Politics and Eggs: Remarks to the ASP-Midwestern Conference

The following was written by Tara Thieke and previously published by Imago Dei Politics (formerly the Dorothy Day Caucus) here.

The following address was delivered to the American Solidarity Party’s second annual Midwestern Conference on Saturday, October 21, 2017 by Tara Ann Thieke, Chairwoman of the Dorothy Day Caucus and Vice-Chair of the ASP-PA Chapter.

Good afternoon everyone! My name is Tara Thieke, and I’ve just been elected the new Vice-Chair of Pennsylvania, and am currently the Chairwoman of the Dorothy Day Caucus, which is an independent group of ASP members. I’m thankful to be here with you all today, and want to extend my especial gratitude to Dr. John Das who so kindly invited me here to talk a little bit about Christian Democracy, the state of our society, and why I believe the American Solidarity Party is our best hope for transforming our politics.

I don’t know how familiar any of you may be with contemporary Japanese fiction, but there’s a particular author I’m very fond of named Haruki Murakami who I’d like to discuss. He isn’t Christian, and he isn’t overtly political. About seven years ago he was invited to accept an award in Jerusalem, an award he was pressured to turn down for political reasons.

Mr. Murakami did not turn down the award. Instead, he went to Jerusalem, where he spoke some words which have stayed in my heart since I read the transcript of his speech a few days later. I’d like to share them with you, and then talk about how these words are relevant for believers in Christian Democracy, third parties, and the sacredness of all human life:

“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.

Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high, solid wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them. This is one meaning of the metaphor.

This is not all, though. It carries a deeper meaning. Think of it this way. Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: It is The System. The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others – coldly, efficiently, systematically.

I have only one thing I hope to convey to you today. We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called The System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong – and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others’ souls and from the warmth we gain by joining souls together.

Take a moment to think about this. Each of us possesses a tangible, living soul. The System has no such thing. We must not allow The System to exploit us. We must not allow The System to take on a life of its own. The System did not make us: We made The System.

That is all I have to say to you.”

Mr. Murakami has chosen the side of the egg. The human face, the human soul, that is the egg. And it is the face, the soul, that our current political and cultural conversation ignores.

Our thought leaders, our think tanks, our cable news networks are full of utilitarian thinking, of fulfilling Daft Punk’s dream of “Bigger Better Faster Stronger.” But mere accelerationism tells us nothing about the present, about the souls around us and their needs. Perhaps this is why Christian Democracy is treated with such wariness: because it is so desperately needed, and because it recognizes goods which cannot be sold on the market.

A politics built around Christian Democracy places the person at its very center, because the person is made in the image of God. It establishes both a rule and a limit at its core, and that is what accelerated state capitalism seeks to destroy.

We have heard such beautiful promises, of the End of History in one breath and ever-increasing prosperity in the next. Perhaps we should ask what is happening to the people without megaphones, to see what it is like for our neighbors:

In America:

  • Suicide rates are increasing every year.
  • Teenagers and children face a particularly gruesome escalation in suicide rates.
  • Teen depression, anxiety, and stress are all rising. Adults face a similar, though less stark, rise.
  • Over 3,000 abortions are committed each day, destroying a human life and leaving a woman with a scar that will last a lifetime.
  • We are in the grips of the most powerful opioid crisis we have ever seen.
  • The number of homebound, elderly Americans who are all alone has never been higher.
  • We have the highest incarceration rates in the world.
  • Working-class men without college degrees are disappearing from the work force.
  • The elderly and disabled are increasingly at risk of being pressured to end their lives prematurely.
  • Heavy binge drinking has dramatically increased in the past ten years.
  • The use of antidepressants has increased almost 400% since the 1990s.
  • Children, especially boys, are increasingly drugged.
  • Foster care children are the most drugged of all.
  • Alienation, however it manifests, is killing millions of  Americans.

