Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The root of freedom: experience and repentance in politics

...the freedom at the root of all freedoms [is] the freedom to repent."

- Oliver O'Donovan, The Desire of the Nations (CUP, 1996), 14.

A new article in Southern Cross by Jeremy Halcrow reflects upon the US Presidential Election and the apparent preference of voters for political newcomers (Obama, Palin, also Premier Rees in NSW politics), who arrive untainted by any experience in power. Experience is here seen as a negative, rather than as the possibility of having learned from previous mistakes.

Does this preference for the newcomer amount to an expression of mistrust in politicians' ability to learn? Or simply in their willingness to repent? The media and political opposition usually paint any repentance in negative terms as a 'flip-flop' (or in Oz, as a 'backflip'). Our leaders, like the rest of us, must be allowed to change their mind when they become convinced through good reasons (not simply through populist pressure) that the common good lies elsewhere. Consistency in unpopular policies can be a virtue when there is no good reason to change (just a popular mood). Conversely, fear of being branded "indecisive" ought not prevent policy change in light of superior evidence or arguments.

I have reflected previously on the "politics of change", in which the present must be painted in terms of crisis in order to justify (any) change. It is this devaluing of the concept of crisis (crying "wolf!") for political gain that leaves us more exposed to the arrival of a real lupous predator.


psychodougie said...

is it not simply the hope that someone will stick to their word for the first time ever in political life?

(i get sad when people either won't change when it's clear they're on the wrong track, out of pride. yet also when, as you say, populism drives every move they make.)

byron smith said...

Doug - not sure I've quite followed you. What is the reference of your initial "it"?

psychodougie said...

sorry - 'it' referring to people's desire for something or someone new in their leaders. the following after the next 'big thing' - be it obama, palin or rees.
not that it is necessarily 'good' but 'new' (cf the vibe of 2Tim4:3-4).
it may be that i've wandered off your original topic a little.

byron smith said...

Ah, I see: hope springs eternal and the grass is always greener and better the devil you don't. Maybe, just maybe, Obama will turn out to the messiah after all. There was a similar phenomenon with Rudd when he first became opposition leader, I think: if Latham wasn't the messiah, maybe this next new guy?

psychodougie said...

there's also the 'old guy' thing - mccain (can you ever say his name without thinking of frozen foods?) is the old guard. he voted the same as bush, he's best mates with bush (if the daily show with jon stewart is anything to go by) - so he is nothing different.

brendan nelson too, much as i liked the guy, was nonetheless defence minister for much of howard's time - and even though he, in my opinion, seemed a very different type of politician, and represented a viable alternative to labor, he too was seen as poll-poison, not nearly different enough. maybe he needed to put his earing back in! (do you think that'd work for mccain?)

One of Freedom said...

How come now that I am aware of O'Donovan I'm starting to see his quotes on friends pages.

Is this a good book to enter into his thinking?

byron smith said...

Frank - not sure, I've been posting on him for some time. As for whether this is a good intro text, it depends whether you are more interested in his ethics or his political theology. If the latter, then it is a very important (though difficult) book and the first half of a pair that go together (the second half being Ways of Judgement). If you're more interested in ethics, then Resurrection and Moral Order). If you'd rather some shorter essays to get a taste, then Bonds of Imperfection). If you're looking for a shorter piece to give you a feel for his approach to a particular issue, try Just War Revisited. Let me know how you get on. Since I picked O'D as my supervisor, I obviously think he's worth engaging.

byron smith said...

Oh and for O'D's take on moral agency, try these lectures.