If you have been reading this blog, then you know that from the beginning I have aimed to balance the personal with the political. But in the last month, ever since my wife was diagnosed with colon cancer, the personal has overwhelmed the political for me.
The immediate concerns of our family have almost completely drowned out the stakes, the strategy, the guesswork, the appeal, of politics.
(Although I have to admit that my wife did tack an Obama sign above her hospital bed, and we did convince one of her nurses, who was wavering, to vote for him in the California primary on Feb 5! But I felt, and continue to feel, as if the ongoing campaign is taking place in a parallel universe.)
So from this new position, far removed from politics, I resume this blog with a question: Do politics matter?
I mean, really matter?
Or are contemporary politics no more than a form of entertainment -- like the Oscars? (Was it McCain who quipped once that Washington D.C. was best described as "Hollywood for ugly people"?)
My conclusion -- which surprises me, considering my state of mind these days -- is that politics do matter.
Sure, the consequential political questions of our time are surrounded by a whole lot of dross. But even with all of our other concerns, my wife and I still find ourselves talking politics at the end of the day. Last night I came out from brushing my teeth with a point about the latent racist innuendos which lie behind the "experience' argument for Hillary. My wife later reminded me of some of the implications of a "President McCain" administration in terms of the survival of the doctrine of pre-emptive war. Earlier in the day we casually agreed about the worrisome implications of the low savings rate of U.S. consumers and the national debt to China...
Okay, this may sound more like politics as therapy (not advisable, I would imagine). But the fact is that these and so many other issues continue to matter to us, for the simple reason that -- despite how silly this sounds to say -- they are part of us.
Why should our national debt to China have anything to do with me and my wife right now?
Well, what is the boundary of the self? First there are our physical bodies, mine and (of more importance right now) my wife's. But nobody would suggest that our bodies should be the outer limit of our concern.
Beyond our bodies, there is our community of close family and friends -- our "loved ones," as the wonderfully descriptive saying goes. This is quite obviously part of who we are. And as soon as I expand my idea of self to include these relationships, then I have opened the circle up to the many concerns and influences which affect these people too.
I find that any attempt to trace the boundaries of the self follows a geometric, not a linear, progression: it soon includes a world, not a single person. And we find ourselves back in the arena.
It is an obvious point, perhaps, that we are not alone, that we are connected to many overlapping communities larger than ourselves. But it takes a terrifying situation like the one I am in now to see that it is really true! Not just pleasing rhetoric -- really true!
In his Meditation XVII, John Donne famously wrote: "Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." I hear that truth now.
It is true going from the personal to the political: the unexpected arrival of cancer in my 36-year-old wife is perhaps a bell which tolls for you as it does for us -- in the sense that it may affect your worldview. But it is also true going the other direction, following the political to the personal: McCain and Obama's back-and-forth over the weekend about whether they would agree to public financing in the general election is a bell which tolls for me and my family. It may affect us in ways we can never predict.
We don't need to pay attention. The beauty of it is that each of us pays attention to the bells he or she can hear. They ring for us.
And then there's always the more obvious way that politics really does matter: the only health insurance plan which I could find for my wife caps her coverage at $75,000 per year. Clinton or Obama's plans would change that by requiring health care insurers to provide for people without reference to pre-existing conditions. McCain's would not. Simple.