I suggest that you preach truth and do righteousness as you have been taught, whereinsoever that teaching may commend itself to your consciences and your judgments. For your consciences and your judgments we have not sought to bind; and see you to it that no other institution, no political party, no social circle, no religious organization, no pet ambitions put such chains on you as would tempt you to sacrifice one iota of the moral freedom of your consciences or the intellectual freedom of your judgments.

The words above were spoken at the 1888 Commencement of my alma mater, Haverford College, by Isaac Sharpless, then the college's president.  I have a framed copy posted in my classroom to remind me of how I view my role as a teacher.  And I offer them today because I think they are useful to bear in mind as we consider how we function as political creatures, especially but not exclusively at dailykos.

Yesterday I wrote a diary entitled NCLB as a form of fundamentalism.  I had occasion to quote the words of Sharpless in the context of content about "people in charge" in which I also quoted the famous words of John Adams to Abigail that

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain

  The Adams words point at the diversity of things which our schools should enable our students to study.  In the context of reflecting about a political blog we can interpret it in a similar fashion:  here people write about pure politics and political warfare, but we also write about education and health care, about individual lives, about mathematics and science, about music and poetry . . .    In fact some of the most moving diaries posted here enable us to understand that our purpose in politics is well beyond merely gaining control of the instruments of power, for then what?  We seek to have Democrats gain power so that people are empowered to do more, so that those instruments of power are used for the benefit and development of all, not the narrow few.  

Let me reflect upon the Sharpless quote with which the diary begins.  I take as my task as a teacher to empower my students.   I want them able to think critically, to be able to dissect the arguments made by others, to better express in speech and in writing their own ideas.  I tell them and their parents that in the process I may create my own worst nightmare:  an articulate, persuasive advocate of a position I abhor, in which case as a teacher I am happy, I have done my job.   My students know my views, so that there is no chance they be misled by my teaching.  I do believe that my modeling of a willingness to listen to alternative points of view, and to acknowledge some of the weaknesses of my own may encourage my students to challenge those who would impose orthodoxies of any kind upon them.  In the process, even should they remain conservative, they will be more human, more willing to dialog, to disagree without being disagreeable.  In a school in which the predominant orientation is somewhat to the left of center, it is interesting that some of the students with whom I become closest are those who are personally and politically conservative.  One young man who regularly volunteers for conservative Republican candidates and who was disappointed that George Allen was knocked out of the presidential sweepstakes now wants to go to Haverford because he sees it through his experience of twice having me as a teacher.  I have also written recommendations for students wishing to attend military academies and for one young man who was trying to get the top scholarship at Liberty University.  In each case the students felt that I knew and could appreciate them, that they had grown intellectually as a result of being in my class.

That is less a testament to me personally than it is to being guided by certain principles.  Those principles guide me, and I rely upon them in my classroom so that I can help my students learn to live with liberty and freedom.  

Now let me extend those ideas to dailykos.  Some will periodically argue about what they see as an orthodoxy here.  They will complain about the ban on unsupported conspiracy theories.  I don't see drawing such a line as a restriction that would violate the ethos of the words from Sharpless.  After all, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once retorted to someone claiming he was entitled to his own opinion that he might be entitled to his own opinion but he was not entitled to his own facts.  To be sure, political argument is not merely the presentation of a list of facts.  As I point out to my students you can give me a list of facts and I can, if you fail to organize them into an arugment, easily use them to present a very contrary point of view.  

Do we have bounds?  Yes.  This site does have one orthodoxy, that is, the proprietor has made clear that the purpose of the site is to elect Democrats.  Yet despite that he and his closest collaborators do not ban someone who expresses support of a non-Democrat.  That person might find himself troll-rated out of visibility, but usually not because of the content of such an expression (and if that is the occasion of the donuts many of us who are trusted users will upgrade the comment to keep it visible) but because of the WAY it is expressed, or because it represents a resorting to personal invective of a type that is destructive of the comity of this site.

Yesterday I wrote about fundamentalism.  In such a framework dissent is not tolerated.  I would argue that such an approach is wrong, even if for patriotic or other strongly held reasons.  Here I refer to some of the words of Robert Jackson in WEST VIRGINIA STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION ET AL. v. BARNETTE ET AL., 319 U.S. 624 (decided June, 1943), that

Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.

Sharpless was not arguing a moral neutrality, or that there was not objective truth.  After all, he does say

I suggest that you preach truth and do righteousness as you have been taught

but even here he reminds us of the limit to that teaching by adding in that very first sentence

whereinsoever that teaching may commend itself to your consciences and your judgments.

