properly connected to the real problems that face us. For example, universal health care is certainly a real issue, but how is one to accomplish this without wrecking the system we have and driving us further into debt? This has not been addressed by any candidate in either party. It is clear that if we make health care a universal right, then we must also increase the supply of medicines, medical practitioners, and hospitals and clinics. None of the current plans do this, and hence all are doomed to failure. My own thoughts on this problem can be found at Sicko-phancy!
As to the real issues, they have to do with questions like how we can reduce the power of an imperial presidency, pay off our debts, rebuild our industrial base (without which the debts cannot be repaid), meet our staggering Social Security obligations, rebuild a broken army, and fix an educational system which has simply failed most people, and without which we cannot do all the other things. My own list of issues can be found here. Your list may vary from mine, but I suspect it will also vary from the list the candidates are offering us.
That leaves the third set of concerns, concerns about character, and here I think it is legitimate to ask whether Hillary's memory is a bit too convenient, her style too strident; whether Obama's attitude is a bit too condescending, his answers a bit too facile. The question of the lapel pin certainly seems frivolous, yet what is revealing here is not the question, but the answer. Symbols are important; language itself is nothing more than symbols, and without language we cannot really be human. Indeed, all creation is in and through The Word, and all history revolves around The Word made flesh. Hence we cannot ignore symbols, but even more importantly, we cannot ignore how they are manipulated and subverted. The proper answer to the question involves this subversion of the symbol. The lapel pin has become the symbol, not of national unity and ideals, but of the chicken-hawks: no one more insists on displaying the flag than those who refused to fight for it when they had the chance. When there were real battles, their biggest battles were for deferments, or for places in the National Guard. Now, like so many Dukes of Plaza-Toro, the lead their regiments from behind, and from the safety of suburban castles order men and women to their deaths. They are the people who have taken the flag-pin and made it a badge of shame, a symbol of cowardice. Every candidate must be willing to point to this hypocrisy, and if he or she doesn't then they end up joining the hypocrites.
Then we come to the more serious issue of Obama's comments suggesting that clinging to God and guns is a sign of lower-class bitterness. His statement is, of course, a product of a rationalist mentality, which holds that religious belief has to have a material cause, because transcendent causes are excluded from the outset. Now, I am more than willing to accept the Senator's explanation that this was a gaffe, a clumsy statement to state a real thing. And while it is wrong to exclude transcendent causes, it is equally wrong to ignore material ones. There is nothing wrong, per se, with attempting to connect deeply held beliefs to our material circumstances; there is only something wrong with attempting to reduce those beliefs to circumstance. And in truth, when beliefs are under attack, believers often respond by clinging to those beliefs more strongly. That is, we come to the defense of Holy Mother the Church for the same reasons we might come to the defense of any other lady enduring such assaults. And we defend her with the same sense of indignation and anger that we would (as gentleman) display towards any cad we find attacking a lady.
As for guns, we cling to them for another reason, a reason that his little to do with the arguments about the second amendment, arguments which few of us really understand, least of all myself. No, we cling to them precisely because the know-it-alls tell us not to. We live in an age when “experts” give us no end of good advice on subjects that are none of their business, and when each new day brings new headlines about what we should or should not be doing. Be it cholesterol or sex, God or guns, children or politics, there are endless experts to tell us what we are doing wrong. These professional naggers really have our best interests at heart, and the more so the more removed they are from us.
But if we really wanted to be nagged, we would call our mothers more often. Nagging in itself isn't a bad thing. “All civilization,” says George Will, “depends on two things: education and nagging.” Children who are not nagged to clean their rooms and finish their homework tend to grow up to lead dissolute lives; they may even become nanny-state liberals. This is the real problem with liberal naggers: they reject the nagging authority of mothers but insist on the nagging authority of the state. It takes a village, says Hillary Clinton, to raise a child, but when she says “village,” she really means “The State.” Indeed, between the state and the corporation, villages have been pretty much abolished. And as Chesterton noted, those who reject legitimate authority, like the authority of mothers, do not end up rejecting all authority, but rather subject themselves to every fraudulent authority; their liberation from real authority enslaves them to every passing authority. And that's fine for them; they must live as they must, and I wish them well. But they would insist that we live as they do, and would enlist both social scorn and state power to make us do so. At this point, we might become bitter, and cling more firmly to both God and guns.
The real reason we cling to guns is that they are ours. And even more, they were our fathers. Ownership of guns is something that distinguished the New World from the Old. In the decadent aristocracies of Europe, guns were largely for the landowners, and “poaching” was punishable by flogging or worse. In the New World, every frontiersman had a gun, and it was an essential part of feeding his family and declaring his liberty. We no longer need to feed our families by hunting, but we still need to assert our liberty, and especially our liberty from the army of experts who claim to know what is best for us.
Senator Obama comes from a Church were the language of bitterness was part of the regular rhetoric. And I am not inclined to hold his gaffe too much against him. But I think it does reveal the problems of a “liberal” populism, two terms which are almost a contradiction in terms. For the liberal always knows what is best for you, while the populist asserts that we know best for ourselves; we are content to run our own lives in our own ways, even if they are deemed to be inferior ways. And any effort to tell us how to run our lives is likely to make us resist all the more.
Indeed, it may even make us bitter.