Thursday, November 29, 2007

Politics in its Place

Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan this last weekend. That was expected, but I was struck by what greeted him on Sunday and Benazir Bhutto when she returned several weeks prior, the huge crowds who went to the airport to greet them. In Ms Bhutto’s case, the crowds followed her all the way home until a suicide bomber struck her convoy, killing over 100 people.

A huge crowd of people showing up at an airport in an almost worship-like fever to greet a politician and even escort her home, particularly politicians with the corrupt background of Mr. Sharif or Ms Bhutto, is with a moment's reflection rather regrettable. It suggests a people whose destiny depends far too much on the question of who runs the government – a people, in other words, far too dependent on that government. During political season crowds greet candidates in America too, but it is not a permanent phenomenon, at least not in this near-hysterical way. But in far too much of the third world who the president is is a decisive question, because the president will have the power to make and destroy lives. A people who care that much about politics are a people who are not free precisely because they have to care, because politics is by definition so important that they must disrupt their lives to demonstrate angrily, to try to change the constitution yet again, to become even more ensnared in politics' fatal web of us-versus-them.

I would much rather live in a country where politics is an occasional necessary diversion from the more important stuff of life, from families, church, work, building social capital and reading good books. In that sense the rising tide of political anger among many of the most politically devoted in America is worrisome (even though we are not in the position yet of a Pakistan or a Venezuela). I am certainly not suggesting that the good society is one in which the people are apathetic about politics. I instead believe that a healthy society is one in which politics is placed in proper proportion, precisely because so much of life is unaffected by it. Alas, I suspect that in that respect we are not as healthy as we once were.



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