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The Art of Politics: Arizona, Big Miracle, and Atheists

What do Arizona, the film Big Miracle, and atheists have in common? Not much perhaps except that I recently saw the film and read separate columns on atheists and on the hullabaloo about the vetoed Arizona bill that would have allowed business owners (because of their religious convictions) to engage in anti-gay discrimination. Furthermore, thinking about the film and these columns reinforced my belief that “politics is the art of the possible” and that people of different views can come together to work for the common good.

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The film (starring Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Ted Danson, Kristen Bell, and a few others) is, in the words of film critic Mike Lasalle, the “real-life (though Hollywoodized) account of how environmentalists, politicians, soldiers, foreign governments, Alaskan tribesmen and the news media teamed up” in 1988 to save a few whales. More specifically, a Greenpeace worker (Barrymore), a big oil man (Danson), two TV reporters (Krasinski and Bell), the Reagan administration and the Soviet government (under Gorbachev), and the local Eskimos, all realize it would be in their self-interest to save the whales. As LaSalle writes “the true big miracle” was “that everyone knew they'd benefit.” (See here for a Greenpeace story on the real-life events.)

The most interesting column I read concerning the Arizona bill was by Gail Collins in The New York Times. Here’s her conclusion as to why the Arizona Republican governor vetoed the bill passed by the Arizona legislature: “Maybe we have reached a critical historical juncture. Struggles for human rights always begin with brave men and women who stand up, isolated, against the forces of oppression. But, in the United States, victory really arrives on the glorious day when the people with money decide discrimination is bad for business.” Collins points out that the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, American Airlines, and Apple all spoke out against the bill, and she quotes Arizona Senator John McCain as saying, “The entire business community is galvanized in a way that I’ve never seen against this legislation.”

Two days before Collins’ column, I read on the New York Times blog “The Stone” an interviewwith Louise Antony, a philosophy professor who is also an atheist. Toward the end of the interview, she stated “Why shouldn’t theists just look for allies among us atheists in the battles that matter—the ones concerned with justice, civil rights, peace, etc.—and forget about our differences with respect to such arcane matters as the origins of the universe?”

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Her words reminded me of those of Dorothy Day. Although still being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church, she greatly admired the non-believer and writer Albert Camus, and she believed in collaborating with non-believing anarchists and communists in behalf of causes like peace and justice. Defending such collaboration, after attending an anarchist conference in 1974, she wrote, “Because I have been behind bars in police stations, houses of detention, jails and prison farms, whatsoever they are called, eleven times, and have refused to pay Federal income taxes and have never voted, they accept me as an anarchist. And I in turn, can see Christ in them even though they deny Him, because they are giving themselves to working for a better social order for the wretched of the earth.” A few decades earlier, she had written, “We must always be seeking concordances, rather than differences—that is the basis of the ecumenical movement, which is part of the peace movement.” (See here for sources of Day quotes.)

In the face of our present political gridlock in Washington, D.C., I wish more politicians would take to heart Day’s words about “seeking concordances.” I realize the many evils of “corporate America” (and have written on them), but at times big business and progressives can come together, as they just did in Arizona to oppose the anti-gay-discrimination legislation. At times, as Big Miracle demonstrates, an even greater number of diverse interest groups can temporarily put aside their differences and work for the common good. Noticing that some prominent conservatives (like Sen. Rand Paul and columnist George Will) agreed with many progressives on the need for reducing mandatory minimum prison sentencing, I began a petition several months ago urging Congress to display some bipartisanship and pass a bill still languishing in Senate and House committees.

After obtaining some more signatures(hint, dear reader), I will forward it to certain members of Congress. I do not expect a great burst of idealism to suddenly shine forth from that increasingly criticized body, but perhaps more of its members will realize it is in their own self-interest to pass legislation that not only reflects common sense, but is supported by both progressives and some prominent conservatives.

New York Times article of March 3, 2014,“Holder and Republicans Unite to Soften Sentencing Laws,”states that Sen. Paul predicts the bill “will pass the Senate with support from up to half of its Republicans, and it mentions that “Republicans with strong Tea Party credentials like Senator Mike Lee of Utah and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas” are among its backers. Although the article cites a House Republican who doubts that passage in the House is likely, the mere appearance of a major NYT article almost a year after the Senate bill was referred to committee is at least encouraging.

walter moss

Walter Moss