I recorded the several hours of the Democratic Party convention broadcast on PBS each night, then fast-forwarded through the pundification that occupied perhaps a third of each program, stopping to listen to all the speeches. On the first evening, I was aware of so many sensations in my body: my heart lifted, but with difficulty, as if it carried a great weight; my arms and legs were tense with anticipation; I kept holding my breath.
I was a bit nervous, to be sure. At that point there were all sorts of media-manufactured cliffhangers: would Hillary encourage her people to bolt to the McCain camp, would Bill fail to control his temper? But this wasn’t nerves, exactly: as the rhetoric rose, I could pinpoint the feeling—a hopeful exaltation dogged by fear—and it seemed familiar. What did the convention remind me of?
Then a passage from Psalm 90, one of the most beautiful expressions of awe and yearning ever written, popped into my head:
Turn, Oh Lord! How long? Show mercy to your servants!
Satisfy us at daybreak with your steadfast love, that we may sing for joy all our days.
Give us joy for as long as you have afflicted us, for all the years we have suffered misfortune.
The Democratic convention was a religious service, a revival of sorts. All the ingredients were there (and I don’t mean the frequent invocation of the Divine): soaring sermons, call-and-response, the invocation of holy names, of ancestors’ blessings, of a potential yet to be realized, as Barack Obama said, “America, we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this.” Democrats described the outrages of the Bush administration and the dire prospects for this country should these politics continue, then spoke passionately of hope and possibility: In the words of Deuteronomy 11:26, “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse.”
After the convention was over, a friend of mine told me she’d tuned in briefly to a radio station that specializes in far-left politics: “They trashed Biden as the vice presidential choice, saying how terrible he is and how people should vote for other candidates, and after about a minute, I turned it off.” She shook her head in wonder at how indifferent this seemed to the very real challenges of the moment.
One defining characteristic of spirituality is how one relates to the blessing and the curse. Some religious leaders work the curse end of the spectrum very hard. I tend to think of them as extreme fundamentalists, the people who get churned up by the pornography of end times, who revel in the descriptions of horrific suffering and seem to believe that instilling terror in the hearts of prospective believers is the best way to bring them to the fold.
But this week I have been seeing how much the far left is in this camp, how sharply that end of the political spectrum drops off into the politics of fear, meeting its counterpart on the right. From time to time, one still hears people talk about “heightening the contradictions.” “How bad does it have to get before people wake up? Let McCain win and people will see we are right.”
Embracing the curse—scaring people into belief—is the same debased spiritual act on both ends of the political spectrum, but the motives are different. The far-right leaders seek compliance, knowing that fear heightened beyond bearing makes people pliant. Their distortion is that creating this suffering is for people’s own good. The far left denies it is creating suffering at all: the underlying notion is that spreading fear is a way of protecting people, and the distortion is that the suffering people would endure in a climate of even more heightened contradictions would be worth it in the end—”collateral damage”—because it would bring change.
My cynical self says that in either case, those who embrace the curse are in that moment indifferent to the suffering of others. Very often, indeed, they are insulated against it: the leaders of a fundamentalist flock are often cushioned by the support of their congregations from the material discomforts other suffer; and in my own experience, a remarkable number of extreme lefties have trust funds waiting at home should they tire of life on the barricades.
The late democratic philosopher John Rawls posited a test for social arrangements that is so simple and brilliant it awes me every time I consider it: Would the best-off in any society accept a proposed social or economic arrangement if they believed, at any moment, they might find themselves in the position of the worst-off? What if we had to choose rules for our societies not knowing what position we would be in when they were applied? Would we countenance slavery knowing we might wake up as slaves? Would we countenance the extreme polarization of wealth that is now characteristic of this society if we understood the likelihood of awakening among the homeless? This is a completely secular social philosophy founded on the principle Rabbi Hillel propounded when he was asked to convey the essence of his faith while standing on one foot: Do not unto others that which is hateful to yourself.
I know the Democratic Party is far too strongly tied to big business and special interests that aren’t mine (though not quite so strongly as the Republicans). I am aware of the political and historical meaning of the staging of spectacles. I don’t think everyone who stood to deliver stirring rhetoric believes every word of it, not by a longshot. And yet, I salute Obama and so many others for infusing this convention with compassion and with one of the deepest spiritual desires of which humanity is capable, the desire to heal what is broken: “Give us joy for as long as you have afflicted us, for all the years we have suffered misfortune.” The yearning present in that stadium on the last night of the convention was overwhelming.
Many speakers hitched rides on this energy, rising far above what we had seen them do before, both in denouncing the terrible sins of the Bush years and drawing our attention to our own resilience and capacity to make things right. If you didn’t see Dennis Kucinich or Al Gore, watch them now, on Labor Day, and think how the generations whose passionate faith and terrible sacrifice that holiday created would feel to hear such words from a candidate for the presidency of the United States and his supporters.