RDPulpit: You Lost the Debate

The vice-presidential debate was an effective distraction in turbulent times. Amid speculations about whether Governor Sarah Palin would trip on her red heels and fall flat on her designer glasses, whether Senator Joseph Biden would show himself to be a condescending windbag, many important values-related issues were passed over. This is a lost opportunity, something that citizens, especially religious ones, will have to regain on our own. I will start the conversation in hopes that it will be joined widely.

The bar was set so low as to be subterranean. The media and the campaigns cooperated in this effort. It was easier than sitting us down as a nation for a serious, morally grounded discussion of our collective future—financial, military, political, and social. As a result, no one won and all of us lost, regardless of what the polls show. Pity help us.

In-depth analysis is not the stuff of prime-time television. But at a moment when the financial well being of the nation, indeed of a globalized economy is in peril, the Biden-Palin matchup was a delicious distraction. As Congress fumbles, the Warren Buffets of this world are feathering their nests, confident that when it all shakes out there will be profits to make. No one raises fundamental moral questions about the nature of unfettered market capitalism, private property, or the common good. At best we hear a plea for an amorphous middle class, while the poor simply fade from view. We missed a chance for careful structural analysis of how the economy works, who profits and who loses. Now is the time to use our economic knowledge to provide for everyone, not revel in the ignorance of Joe Six-Pack about some mysterious system that is beyond us all.

No one risks a go at moral tough love, like suggesting that maybe it is time for a Jubilee—to erase old debts and start fresh by sharing the earth’s goods equitably among the earth’s people. What if the United States would use only its share of the earth’s energy resources and not several times over as we do now? Such suggestions are labeled naïve, rejected as absurd, written off as the stuff of wide-eyed idealists, as if what we face now were palatable to any but the wealthy. Sometimes just raising such matters helps to gain perspective on current problems. That is the role of moral discourse.

The candidates talked about military matters. As parents of children in war zones (or on their way) they are understandably concerned about things like protective gear and troop withdrawal timelines. But focus on such issues effectively obscures the bigger picture of why the United States has become a war-based economy, a bellicose nation, why more rather than fewer fronts are opening, why international diplomacy and international organizations like the United Nations and the World Court are not the places where 21st century citizens adjudicate their differences.

At a time in world history when space travel is practically economy or business class, and the Internet allows instant communication, there is something rather quaint, not to mention morally reprehensible, about sending troops anywhere. Don’t people see how ridiculous it is to blow up one another’s children? We need a good open forum on the nature of patriotism, how everyone can give to and receive from their country, not another rehearsal of the cave where Osama Bin Laden dwells and how we will find him one day.

Politics has always been a dubious business. While the smoky backrooms have given way to spin rooms, the same shallow approach to issues, the same playing fast and loose with facts and truth persists. What if we took serious stock of the “polis,” the city-state of Greek origin, where the citizens govern themselves? What if we decided our polis was too important to be left to the politicians? What if we really embraced democracy and made it happen?

Imagine that candidates are job seekers who need to impress us, the taxpayers who pay their salaries, with their abilities, not their opponents’ liabilities. Imagine if they could say “I don’t know,” instead of spewing inanities, or admit “I need to study that” rather than changing the subject, evading the question. At least we could say they were honest, a claim I have not heard made about many major candidates in recent memory. This erosion of confidence in our political system, in our politicians, is a great loss. Perhaps it is simply a cue to others of us to step into the void with continued insistence on truth, calling a spin a spin, and getting on with the business of assuring quality education and widespread participation in the democratic process.

While money, war, and politics are moral issues, the social fabric tells all. That is why it was so disheartening, not to say disgusting, to see both vice-presidential candidates join hands in opposing same-sex marriage. Senator Biden made the case for civil rights, a case now so obvious even Governor Palin could get on board. But his righteous claim that marriage is a matter best left to faith groups rang hollow. I hope he knew it.

Since when do faith groups decide who gets to share whose Social Security benefits? Was I unconscious when religious organizations were given the authority to assess or lift taxes on joint property held by unmarried people? While I am not a great proponent of more state control over relationships, I think this “everything but marriage” ploy is a dodge. Unless heterosexual couples and same-sex couples have the same privileges (and, by my lights, single people would as well), injustice reigns. Governor Palin opined that “one man and one woman” make a marriage, mindlessly repeating the Right’s mantra despite countless studies on how the meaning of marriage has changed over time, not to mention Massachusetts and California where same-sex couples marry every day. Hello, Sarah! Nonetheless, how morally tawdry to have the one issue on which the candidates agree be opposition to marriage; against people who simply seek public recognition of love. No wonder there was an uncomfortable silence on stage when they made common cause. They should both be mortified, even if for different reasons.

The huge audience for the debate tuned in for a train wreck. Instead, both candidates exceeded exceedingly low expectations. Senator Biden was clearly the better prepared to handle the job they seek. Governor Palin demonstrated a sixth grade mastery of graduate level material, a fact she constantly sought to cover with a wink and her grating, grammatically-challenged utterances. But I take cold comfort in such a “win” when the stakes are so high and the moral discourse so low. It is time to bracket personalities and hairstyles. It is time to get on with the work of finding, affirming, and voting our values.

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