No big deal. No one says we have to agree on everything. And compared to some of the nastiness during primaries, both in 2004 and this last cycle, what we are seeing on health care is actually pretty mild.
But it's somewhat saddening to see people questioning one another's motives. Questioning the motives and courage of dedicated progressives like Al Franken and Russ Feingold because they are not voting the way some want them to.
There are things at which to be angry. That Republicans are forcing an ailing Bobby Byrd to be wheeled in order to obtain cloture, that Tom Coburn seems to be praying for Byrd to be too ill to come for that cloture vote - these are things over which to be angry.
I do not wish to contribute to the disharmony. So instead I want to offer something else.
Back at Thanksgiving I sent emails to a number of Congressmen I know. To each I first thanked them for their public service. I also noted that I respected that they would sometimes make votes with which I would disagree, or with which their constituents would take issue. I noted that I did not challenge their integrity merely because we disagreed on some issues.
Several thanked me for those emails. Which is fine, but not why I did it.
I will never run for public office. There are things in my past that would inevitably come up that would undercut any change I might have for any except local office. And besides, there is a certain freedom in remaining out of that particular fray to be able to speak as bluntly as I may choose on issues of importance to me.
But we need those who are willing to enter political contests.
I have actively supported people with whom I had strong disagreements on some issues, but whose honesty I did not doubt. The campaign in which I was most involved in recent years was that of Jim Webb in 2006. I disagree with Jim that Vietnam was worth fighting as long as we did. I do not in any way regret my support, even when he casts a vote with which I take exception. I consider the alternative - George Allen - and I remain quietly proud of whatever role I may have played in Webb's victory.
It is hard to run for office. It is hard to be in office. A congressman or senator is subject to pressures most of us will never experience. They regularly have to make compromises in order to make progress. We may not like those compromises, and we have every right to question individual actions.
What I do not think we should be doing is taking one or several votes and using those as an excuse for writing off future support, or threatening to primary.
Unless what we see is a betrayal of how the office holder campaigned.
Thus on Afghanistan, I do not think that what the President decided in any way contradicts what he said during the campaign. I may strongly disagree, but I am not surprised.
And I have lived long enough, and know enough history, to realize that sometimes it is necessary to get a program enacted into law in order to be able to then reshape it more to the liking of people like me. I saw that with Great Society programs, and I know it was true of New Deal programs as well.
I understand the individual passions of many here. I have passions of my own, ranging from education to music to human rights to what I have encountered at the RAM-MOM medical events at which I have volunteered.
Our passions should not make us so narrowly focused that we lose sight of other persons who may think differently on this one issue, but who are our allies on so many others. In politics, as others have noted, there are few permanent allies and there is a risk in considering someone a permanent adversary. That risk is to the advancement of a cause dear to one on which one might have obtained the support of someone written off as a permanent adversary.
Yes, there are those on the other side of the political divide who are unwilling to compromise. Heck, there are some within our side for whom the same may be said. For me the question is how we make progress.
I teach. I cannot demand the same of every student, because they do not arrive in my classroom with the same background, the same knowledge and skills. For some students, if they do thre out of 5 homeworks, that represents a huge improvement which needs to be acknowledged and supported. For others, if they miss one assignment it serves as a cause for possible alarm, and a need to check immediately to see if anything is wrong.
Perhaps that last paragraph may seem irrelevant to this discussion. For me it is key - the same kinds of differences I see among my students I can perceive among fellow bloggers and certainly among politicians. I do not have the same expectations for each.
Many years ago, when I was an Orthodox Christian, I had a relationship with the monastery of Simona Petra on Mount Athos - the Geronda (abbot), Pater Aimilianos, served as my personal spiritual father. In 1983, on my second trip - for a month-long stay - I was invited in while he was teaching the monks: I was treated as a member of the community, worked in the refectory (dining hall) setting up and cleaning up, and sat with the novices at meals and at prayer. In one session a dispute broke out, with some of the monks being upset at the role being given by Aimilianos to one younger priest, Father Miron. The discussion began to get heated, with Aimilianos getting upset. I was listening to all this in translation, my Greek being quite limited. Finally I raised my hand. Aimilianos nodded to me and I spoke.
I can still remember what I said. I said that what I was watching reminded me of many things in my life in America. At work the bosses complained about the workers and the workers complained about the bosses. In the Church the parishioners were upset with the priests, the priests with the parishioners and the bishops. Even in families, parents complained about children and argued with one another. Sitting and listening, if I had ever had any doubt before, I had none now. Monks were not angels, merely men.
The place actually broke out in laughter. Over the next few days several monks - including some of the senior members of the community, who had been at Simona Petra before Aimilianos was invited to become their abbot, repeated those words to me: monks were not angels, merely men.
Politicians are also merely men. So are bloggers and other political activists. We have our strengths and our weaknesses. Even in those things about which we are most passionate, we are at times narrowminded and sometimes even wrong.
I would hope that we never lose our passion. I would also hope that it never so blind or enrage us that we lose sight of the other human beings with whom we interact, even when we feel greatly disappointed by their words, their actions, or their inactions.
Ultimately if we are unhappy about how an office holder acts, we have every right to oppose her or him, perhaps by running ourselves against them in a primary or general election.
If we do choose to step into the political ring, I hope we remember the kinds of criticism we leveled at others, for we can be certain it will be coming our way. After all, we are merely men, not angels.
As for me? I think an appropriate place to end will be with the words of Reinhold Niebuhr. I no longer consider myself a Christian, and the words I will offer, in the complete form rarely quoted, are explicitly Christian in their orientation. That does not keep me from finding value therein.
You will recognize the first paragraph. Please keep reading through the second.
God grant me the serenityAnd now I will return to the singing of Eva Cassidy, perhaps now with a glass of ouzo, in memory of the time I spent in Greece.
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.