Why I Can't Shut Up about this Election

By Derek Penwell

In a culture where everyone seems to live with a hand wrapped around somebody’s throat—from the cynical politicians on cable news to the B-list celebrities on television talent shows—civility should sit atop the list of things to which our culture ought to aspire. Moreover, it seems reasonable to suggest that people of religious faith should be leading the charge (or if “charge” isn’t an image you feel comfortable associating with a call to civility, then maybe religious folks should just be leading—no charge at all).

I fear, though, that “civility” in the hands of religious people amounts to something like “being nice in public”—a rather bland and theologically uninteresting admixture of passive-aggression and a driving need to take positions based on a formula guaranteed to provoke anger in the fewest number of people—a kind of bemused contortion of Mill’s “greatest-happiness principle.” The practice of religious civility often looks like perplexed middle schoolers awkwardly trying not to step on one another’s dress shoes when the music slows down.

I propose to address the need for religious people to speak truthfully about their commitments without the practiced outrage of the professionally offended, but also without sounding like my grandmother for whom my failure to visit often enough is “just going to have to be ok with her.”

Some things are worth refusing to shut up about.

Some pundits have suggested that this is a small election. The conventional wisdom seems to be that we’ve got bigger fish to fry than arguing over gaffes, or focusing on who built what, or preoccupying ourselves with Dressage horses.

Fiscal cliffs. Simpson-Bowles. Climate change. These kinds of important issues, the thinking goes, received almost no attention. We swapped big ideas for pettiness and a fixation on the political horse race.

Ok. I get all that. Those are important ideas that deserve a full and thorough debate. No question. Absolutely. Can’t argue.

But …

Let me just suggest that what we’ve been witnessing over the last few (seemingly interminable) months is an important debate over the nature of government, and to what extent it ought to interpose itself into the ordinary lives of the governed. Put more simply, we’ve carried on a philosophical debate about the extent to which we’re responsible for one another.

Question: Is what we need from government to get out of the way or to get on the ball?

I can understand why conservative folks are dubious about the ability of the government to solve problems. Government often stinks up the joint—either through neglect or incompetence. Bloat. Ineptitude. Profligacy. I hear you. Believe me. I understand.

Nevertheless, and protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, I would much rather have a government whose mandate included seeking help for the helpless than in underwriting the capacious appetite for greed engendered by a Capitalist economy built on consumption.

47%. You didn’t build that. Job creators.

The marketplace isn’t built to be “fair”; it’s built to produce profits. Fine. Great. No kidding.

A question worth asking, however, is “Who ‘builds’ the marketplace?” Who writes the rules that, year over year, mysteriously produce a crop of winners that continue to look remarkably similar in their whiteness, in their maleness, in their heterosexuality, in their choice of Mercedes?

Is it the people who suffer the indignity of having to ask somebody else—anybody else—to help them feed their families?

Is it the folks who have to take their babies to the emergency room in the middle of the night because somebody somewhere maximized profits by shipping their jobs and their healthcare to a sweat shop some place hot and humid, with dormitories that look like they were repurposed from old orange crates?

Is it the LGBTIQ person who can, in most areas of the country, be denied access to housing, employment, and public accommodations on the assumption that “there’s something that just ain’t right about them people?”

Is it the person who punches a time clock, eats cold bologna sandwiches and Doritos for lunch, and dreams of driving a Buick one day?

Is it the individuals who have to get on a bus to go to the grocery store if they don’t want to eat another can of Vienna Sausages and a bottle of Yoohoo for supper?

No. The people who build the marketplace, then spend billions of dollars buying the good favor of politicians, who are then responsible for keeping everybody’s interests appropriately prioritized, are the folks who scream loudest about “jealousy” and “class warfare.”

These are the folks who flog phantom “voter fraud” scandals and pass onerous voter legislation as a way of limiting the access of the “undesirables” to the franchise.

These are the folks who have successfully convinced enough people four and five rungs down on the economic ladder that everyone has a stake in allowing the folks at the top to keep as much of their money as they can possibly keep—even if that means those people four and five rungs down have to give up their healthcare, school systems, and infrastructure so the “job creators” can keep what’s “rightfully theirs.”

No. You’re right. I know. I’m too loud and obnoxious for public discourse. Without a doubt. It’s true.

But I will say this one last thing: We may have missed out in this election on talking about some important and “big” issues. I’ll admit we missed the boat on some things that deserve our attention. But if the fundamental issue of this election is about whether we first take care of our own people or we take care of our own pocketbooks, then I think we took on the biggest issue of all.

And frankly, I’ll try to be civil about it. But I refuse to shut up.