Emily Benn, the granddaughter of Tony Benn, announced recently that she will be standing for Parliament in 2015, at the grand old age of 24. Although I am sure Miss Benn means well, allow me to explain why this is a bad idea .
Miss Benn tells us that she wants to ‘stand up’ and ‘fight for change’. That is commendable. But choosing to fight for change through the medium of national politics, at such a young age and therefore, necessarily, with such little life experience, is less commendable. It betrays a lack of understanding of, and a lack of respect for, the real mechanisms of change in society.
Of course, lawmakers have a huge influence on our way of life. But in a free, democratic society, the most effective and the most meaningful changes come about in civil society, and usually on the local level.
For instance, lawmakers can legislate whatever they want regarding education, but when you serve on the local school board (as I did), you start to appreciate how ineffective these laws are without heroic headteachers, who have enormous influence over the culture of their schools.
Governments can try initiatives which help kids make ‘safe’ choices, but when you volunteer for your local church youth group (as I did), you have the chance to teach children about the importance of values – of what is morally good and bad for human beings – in a way that gives them far more direction and motivation to make ‘safe’ choices than any exhortations from government. And, of course, no amount of legislation can take over the role of parents, who arenature’s solution to the human need for one-on-one nuturing and care on a daily basis in order to thrive.
But the youth have what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called a ‘despising’ of the ‘humdrum’. Dreaming is the order of the day, and they want grand, sweeping solutions to what they perceive to be society’s problems. Who wants to spend time raising a family, serving on the local school board, baking cakes for your child’s music recital, raising money for the youth football club, having family meal times and story times, and so forth? Instead, you could be in the halls of power, revelling in the delusion that you are making society ‘stronger’ through one government initiative after another.
I say these things, only because Miss Benn reminds me of me. When I was 24, I was working on Wall Street, just as Miss Benn is working in the City. And, like Miss Benn, I was passionate about politics. My work often took me to Washington, DC, and on my lunch breaks I would walk to the White House. I dreamed about going into politics and implementing all my vague ideas, as well as having family. My youthful outlook was as Oakeshott described: nothing had a ‘fixed shape’, ‘everything was a possibility’, nothing had a ‘fixed price’.
After I got married, started a PhD program, and started a family, I crossed some kind of line. Things started to have a ‘fixed shape’ and a ‘fixed price’, both in regards to the personal and the political. Families were far more work than I had imagined, and local communities far more important than I had understood.
So, I stopped dreaming about solving society’s challenges solely through national politics, and developed a wariness toward sweeping political rhetoric of ‘change’ and ‘social justice’. For I had entered Oakeshott’s adult world: ‘a world of fact, not poetic image’; a ‘commonplace’ world, where every day, humdrum activities are just as important for the happiness and well-being of human society as any fancy law on the books.
Please do not misunderstand me. Lawmaking is a noble endeavor, and vital to our society. But I agree with Oakeshott,who argued that it is only when we are ‘at home in the commonplace world’ that we are qualified to engage in political activity.
That is, it is only when we have participated – through thoughtful and sustained endeavors – in bringing about change in non-political ways that we are then equipped to enter politics if we are so inclined. This is because we will come to politics with an understanding of not only the good it can achieve, but also of the good it cannot achieve.
This understanding takes experience, it takes humility, and it takes time. And that is why all ambitious 20-somethings should be directed toward the door that says ‘Life’, not the one that says ‘Politics’.