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Sanity, Substance

July 27, 2011

This past weekend, the world witnessed three very different events in three places very distant from one another that produced three very different public responses. Each has something to tell us.

In the first instance, Norwegians’ demonstrated that no matter how powerful the pull of emotion, humans are capable of engaging the most senseless acts of violence in very sensible ways. On the other side of the planet, New Zealanders greeted an icy blast of Antarctic weather that dumped 30cm of snow on their tattered landscape with sighs not screams. “The icing on the quake,” was greeted with as much relief as resignation despite the disruption it caused. Meanwhile, back here in the United States, our leaders in Washington demonstrated that neither the tug of emotion nor the power of reason is strong enough to dislodge our leaders and their supporters from the entrenched positions fueling their partisan brinksmanship.

Norwegian leaders and citizens alike made it clear that Anders Behring Breivik’s rampage will not undermine their continued commitment to maintaining an inclusive, tolerant society guided by respect for human dignity and the rule of law. No one has minimized the challenges facing societies like Norway’s that struggle to embrace multiculturalism on a continent organized around and indeed defined by national distinctions rather than assimilation. If anything, the massacre has rekindled interest in redoubling efforts to accommodate cultural differences without sacrificing quality of life or equal protection of the law.

In Christchurch, people have learned repeatedly to find pleasure in the simplest things. In other cities, including their own in days past, a snowstorm of this magnitude would have been greeted very differently. People would have wondered whether the inability of municipal authorities to keep transportation and economic activities going were some dark sign of their inability to do anything. People have come to expect both more and less of those in government in the after last September’s magnitude 7.1 earthquake and more than 7,300 aftershocks left their city in ruins. They expect more information, more involvement and more empathy from government officials. At the same time, they are more forgiving of errors, uncertainty, and delays, especially when they see public officials confronting many of the same personal and professional challenges they themselves must face.

Our leaders in Washington, however, seem capable of doing little more than what suits their own peculiar political interests. Not long ago a political impasse like the present one would have been resolved by recourse to party loyalty and party discipline. These distinctions pale in comparison to the ideological differences driving the present debate (or lack thereof). Rather than accepting and addressing the urgency of the present situation, both sides seem more committed to leveraging it for ends that enhance their future prospects at the polls at the expense of someone else’s. The principles of inclusiveness, equity, and shared sacrifice have no more to do with either side’s proposals than compromise or collaboration have to do with the way they have engaged the problem or one another.

In Norway, a country that enjoys one of Europe’s highest standards of living, lowest unemployment rates, and strongest social safety nets, the disturbing actions of an individual or small group of extremists in their society have opened both eyes and minds to the need to work harder. In New Zealand, a disruptive snow storm demonstrated that even the most urgent, necessary, and difficult work can wait when conditions require it. The peaceful beauty of the snow can even serve as a brief respite and reminder to enjoy life’s simple pleasures, especially the company of one another.

This leaves me wondering, what will it take to not just get the attention of our leaders and a broad cross-section of American society, but to get then to engage the dilemmas facing our country without resorting to simplistic, self-serving soundbites? What will it take to restore sanity and substance to our politics?

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