How can everything be wonderful and getting better every moment when more children and teenagers kill themselves with each passing year? When children and teenagers and young adults are enduring a mental health crisis, how can we neglect what our politics has failed to do? As liquid capital has been allowed to dictate the norms of our world, reality itself is liquidized and replaced by virtual substitutes. Youth, with no defined roots or common good to attach themselves to, are burdened with the task of self-creation, a self-creation that is actually promoted and defined by a market which calls for every bond to be dissolved and replaced by a profitable dissatisfaction. So it is that even their own bodies are weaponized against them.

The evidence is before our eyes but we lack the will to see it or the strength to admit the prevailing orthodoxy is ill-equipped to understand the depths of the crisis. It’s time we admit that, whatever great gifts our economic and technological progress have bestowed upon us, we have done nothing to off-set the negative consequences of that progress. The balance sheet is not drawn in favor of human good, but for the good of a System which counts success in numbers. Our failure to recognize human beings have needs other than to watch large numbers get larger, or gadgets get smaller, has created a culture of despair, of addiction, of waste, of inhumanity. We must restore a vocabulary which has a fuller understanding of the human condition, which does not run to programs or markets to solve problems, but understands the depth of our need for meaningful relationships and lasting bonds.

Christian Democracy is what is missing from our vision. Not to be confused with the Religious Right, Christian Democracy recognizes values other than utilitarianism, growth, or mere respect from the powerful. It restores a voice to those left voiceless by The System.

We need a politics which does more than try to win elections. Christian Democracy enables us to encounter and hear our neighbors. We need a politics that worries about more than electable candidates. Christian Democracy meets this need by knowing a strategy is only as good as its motivating values. We need a politics where people outside gated communities are heard, not merely managed. This requires subsidiarity, a principle too quickly discarded for its difficulties, but that Christian Democracy recognizes as necessary to some degree for common flourishing.

We need a politics willing to do more than encourage polarization or self-righteous tribalism. Christian Democracy is rooted in the humility of Christ, and reminds us we, too, are sinners, and that we are called to love people even while disagreeing with them. We need a politics unafraid to ask what a good life looks like beyond “college degree, resume-building, travel, and access to cutting-edge technology and fine dining.” Christian Democracy understands a human life is not a mere balance sheet tabulating up the pleasant and unpleasant experiences, but a gift bestowed by God. Peace, love, wonder, and Theosis are our highest callings. They cannot be purchased, they cannot be sold.

We need a politics that asks what makes a community, what makes a home. Christian Democracy, recognizing how the family stabilizes and provides a context for finding our place in the world, is able to identify the catastrophic effects of what Zygmunt Bauman called “liquid modernity.” We have long endured a process of  liquidization which devours mediating institutions and uproots families in order to make them more manageable workers or consumers (depending upon where you live in the world). Christian Democracy seeks to protect the family and local communities, knowing that it is relationships which best heal, and it is restored relationships we crave. We need a politics willing to ask if machines serve people, or if people serve machines. Christian Democracy can be open to the positive changes of technology, but is willing to step in when the progress of machines interferes with the good of people. We need a politics that asks how many people have to die to acknowledge mass despair is a political issue, we need a politics that asks what progress could ever mean in a world where any child commits suicide, let alone one where more and more do so. Christian Democracy maintains an unshakeable commitment to the truth that our good cannot be found by liquidizing those things which make for human flourishing simply in order to be richer, more autonomous, or better entertained. It instead proclaims every human being is of irreplaceable worth from conception to natural death, and we are bound to one another as neighbors and children of God.

Too often political choices are framed as though if we act in our self-interest we are acting amorally, while if we act guided by morality we are acting altruistically. We must reject any such distinctions. If we are to succeed as a political party, it will be by articulating and demonstrating how moral politics (a politics rooted not in the performance of markets or the aggregation of statistics, but in the fundamental dignity of every human being), is in the self-interest of every single human being.

Our politics have too long ignored the eggs smashed against The System. The coltan miner in the Congo who works as a virtual slave is the egg. The Chinese worker in the iPhone factory with suicide nets outside the windows is the egg. The dispossessed farmer in India is the egg. Our youth facing unemployment or prison are the egg.The laid-off factory worker in Ohio is the egg. The teenagers addicted to social media and unable to identify the cause of their increasing anxiety are the egg.