I would argue that Sharpless posits a moral responsibility for our words and actions, that we not be violative of our consciences and judgments in the name of any orthodoxy.  If we think something is wrong, we are not only entitled, we are mandated to raise our concerns.  If we do so in a fashion that invites dialog and discussion, we may discover that perhaps we have misunderstood, it may be merely a question of the choice of vocabulary. Or we may be presented with information and/or viewpoints we had not previously considered, and thus find ourselves free to change our own position.  Since we are not bound by orthodoxy, because our paradigm is not fundamentalist, such change is not so threatening as to be outside the bounds of reasonable thought and action.  

Perhaps here I am influenced by my knowledge of religion, my experience of being in different faith traditions, and a life-long involvement in and fascination with the political process.  Let me begin with the last.  In politics there are many temporary alliances.  To use one current example, I strongly - even viscerally - disagree with Bob Barr on his efforts to rename things after Ronald Reagan and on his insistence on impeaching Bill Clinton.  But I welcome his strong support for the Bill of Rights against an administration which views that document as at least an annoyance in its attempts to reach its goal if not a restriction that must be overcome at any cost.

There will be those whose support we find we must reject in any case, unless and until they disavow positions or prior actions that are so outside the bounds as to be unacceptable.  I would reject the support of a David Duke until I could be convinced that he had abandoned his prior KKK and Nazi positions.  

So how does my understanding of and experience in religious traditions play into this?  The model of the Christianity I experienced, especially in the Orthodox Church but also elsewhere including in my studies in a Catholic seminary, is that no person can take an action they places him irrevocably beyond redemption:  that would make such a person at least equal to God, which in the Christian mind is not possible.  Church thinkers have wrestled with the idea of unforgivable behavior for the better part of two millenia.  Yes, we can read in the New Testament that the only unforgivable sin is to deny the Holy Spirit, but there is not unanimity on the import of that statement, if for no other reason than trying to understand it in light of statements about mercy which seem to clearly indicate that there is no limit to the mercy of God.  There are also statements about motes and beams that also seem intended to remind us of our own failings before we are too hasty to judge and condemn the perceived failings of others.  I would argue that this is applicable in political discourse as well, and here for practical reasons - if we resort to the personal in a battle over one issue, we make it that much more difficult to reach agreement and alliance on anothers, because we tend to remember personal invective.  And if we resort to same, we justify a similar pattern of attack against ourselves, and that merely poisons the the atmosphere so that little forward movement is possible.  

Like Isaac Sharpless was for his entire life, I am now a Quaker, a member of the Religious Society of Friends.  One of our core principles is to answer that of God in each person we meet.  I interpret that to mean that I must see each person not merely as a possible mechanism to help advance my interests, nor through the lens of how much they are in agreement with my most passionate ideals and beliefs.  That obstructs meaningful communication.  Certainly I will be aware of both how the person can help me and where we have agreement.  But life is far richer if I take the time to try to understand what motivates her, and why.  Let me see if a Washington expression may be illustrative.  In this town people often talk about "periscoping."  You are talking with someone at some event, social or political, and periodically it is as if her head is on a peroscope that goes up and looks around to see if there is someone more important with whom she should be talking or simply be seen.  In the moment when that search is occurring she is not paying attention to you, and perhaps may miss the opportunity to make a real connection.  When I act that way, as I must acknowledge is far from unknown, I am no longer seeing the person with whom I was talking as s/he is, I am not answering that of God in her.

I believe that we should have vigorous discussion here.  We will have disagreements.  Some of those may be about content, such as the person to whom we pledge fealty in some forthcoming electoral endeavor.  Far too often our disagreements are not, however, on substance, but on style, that someone expresses in a way that we decide offends us.  At that moment the pie appears, and begins to fly.  And that is unfortunate.

We are of course each answerable to our own consciences, responsible for the judgments we make.  The easy course is to surrender both to a set of external guidelines.  That can make getting through life much more simple, but I would argue it would simultaneously impoverish it.  

So I hope that here we can say to one another as Isaac Sharpless said to thoose 1888 Haverford graduates

For your consciences and your judgments we have not sought to bind; and see you to it that no other institution, no political party, no social circle, no religious organization, no pet ambitions put such chains on you as would tempt you to sacrifice one iota of the moral freedom of your consciences or the intellectual freedom of your judgments.


Originally posted to teacherken on Mon Feb 19, 2007 at 05:20 AM PST.

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