A while ago I read Parker J. Palmer’s 2014 book Healing The Heart Of Democracy, a book about political strife and incivility in America, much like my 2012 book, The Nutcase Across The Street. I bought it because it speaks to my interests.
Part of his proposed solution to our partisan problems consists of learning to let our hearts “break open” rather than “break apart.” This is poorly explained, but I think he means that after having our hearts broken we are then able to empathize with others, including those whose hearts are broken over issues we don’t care about or would prefer to be settled in ways they would not. This is the main theme running through the whole book.
Another part of his solution consists of learning to connect with others outside of our immediate circles of friends, learning not to fear strangers – especially those of different races, socio-economic classes, etc. Simply living in an urban area where one has to negotiate a path through crowds can help one develop the habit of respecting others and Palmer also suggests numerous other ways this might be done formally and informally. He claims connecting with others also has the added benefit of making us less dependent on centralized power for our needs, making us less vulnerable to manipulation and fascism. He claims individualism leads to despotism because when people no longer need others, they stop caring and are easily divided by those that would overpower and subdue us.
Most of this makes sense to me, but in my experience the only way to keep the peace sometimes is for people to separate. Rather than trying to push everyone into working together or living where there are crowds, people should be able to escape and live as they want without interference. Individualism may lead to despotism, but it seems to me much more likely for the lack of individualism to lead to despotism. One cannot rule alone (or else I’d already be doing it) without widespread allegiance to a system – allegiance that could not exist if more people were more independent.
Other proposals include leading by example to change hearts rather than change the law, seeking consensus rather than majority (or plurality), respecting the rights of minorities, respecting the democratic process, and respecting the constitutional system of checks and balances to slow down change to the point that society can safely absorb it. He wants us to “live in the tension” of never having any issue permanently settled.
He seems unaware that the main problems with our current political situation are that we cannot agree on what is constitutional, what is democratic, and which minority rights to respect. Do we respect the reproductive rights of the mother? Or the right-to-life of the baby? Do we have greater respect for a president elected by the states through the Electoral College or for a congress elected by much smaller (and often gerrymandered) districts? Did Bush commit an unconstitutional act by ordering troops into Iraq? Did Obama commit an unconstitutional act by signing the ACA? The problem is not that we can’t settle our disagreements; the problem is that we can’t even agree on the process to go about settling our disagreements.
In my book, I propose that we talk more to each other in order to eventually reach an agreement on these issues. Palmer expects us to live at peace without ever reaching an agreement. My solution may very well be too impractical and idealistic, but Palmer’s solution is no solution at all!
Overall, it is a very interesting book packed with numerous nuggets to think over. I have already pointed out above why I think it is incomplete, but his ideas could still be an important first step to get us to negotiate honestly. It also gives an important historical perspective to our connection with strangers that most people (including myself) seem to lack. The book is actually about much more than politics. It is about getting along, socialization, intimacy, and communication. I give it at least four stars.
My name is Dan. I am an author, artist, explorer, and contemplator of subjects large and small.