The mote in God’s eye, the log in our own Featured

10:07am EDT July 22, 2002

If it’s true as pundits these days are wont to repeat, that great historical events happen twice-once as tragedy, once as farce-then recent events appear to be a weird amalgam of both tragedy and farce, wherein the silliest pantomime takes on an undeserved gravitas , and the weighty issues of the day are obscured by balloons and flags. Two recent examples set the tone.

In New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District, vacated last March by the death of GOP Rep. Steven Schiff, Democrats and Republicans faced off. It was a contest upon which rested the fate of the nation, if one believed the media coverage and party hype. Democrats hailed millionaire Phil Maloof as a harbinger of their return to power in Congress, and trotted out political celebrities from the First Lady on down to strengthen his vote. Republicans, who counterattacked with a vehemence usually reserved for wars, poured more than $1 million into GOP challenger Heather Wilson’s campaign.

In China, the next century’s most powerful nation, President Clinton provided a fig leaf against right-wing attacks on his ill-disguised but historically significant trade junket by hectoring the country’s Communist leadership about human rights. What was lost on many here at home is this: His televised lecture to the Chinese people was made possible in part by the same satellite technology that the new Cold War crowd has been criticizing Clinton for selling in the first place. Conservative critics castigated China for arresting a few dissidents and Clinton for not goading the “Chi-Comms” more strenuously about Tiananmen Square.

What’s missing in both cases is perspective, a quality lacking from so much public discourse today. Heather Wilson’s victory was no more a sign of solidified Republican control than Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996 was a triumph of resurgent liberalism. Clinton and the conservatives’ campaign to impose American standards of behavior on foreign cultures is no more likely to succeed than were Mao Zedong’s exhortations of long ago for American workers to throw off the shackles of capitalism. That a local election should be interpreted as a national turning point, or an international opening sullied by partisan sniping, demonstrates what little part perspective plays in our national dialogue.

Still, there is a reason that the big was shrunken and the small was magnified. In each instance, perspective was eclipsed by interest. In the case of the New Mexico election: the interests of political parties in holding the attention of an attention-deficit media. In the case of China: the interest of political enemies and economic powers in denying the president even the tiniest victory. Each interest shrouded its appeals in the popular mantle of morality, ignoring the fact that interest is the principle of all morality. It is the substitution of interest for perspective that leads individuals to blow small matters out of proportion or to assume that the normal course of great events can be changed with a few bold words.

The leadership of Congress will be decided this fall by the voters in 435 districts, who will be only marginally influenced by the outcome of one race in the summer. China will continue its march down its own road toward free markets — and possibly democracy. If that happens sooner rather than later, it will be because of the Chinese people and virtually not at all because of President Clinton’s televised comments. Perspective can help us see the common interests at work all around us, and to express them in a way that is influential rather than imposing. Indulging our self-interests may bequeath some temporary advantage, but will ultimately rob us of that perspective we need to seize greater opportunities.