08 January 2008

recommended: why not competence?

timothy burke, very intelligent on why competence doesn't sell the way it should. this is a great post that, to my mind, skirts religiosity in some interesting ways. he cites a feeling among some americans that basically amounts to "things suck. they suck un-understandably in a way they didn't used to suck" -- and he's right about most of that. i think a huge part of the difference between Ye Olde Coastal Elites and flyover, median-income america is a growing sense among the second group that what is wrong is somehow out of their hands, even out of their historical ken.

however: i would note a distinction (even a potential point of inconsistency?) between burke's (right-on) characterization of the "resentment machine" and his statement that "Offering a tangible plan that promises this tax incentive, that fact-finding commission, this reinvestment project, this funding for retraining doesn’t reach people who perceive the present as a slum left behind by a low-rent version of Benjamin’s angel of history."

compare the angel of history to the actual fuel for the resentment machine. the resentments driving the machine are out of one's own, personal hands -- yes. but they are specific and directed, rather than manifestations of some eternal, unknowable progression of history. the causal chain that disdains competence generally seems to lead back (directly if not correctly) to some identifiable malevolent entity: immigrants stealing wealth; homosexuals seducing children; liberals taking God out of schools; "Islamofascist" terrah. this you might choose to see secularly, as a sort of cognitive-psych way of dealing with that "angel of history"/personal powerlessness problem...

...or you might view it as an outgrowth of (or something with an elective affinity for?) a culture of suspicion that has at least something to do with a biblical imperative that christians are to be "in the world but not of it" (john 17:14-15). that statement is easy to interpret as a belief that there are heathen enemies, both at the gates and in your midst, with whom you must unfortunately interact and against whom you must always be on your guard. [it's also easy to interpret, as in my tradition, as a call to reject materialism. but that's a different post.] it's not (just?) that some americans feel powerless in the face of the forces of history -- it's that many, many americans, even those who don't see themselves as particularly religious, are tuned for reception of messages telling them that the answers are (a) simple and(/or?) (b) mostly related to punishment.

how have republicans avoided being tarred with their own brush? burke says "the Republican leadership since Reagan has largely avoided selling itself as the party of superior competency in policy-making, but instead as the party that can address the deeper spiritual condition of the nation." yes, placing emphasis on the spiritual. again -- and this is something that left christians and other spiritual progressives have been trying to deal with lately -- actual competence isn't really a substitute for the sense that your public officials are regular folks who happen to be in on God's plan (or some vague and powerful secular analog).

burke arrives at *part* of the necessary change: articulate an emotionally and spiritually compelling case for competence, for governing well and transparently. i think there's a second half, which is that, in the most religiously observant country in the industrial world, the left might want to start thinking more seriously about God's plan.