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What’s Behind the Absurdity in Politics?

In recent weeks, our political system has been bludgeoned by various events that can only be described as absurd. The $85 billion sequester, which was created as motivation to reach an actual budget deal and which both parties promised would never happen, went into effect. Former NBA star Dennis Rodman became the United States’ special envoy (at least in his mind) to North Korea, and he praised the work of Kim Jong-un. And Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) filibustered the nomination of John Brennan for CIA director for nearly 13 hours, leading many to speculate about how long his bladder could hold out. As I experienced these absurdities, I was reminded of an essay by former Czechoslovakian president Václav Havel, which I will quote at some length. In the essay, Havel recalls seeing a smokestack as a child and feeling a natural, almost guttural reaction, opining that a medieval man, witnessing the same sight, would “fall on his knees and pray that he and his kind be saved.” He wonders what he shares in common with such a man:
Both the boy and the peasant are far more intensely rooted in what some philosophers call “the natural world,” or Lebenswelt, than most modern adults … They are still rooted in a world which knows the dividing line between all that is intimately familiar and appropriately a subject of our concern, and that which lies beyond its horizon, that before which we should bow down humbly because of the mystery about it. Our “I” primordially attests to that world and personally certifies it; that is the world of our lived experience, a world not yet indifferent since we are personally bound to it in our love, hatred, respect, contempt, tradition, in our interests and in that pre-reflective meaningfulness from which culture is born. That is the realm of our inimitable, inalienable, and nontransferable joy and pain, a world in which, through which, and for which we are somehow answerable, a world of personal responsibility. In this world, categories like justice, honor, treason, friendship, infidelity, courage, or empathy have a wholly tangible content, relating to actual persons and important for actual life. At the basis of this world are values, which are simply there, perennially, before we ever speak of them, before we reflect upon them and inquire about them. It owes its internal coherence to something like a “pre-speculative” assumption that the world functions and is generally possible at all only because there is something beyond its horizon, something beyond or above it that might escape our understanding and our grasp but, for just that reason, firmly grounds this world, bestows upon it its order and measure, and is the hidden source of all the rules, customs, commandments, prohibitions, and norms that hold within it. The natural world, in virtue of its very being, bears within it the presupposition of the absolute which grounds, delimits, animates, and directs it, without which it would be unthinkable, absurd, and superfluous, and which we can only quietly respect. Any attempt to spurn it, master it, or replace it with something else, appears, within the framework of the natural world, as an expression of hubris for which humans must pay a heavy price, as did Don Juan and Faust.
Commentators and voters alike have long bemoaned the shenanigans of Washington. They have pilloried the “partisan rancor” that dominates the airwaves, while groups like No Labels place the blame on the ideological identification of our politicians. But these explanations miss something important—something that lies at the heart of Havel’s story. Our politicians are human. They are not supernatural sophists with the power to bend reality at their will. They work within the confines of the political system created by our founders, but they do so with a motivation that even they may not understand. Havel was arguing that outside of our rational thoughts; every human has motivations; every human is driven and impacted by absolute forces greater than themselves and beyond their control. For Havel, this became evident in the emotional response to the stark image of a smokestack emitting fumes and embers that harm the environment—something he at the time had no scientific knowledge of. Yes, politicians are motivated by money and by the votes they will need to win re-election. But they are also motivated by their belief in something greater than themselves, whether it be God, the free market, universal human rights or helping the less fortunate. As Havel notes, our natural order is determined by the presupposition of the absolute, which “grounds, delimits, animates, and directs it, without which it would be unthinkable, absurd, and superfluous, and which we can only quietly respect.” He warns that without this presupposition, absurdity would ensue; so maybe what we experience in our political process is not absurdity at all. Our political leaders have a deep belief in the presupposition of the absolute, whether they know it or not. Maybe in reality what we’ve experienced is them merely acting on their presuppositions in a way that is fundamentally flawed, but also fundamentally human. Who are we to expect more? Democracy is rarely pretty, and there may be ways that we as voters can try to influence our representatives to do their jobs better. But in the meantime, we should be careful not to automatically assume nefarious motives for the political circumstances, which in the moment seem nothing but absurd.