The 2016 Presidential campaign is making fools out of the American people. The world is both laughing and/or incredulously horrified at what they are seeing.
Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin suggested that other people knew us better than we know ourselves. This is certainly not true in every respect, but when people watch our actions, we are often telegraphing our deepest, darkest elements to them. It could be that the rest of the world is seeing the US for who we really are, and their critiques may be more valid that we would want to admit.
Don’t be deceived. How you choose something says something about you, and often clearly telegraphs both good and bad things about you. The political party you are affiliated with, the religious identification you select, the vote you make, and even the hobbies and activities of your leisure moments all come together and say something about you. Sometimes your choices betray you. Those choices tell others a little bit more about you than you might have wanted them to know, and yes, those actions may express your darkest biases and deepest fears.
This is one of the reasons we hide our guilty pleasures and dark habits – even from those people who are closest to us. If they discovered what we did, or how we thought, they might not like what they see. The wisdom of Jesus was evident in his statements about the words of our mouth. “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45) Jesus understood that we communicate who we are through the words of our mouth at a far deeper level that we can possibly understand. Our dark intentions squeak out in spite of our best attempts to hide them.
We learn about other people when we listen to them. We also learn about other people, when we watch their actions, and observe their choices. We are evaluating other people multiple times daily, while we watch and listen. On the basis of their activities, words, and allegiances we determine whether we are able to trust a person, can identify with their concerns, and we decide whether we think they are intelligent or not. Of course, this evaluation is happening to us as well, and the people around us know more about us that we might think they do.
Every voting season offers a new opportunity for us to learn about others. Yes, we discover that people have political and social opinions different than our initial expectations, and thereby we learn a little more about them, but we learn more than their political affiliation. If we listen and watch closely, we see their fears, and we learn their biases. We discover their presuppositions about particular issues, such as capitalism vs. socialism, “black lives matter” vs. “all lives matter”, or immigration, or any number of social and economic issues; and beneath each of these issues lie the presuppositions feeding their choices.
The rest of the world is looking in at us just as we look at others, and they are judging our activities. Some Americans feel that the world has no right to judge our actions, because this is our house – our country. The shortsightedness of this American expectation to be able to behave however we want without critique betrays something about us. The American assumption of privacy as a right is hypocritically isolationist. One the one hand, we put our most stupid moments on social media for the world to see, and the next moment we cry foul, when we are told that we are being stupid. Consequently, this is how the corporate expression of America looks to the world à adolescent, violent, bipolar, quick to judge others, and incapable of receiving critique. We look just like the frontrunners in this 2016 political season. Our voting is betraying us and telegraphing our fears, our biases, and the issues we have not intelligently considered. We are caught with our pants down, and the world is laughing at us.
Consider the following observations from other countries. A CNN article asked for opinions from writers from 10 different countries: Britain, South Africa, Canada are using words such as horrified, and nauseating; Japan, and India are looking on with incredulity; Lebanon is scratching its head: and Iran thinks we are extremists (could this be a ‘takes one to know one’ situation?). Only Russia seems enamored with the rise of Donald Trump, and that is most likely an official state position, which would typically scare most Americans – but not this year.
Although, we could dismiss these positions as the voices of outsiders who do not understand what it means to live in America in 2016, those voices could be considered the voice of conscience to us as well. If indeed, Bakhtin’s observation is true, and others know us better than we know ourselves, then these critiques (and the one post-Soviet praise) deserve our attention. The audacity of our separatist, don’t-tell-me-how-to-live naivety has become so acute, that we can’t even hear a soft critique from the most celebrated, gentle, and socially aware pope in generations. When he challenges the obvious non-Christian behavior of the front-runner of the party that celebrates its Christian morals, we can’t even open our ears to Francis. Instead we mock the Pope for speaking to the spiritual issues of this election year. Shame upon the pastors, who rejected the decent critiques of a spiritual leader like Francis! He has stood at our gates, spoken with the prophetic accuracy of the outsider, and we are holding the fort against him, as though he was some kind of foreign intruder.
Is the critical world correct? Have we betrayed ourselves as being brats on the world scene? We are unable to talk about real issues without name-calling, and we should be ashamed of ourselves, but as anyone who has raised a child through the junior high school years knows, apologies don’t pass through over-active hormones easily.
This is not to say that other nations are not similarly childish – sometimes even in their critiques, but a childish superpower is a most terrifying thing. A childish superpower ends up looking like little Anthony Fremont in the Twilight Zone episode, “It’s a Good Life.” A childish superpower causes deadly harm, while seeking only its own good. It lights the rest of the world on fire, or sends the rest of the world “to the cornfield.” It is the adolescent uncontrolled tongue that James tells us is set on fire of hell, and causes destruction. Our celebration of an uncontrolled tongue is therefore the celebration of something hellish, and that celebration tells us something about our own hearts. We become purveyors of obscenity and violence, when we celebrate crudeness, vulgarity and slander. Even the rather crude atheist Slavoj Žižek has recently warned us about the rise in public vulgarity.
When fear motivates our political vote, the boldness of a candidate becomes more important than the intelligence, gentleness, kindness, or ethical integrity of the candidate. Suddenly, boldness appears to be a holy attribute independent of other qualities. Unfortunately, one may boldly sin, tell bold-faced lies…. Aristotle described “boldness” in its non-virtuous expression, which we call rashness, and said, that it is “useful for nothing in civil life, but if at all, for war.” (Pol. 2.9 1269b34-36) Thus, our vote based in fear looks to another like a vote for violence, and it is not far from reality. Our fear is the source of much of our violent intention, which is why the Apostle John tells us, “…perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment”, (1 John 4:18) and when our votes are based in fear, the world we see us as in need of an exorcism from our violent intentions.
When greed motivates our vote, the onlooking world sees a bloated nation, with a bloated economy. We are bloated with entertainment. We are bloated with the luxuries. We are physically bloated by over-indulgence. We are bloated by self-promotion. Greed demands being number one, and assigns numbers and measurements to self-worth. The world becomes a zero sum game, and I must gain more each year to assure that someone else does not take my position, or my hopes and dreams away from me. James describes this greed as the “root of all evil.” Yet, a vote for greed is never described in such obvious terms. A vote for greed comes to us in more subtle tones. It is a vote for greatness, change, or winning.
We vote for things we believe are strong and positive changes, but someone else sees our strength as aggression. We vote to protect a failing society, someone else sees retributive violence. We vote to be on a winning side, someone else sees oppression. We read our own actions in a positive light, and others see that the B-side of our record plays a medieval war song with a list of dead enemies.
Don’t be deceived. You will be known by your choices. Both the light and the dark show through to those around us, and our corporate choices as Christians and as Americans communicate who we are to the world. Our votes will betray us.