Sunday, August 5, 2007

William Safire on the book of Job

William Safire wrote a great book called "The First Dissident" -- it's an analysis of the book of Job that is well worth your time to explore.
What follows is a list of some of my favorite quotes from that book -- seriously, get a copy and read it:

The essence of Jobanism is to refuse to accept injustice from any source – family, culture, nation, or God – and to press inquiry into inequity beyond what others accept as the limits of the knowable.

To belong to the political club of Joban dissidents a person must (a) have suffered grievously either by circumstance or by a personal decision to support an unpopular cause; (b) have reacted angrily while in the wilderness or prison to the immorality of such hardship inflicted by those in aloof authority or cruel command; (c) have refused to be browbeaten or tortured or intimidated by anyone into silence or acceptance of unjust punishment; and on rare occasion and not requisite for membership, (d) have been reconciled to Authority after having glimpsed the big picture or after having gained some share of its power. Members of the dissidents’ club are required not to understand why any of these disasters has happened to them, though it is the custom to repeatedly demand, “Why me?”

Consensus in international relations is agreement by the lowest common denominator, the way too many undemocratic regional groups arrive at secret covenants. Perhaps because their culture distrusts revelation of dissension, the consensualists resist an open vote and a clear decision. Instead, the minority is given not just a voice, but a veto; nobody loses face, but the group must sail as if in convoy, with the speed of the group dictated by the slowest ship. Agreements by consensus are fuzzy and deniable, rarely subject to what President Woodrow Wilson, urging “open covenants openly arrived at”, called “the white light of publicity.”

Diplomats tend to embrace consensus as their goal, just as they see “the process” as a goal. But the process is not a goal; a “peace process” is not as important as the furtherance of freedom or the advancement of right, neither of which should be considered a “war process”.

Consensus in American domestic politics was a term associated with Lyndon Johnson, who, as Senate Majority Leader before he became President, was a famed deal-maker. His ideas competed in a cloakroom rather than a marketplace. Although that technique often gets things done, it does not get issues thrashed out, and the lack of a clear-cut and public victory by a majority makes such legislative deals easy to unmake.

Today political consensus is most often synonymous with “conventional wisdom”. John Kenneth Galbraith’s coinage, updating religion’s “received wisdom”, denotes the average of the trendy and voguish. This suspect mean calls to mind the humorist Garrison Keillor’s report of the politician who promised to provide a school system in which every child was above average.

The trouble with consensus decision-making today is that everyone has to agree on some watered-down version of any move. I dropped in at the meeting of the planning commission of the town of Frederick, Maryland, and was told I could not observe their discussion before a vote – that behind closed doors, “they’re consensing.” If this actionless verb describes the emerging voice of the people, we could look forward only to weak bleats of hesitant agreement in place of the healthy roar of controversy. Fortunately, Jobans refuse to consense.

Here is a paradox: What enables basic change to take place peacefully is not the inviolability of order but the possibility of conflict. We all hasten to articulate our preference for non-violent change, but in the end it is the credible threat of an uprising that breaks the center’s shackles.

Two guys are lined up against a wall in front of a firing squad. One starts to protest and the other whispers to him, “Don’t make trouble.”
Those are diametrically different ways of looking at the universe. People can be divided into trouble makers and trouble averters, those who make waves and those who pour oil on wavy waters, the governed who will risk chaos to gain freedom and the governed who will risk totalitarianism to achieve stability. In an age that celebrates ambiguity – where some of us are of two minds about using a word like ambivalence – fear of being simplistic too often steers us away from the simple. But the simple truth is that all of us lean one way or the other – toward moral rebellion or submission.
When does a dissident put his conscious above the law? Poet-Job has a few answers: when the matter is not trivial, but about a bedrock principle; when nobody else seems to give a damn about innocent suffering; when disobedience noisily proclaimed will call attention to injustice; and when the objector is prepared to suffer the law’s effect to dramatize the need to change the law.

If the book of Job reaches across two and a half millennia to teach anything to men and women who consider themselves normal, decent human beings, it is this: Human beings are sure to wander in ignorance and to fall into error, and it is better – more righteous in the eyes of God – for them to react by questioning rather than accepting. Confronted with inexplicable injustice, it is better to be irate than resigned. Job would not be intimidated or silenced until his God permitted him to see – to understand – how much he did not yet know. Only then did he submit, and it may have been too soon. Job teaches that it is for each person who assigns his portion of sovereignty to a higher authority, spiritual or temporal, to renegotiate the terms of submission so that we can see beyond our present ken.

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