Keeping your soul-value

Two books:

I am currently reading Between Two Fires: truth ambition and compromise in Putin’s Russia, by Joshua Yaffa. He quotes Soviet sociologist Yuri Levada’s essay “The Wily Man.” The quote is this:

“The Russian Wily Man not only tolerates deception, but is willing to be deceived, and …even requires self-deception for the sake of his own self-preservation….He adapts to social reality, looking for oversights and gaps in the ruling system, looking to use ‘the rules of the game’ for his own interest, but at the same time – and no less important – he is constantly trying to circumvent those very same rules.”

Reading this, I think it is unfortunate that there may not be a higher value, a soul-value, which Yaffa’s examples of The Wily Man can hold above all else. Something which so defines their feeling about themselves, their soul-value, that they cannot do without it. But more on this later.

At the same time I am reading Unmaking the Presidency: Donald Trump`s War on the World`s Most Powerful Office, by Susan Hennesey and Benjamin Wittes. While it certainly includes what you might expect – a screed against Trump—it is, more importantly, a careful examination of the history of the presidency itself as structure and processes. It clarifies the legal requirements and limits of the office, which are different from conventions. It shows that Trump stands in a long line of presidents who radically changed the office by changing some conventions. For example, writing, but not speaking, the State of the Union message to Congress but not addressing the American public, became a new convention –the dramatic speech delivered to Congress but intended for the public..

It includes, for example, an examination of the “kingly” (Yaffa’s quotes) power of pardon, both for reasons of state (pardoning rebels in order to re-integrate them into society rather than leave them outside it) and for personal political reasons (rewarding friends and punishing enemies). Why the power could not have been fashioned to forbid serving the president’s personal or political benefit, I don`t know. But given what it is, I understand the reasons of state, even though they violate justice by removing the duly ajudged punishment. I perceive that keeping the state together may have superior value than punishing the rebels themselves. Moreover, much evidence has accumulated that people can be convicted of crime unjustly. I want to keep justice as a soul-value, but I understand that “justice” does not necessarily accomplish that.

Being a “wily man” may be equally the situation of even ethical politicians in some western democracies, including Canada. The federal Canadian system provides that the Prime Minister and his office make all the real decisions. They may even direct the conclusions of Members of Parliamentary committees examining the issues of the day (see the Samara Centre for Democracy’s Real House Lives, and other publications). Members of Parliament may be in the political game because they truly believe in the virtues of public service, but they serve this cause in a system to which they must adapt. Perhaps they, too, often try to subvert it to do good.

You can understand that those around you, those on the same authority level, above yours, and below, may have good intentions but still have to manipulate or duck the prevailing system. Their ways may be dishonest or avoid condemning dishonesty, in order to get something done. For instance, as a chaplain in a particular inner-city psychiatric hospital, I depended upon orderlies to get patients up to the chapel on the top floor, in reasonably good emotional condition (because everyone has the right to as nearly normal a worship experience as possible); to get them there on-time; to hang around during the service (whether worshipping or not) in case someone got out of hand; and then return them to their wards. The single most helpful and reliable orderly who took up this task was a known dealer of drugs on the wards to patients and to staff. When he prepared to leave the hospital on any day he had to stick his arm out an upstairs window and start his car remotely, as a precaution against a bomb.

If I wanted to conduct worship services with the severely mentally ill, this was how I was going to do it.

I don’t say that politicians nor others must deceive ourselves, but we do look for gaps in the systems and try to game them. Simply being straight forward, confident that the system is well and truly disposed toward doing good to and for everyone, is often not realistic. Rather, we must “own it” when we are being dishonest and deceptive, working together with others’ out-and-out illegal or unethical behaviour, in order to do good things.

The question is, how much time can we spend in the mud before we forget how to be clean? My volunteer experience in politics is that there are often people, not only among some politicians, but among the volunteers and staff, who gladly engage in such conduct because they have fun with political manipulation, but do not regret the mud. It is as if politics has its own rules, sense of morality, and ethics, and is not to be judged by people who don’t live and work in that environment.
Many of us outside that political environment are disappointed with it, and resent that sense of entitlement or exception.

My concern, as one who has had to cooperate or passively tolerate explicit wrong-doing in order to do my task, is this: does this diminish the ability to choose a higher ideal than “going along to get along,” as my real moral centre, my soul-value? I do not say, “Act according to that ideal at all times.” I have learned that is not always the best decision. Rather, I wonder is whether it is possible to even choose that ideal.

I also wonder whether there must be some sort of critical mass, so to speak, a requisite number of people, also choosing their own ideals, to make it possible for any of us — not necessarily the same ideal, just an ideal for each person.

I wonder whether it would be possible to so thoroughly hold onto such an ideal, that we could count on serving it, rather than “go along to get along.” Perhaps the best possibility is that we be conscious of our ideal, but not conscious of how we forsake it (cognitive dissonance).

Reading through the stories in Yaffa’s book, I see that some of his chosen individuals do have ideals, but they don’t seem to be ultimate in any sense. Violating them does not necessarily cause a crisis in the soul. Shouldn’t people be able to have ultimate ideals, ideals which so define them that they must not give them up, no matter how many fires? “What does it profit you to gain the whole world but lose your soul?” I think “soul” in this context means the self-understanding that makes you OK with yourself. “Blessed is he who can examine himself from outside, and be OK with what he sees (Romans 14:22, my translation)”. For me that’s what informed consent is about: the assertion that, to be OK with my life, to preserve my soul, I must be able to understand in my head and in my gut, not necessarily why, but certainly how damaging events came to others as well as to myself. Ought I have done something to avoid them, or change the course of events? Is there something I can and ought to do now to avoid a repetition, or minimize consequences, or altogether stop something?

Today I was speaking with a friend in politics, a previous local candidate. We were analyzing various candidates for leader of a party, and comparing what their leadership might mean for this party in comparison with other parties. Would each candidate be able to enable the party to bring about climate emergency policies? Or is the party, great values notwithstanding, too insignificant to make a difference?

I am active in more than one party at a time, one on a provincial level and another on the federal. My soul-value is to bring really innovative and effective counters to the climate emergency done before 2030, after which, I think, we will have lost the game (the feedback loop will bring such fierce conditions that we may be severely hindered from continuing many activities, including those mitigation efforts we project into 2050) . I want to help politics get the right things done now, and if that means working with two parties because no one party has all the answers, I am fine with that. My soul-value will not be violated by being in two political parties; it will be violated by not striving as hard as possible to preserve good life after 2030. I may have to support other things in each party, perhaps very silly platforms. I almost don’t care (there are some possible platforms which I might not be able to support), as long as I get to work out my soul-value.

While I will not be alone in benefitting from the effects of my work, so strongly do I believe in its rightness that, were I the only beneficiary, I would still work for this. And just pray that I not encounter some demand which would violate my soul-value. You can see how essential informed consent is for this.

I grieve for those who cannot even choose a soul-value, something they cannot bring themselves to violate. I respect those who must be wily, but I wish better for them.