Straw Men Don’t Repair the Universe

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Time was, the Albany office of the Department of Motor Vehicles lived up to its stereotype: dingy, chaotic, and staffed with ornery people — or, to be fair, people probably rendered ornery by their dingy and chaotic surroundings.

The DMV was among the smudgy faces of gummint that righties used to sell their contracts with America for the rich to hoi polloi. Liberals, long known for giving America equality, suffrage, prosperity, and global leadership, became known for spawning — nasty bureaucrats.

Somewhere in the middle of the Cuomo administration, everything changed at the Albany DMV. The office was made more spacious. Lines moved rapidly to the reception desk, where you’d get a number, deli style, that also told you your expected wait time. Benches were hard wood, but no less comfortable than a typical church pew, and news feeds scrolled along the wall next to an electronic bulletin board that indicated which number was ready to go to which counter. And it made a loud “ding” every time a new number came up.  Best of all, the staff was helpful, even friendly (and as for the one or two not so friendly, at least they were colorful).

All it took were a couple tweaks, and this face of government turned into one freckle-faced kid in summer. So if all it takes are a couple of tweaks, why is Michael Lerner getting so ponderous on us?

Liberal programs emphasize economic needs and political rights. I’m a liberal, and support those programs. And they’ve proved very effective when it comes to delivering “objective” caring – the elimination of discrimination, leveling the playing field for competition in the public arena (at least among middle class people), and delivering economic aid for the poor.

…What liberals miss is that their government programs often lack any interest in fostering “subjective caring” – the experience of being cared for and about by those who deliver “objective caring.” Over the past 70 years, many people have come into contact with government employees (e.g. in the post office, the DMV, zoning and permit offices, INS, IRS, welfare and unemployment agencies) where subjective caring is rather scarce.

People often leave these encounters angry that their taxes are paying the salaries of disrespectful or emotionally deadened government employees whose one-dimensional following of the rules often ignores the subtleties of human life. These encounters leave many people open to the “downsize government” strategy of the political Right.

Just like a “liberal” to resurrect a right-wing straw man (person?) on the brink of the Republican Party’s going the way of the Whigs. All it takes are a couple of tweaks! Although I must admit, that subjective/objective caring thing does make one sound oh so academic.

Back in the day, when Michael Lerner was a FOB*, his “Politics of Meaning” had some buzz — until pundits ranging from Katha Pollitt to Maureen Dowd jumped all over its squishiness, and Lerner went the way that FOH* Jean Houston would go later.

Maybe Lerner sees a second shot at meaning for himself, as a FOBO, perhaps?

Instead of funding churches and worrying about possible indoctrination, it would make more sense to recast government programs and our public education systems so that they were required to see others as successful not just as maximizers of material self-interest and gratifications, but as love-oriented beings whose needs could be addressed without invoking any particular religious tradition.

Senator Obama should be seeking to have government programs and employees be judged effective in part by the degree to which they convey genuine caring and love. Far from being a slippery slope toward breaking separation of church and state, this direction is the most effective way to head off the assault on government that gains many enthusiasts from among those who have experienced government programs as missing the key elements of their humanity.

“Have government programs and employees be judged effective in part by the degree to which they convey genuine caring and love?”  Yeah, that’s Chicago politics.

Better to let dead memes stay dead. We don’t need meme zombies invading a countryside slowly coming to its senses. Oh, and I don’t want the DMV to love me. I just want some courtesy and efficiency.

*In the 1990’s there were such things as “Friends of Bill” and “Friends of Hillary.” Over the course of the Clinton presidency, these titles became ironic of course, because hey, the 1990’s were ironic.


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