But the wealthy professionals of Silicon Valley, DC, and New York are also the eggs, however convinced they may be that they (and the rest of us) are better off with smart phones and tablets and infinite options for streaming entertainment and meal delivery services than we would be with thriving local communities and strong neighborly and familial bonds. Their shells may strengthen the wall after they crash against it, but they are still fundamentally smashed eggs.

Telling people the things and systems they believe are making them happier and the world better are actually making them more miserable and the world worse will not be well-received. This was a truth faced by Christ, faced by all the prophets. It will indeed be mocked by many. But we will never succeed as political party by chasing people where they are. There are two political parties in this country with incredible resources and with brands, however damaged, that are known by all. We cannot hope to beat them at the game they themselves crafted. Even if we were to devise the most popular combination of policy positions and the cleverest of messaging, as long as we were not threatening the current power structure in any great way, that platform and messaging would just be coopted by one (or both) of the two existing parties.

We face, even among ourselves, even within ourselves, a failure to imagine alternatives, a desire to fall back upon the same answers which have inadvertently wrought the destruction and stalemates we currently struggle against. The temptation is overwhelming: trust that this time the self-proclaimed experts will get it right. They may not have changed the goal, they may not have even understood the criticism leveled against them, but if we would just put aside our pesky devotion to ideals of localism, our recognition that healthy families and communities are the best guarantees of health and happiness, then our flying cars will be just around the corner. Or self-driving ones, at least.

In spite of the temptations which beset us to abandon our commitment to our principles, the American Solidarity Party possesses a virtue which is the key all other third parties in our country have lacked: central to our identity is our belief in the irreplaceable sacredness of every human life. If you believe all people contain within them the Imago Dei, the image of God, then no person can be a means to an end. No person is only a vote. No person is just a path to power. No strategy is more important than a human being. We are not means to an end: we are ends in ourselves, and the end is greater than mere power. It is greater than mere speed. It is greater than mere credentials.

Thus our party has written into itself a principle which is also a gift: the gift of being able to put down our megaphone and meet our neighbor not just with words on our lips, but with ears to listen. We can encounter human beings as opposed to simply yelling at them. With the most firm and loving of all first principles as its foundation, the American Solidarity Party is better equipped than any party in US history to love our members rather than use them. We have built our party upon something greater than ourselves. We have built our party upon our common humanity, rather than narrow self-interest.

It is easy to say the time we live in is dark. It is harder to say what we in this room, or the American Solidarity Party as a whole, can do about it. It is hard to know in any moment where in the ebbs and flows of history we stand, or how far things can go in any one direction before a critical mass will decide they have gone too far. We should do all we can to build a raging fire, but accept that for this moment in history, our role might be to merely light a spark, or gather kindling, or simply to keep the wood dry. What we absolutely cannot do is to accept the darkness and hope our eyes adjust to it.

We will leave here today and return to the difficult, perhaps impossible task of pushing back against a culture of death and despair. All around us will be eggs undergoing the slow, horrible process of being smashed. We will hear the familiar and exhorting commands that we acquiesce to the solutions offered by the powerful, to the promises of false compromises and shallow dreams. People and pundits alike will chide us for our idealism, pushing always for the lesser of two evils, and never daring to articulate a true good. We will constantly be steered towards the lowest common denominator, while told we should rejoice at what is clearly only a quickening degradation. The weight will be heavy. We will be surrounded by temptations to throw in the towel, to acknowledge the egg is too fragile, and we are too weak, the world too strong.

But let us remember this: the American Solidarity Party holds up the pelican, an ancient but persistent presence in Christian iconography. Legend testifies the mother will pierce its own breast in order to feed its young. Rather than squawking like seagulls or hovering like a vulture, it silently observes the pain of hunger and asks itself what is lacking. Then she looks to herself for the change its young depend upon. The pelican exemplifies the “revolution of the heart,” the seeking of the common good before its own. The pelican’s sacrifice brings strength and health; the beauty of the sacrifice inspires our devotion to something higher than our appetites, to things which have no price, and inspires us to value love over power. We look at the pelican in awe and joy, and are thus transformed.

Perhaps it takes a pelican to protect an egg.

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