We had houseguests this past week, dear friends we?ve known for decades. Lingering over breakfast on Friday, we divvied up the \New York Times\. Whoever commented first on the employment report (200,000 new jobs had been forecast for July, but only 32,000 actually materialized) spoke what all of us were feeling: I hate to say this, but reading this headline, “In Blow to Bush, Only 32,000 Jobs Created in July,” I felt glad.
The ethical and spiritual dilemmas of American electoral politics bind my stomach in a tight, painful knot.
A couple of years ago, I was with a crowd of generally like-minded people made nervous by the post 9/11 Bush. One of the oldest among us, a rabbi, responded by giving the president a blessing: “May this man feel secure,” he intoned, “may he be happy and satisfied, because if his is not, then \oy\, do I fear for all of us!” This makes a humane contrast with the notion so popular among sixties activists of “heightening the contradictions.” This idea was that as suffering increased, people would be more inclined to regime change; their pain just needed to ripen into action.
At the time, I thought this was callous but possibly right. Now I know it is nonsense. What enabled us to see the need for change in the sixties was the possibility of it: favorable macroeconomic conditions created the “revolution of rising expectations,” so that young people around the world, enjoying social and economic freedom undreamed-of by previous generations, were able to imagine the fulfillment and completion of our desires. It?s not when things get unbearably bad that people move to make change. The tipping point comes when oppressive forces, drunk on their own propaganda, become overconfident, fail to take seriously their own vulnerabilities, and thereby open a space for others to imagine the downfall of the \ancien regime\. This imagination is what gives people heart.
When my friends and I found ourselves welcoming the bad employment news last week, we were tempted by the pervasive belief that people vote purely out of economic self-interest: if Bush can’t improve the economy for working people, then he won’t get their votes. In effect, we endorse the suffering of the unemployed in the interests of a larger goal.
Ugh! It makes me want to take a shower. There’s not much difference between this outlook and Bush’s insistence that if we all tighten our belts, the wealth of the upper class will overflow and trickle down into our pockets.
In times such as these, we have to guard even against our own impulses. I can’t allow myself to be glad that people are out of work on Bush’s watch. But I am glad that a space of possibility, of social imagination, is now being opened by the expanding international opposition to U. S. policy, by the increasingly evident ineptitude of this government, and by the President’s burgeoning lies.