Monday, June 18, 2007

Neither Left Nor Right...

"I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean.
I love the country but I can't stand the scene.
And I'm neither left nor right, I'm just stayin' home tonight
and getting lost in that hopeless little screen..."
----Leonard Cohen, Democracy

Last week, when I blogged about some political issues related to homeschooling in Creeping Fascism, my political thought juices began flowing again. It helps that I have recently read several books of fiction that have political themes or subthemes, as well as a biography of John O'Niell, the FBI Assistant Director in Charge of Counterterrorism, who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11. That book is called The Man Who Knew: The Life and Death of John O'Niell by Murray Weiss. It was a good but disturbing read.

Another book that I finished last week is Empire: A Disturbing Look at a Possible Future by Orson Scott Card. I was hooked on Card when a friend lent me Ender's Game in 1991. I started reading at about 1 in the afternoon, and continued reading in between picking my daughter up at pre-school, attending a class in Cell Biology, making dinner and so forth. I finished next morning at about 4 AM. (I was younger then...). I read it over again immediately, over the next week or so. Although I generally re-read good books eventually, it takes a really good book, one that causes me to enter "alternative reality," so to speak, to get me to re-read it immediately.

Empire is a novel released in conjunction with a computer game with the same name. The premise is a civil war based on political divisions ("red" v. "blue" ideologies) in the United States in the not very distant future. It is, as usual for Card, an excellent read. And it is as disturbing as the O'Niell biography. And for similar reasons.

In reality, and the science fiction based on our reality at the moment, there seems to be a growing understanding that ideology is getting in the way of truth. In the case of John O'Niell, the political wonks in the FBI were unwilling to see clear warnings about American vulnerability to terrorist action on our own shores. Their ideologies from the past made it difficult to imagine terrifying possibilities that were just around the corner. In dealing with a maverick like John O'Niell, they used rules and procedures to ultimately force him out of the FBI during the summer before 9/11. This was at the time that people in the field were beginning to gather information that suggested that commercial passenger planes might be used as terrorist weapons. But the person who might have been able to connect the dots and get the politicals to listen to him was being forced out. So the dots were never connected.

This was not about negligence on the part of one political faction or another. It was about the very human tendency to ignore the imagination and also the equally human tendency to bureaucratize and routinize use of information. This tames the imagination and makes us feel more in control of it. Life is a lot less scary if we ignore certain, not-within-our-world-view information, but it is also a very dangerous thing to do.

This was also about a very real unraveling of our national institutions, in which thought has been replaced by an increasingly complex web of procedures and regulations. A "systems" approach to running institutions rather than a personal, problem-solving approach. And what is even more alarming about this, is that we do not seem to have learned from it, yet; we seem to prefer to stay within the boundaries of world-views that are stereotyped and out of date. And this brings me to the "left-right" culture wars still continuing in our country, even 6 years after 9/11.

Last week, I wrote: "...I'd like to see the words "conservative" and "liberal" banned from polite discourse so that citizens could talk to each other on the level of issues rather than shout at each other from ideological positions," (Creeping Fascism).

Sometimes, serendipity is really amazing! I wrote the above on Tuesday. On Thursday, I was reading the Afterword in Empire and came across the following:

"But any rational observer has to see that the left and right in America are screaming the most vile accusations at each other all the time. We are fully polarized--if you accept one idea that sounds like it belongs to either the blue or the red, you are assumed--nay, required--to espouse the entire rest of the package, even though there is no reason why supporting the war against terrorism should imply you're in favor of banning all abortions...; no reason why being in favor of keeping government-imposed limits on the free market should imply you also are in favor of...banning nuclear reactors." (Card, pp. 341-342, emphasis in the original. Ellipses mine--I edited to reflect my own supposedly "contradicting" veiwpoints).

I quote Card at such length because he says it even better than I can! It is absolutely irrational to make assumptions that pigeonhole ideas such as the examples above within ideologies, and yet you can turn on almost any talk-radio show or look at any newspaper editorial and see these irrational assumptions being made.

I experienced this when attempting to comment on a blog supporting patriarchy. (The writer's word and definition). I wanted to point out why some of us might be uncomfortable with some of his proposals and also to widen the conversation. But the author made assumptions that if I believed X (what I wrote), then I also must believe Y and Z (irrational assumption). And he attempted to shift the discussion to an argument about the minutia of Y and Z. After several go-arounds, I called it quits because it was bound to become an ideological argument rather than a broader discussion.

And that is the problem. When people cannot have a conversation about some proposal X, without the irrational assumption that if you support X, you must also support unrelated proposals Y and Z, it is difficult to speak and listen to each other about the real merits and problems surrounding X. It becomes an ideological argument in which neither party to the discussion can express doubt, shift their position, or amend the idea. When this happens, no real listening can happen, no respect of opposing viewpoints can be tendered, because it is no longer a discussion of reality. It has become a discussion of ideology.

As Card says (again better than I can):
"...A good working definition of fanaticism is that you are so convinced of your views and policies that you are sure anyone who opposes them must either be stupid and deceived or have ulterior motives. We are today a nation in which almost everyone in the public eye displays fanaticism with almost every utterance." (Card, p. 342, emphasis in the original).

This is scary. Although there are many important issues that we as a nation need to confront and resolve as we move toward a crisis period, we are distracted by disrespectful and divisive ideological "culture wars." As citizens, we must ask ourselves, who benefits from this fanaticism? I believe that those who benefit are those who want to concentrate power into the hands of a few in government rather than remain public servants of We the People of the United States. Whether they are "right" or "left," "liberal" or "conservative," "red" or "blue," those who continue to foment this divisive rhetoric are anti-democractic. They are like sociopaths who stir passions and create controversy so that their own grab for power and fame is not recognized.

As an ordinary citizen, I have frequently felt powerless in the face of the hatred and anger expressed by the fanatics on either end of the political spectrum. And I have often felt angry that the issues that are of importance to the rest of us are lost in a sea of nasty rhetoric. It has gotten to a point where Congress is unable to compromise on bills that are of vital interest to the nation.

Fortunately, though, we do have the power to change how our political discourse is conducted in this nation. And our individual discouragement at what we see can be allayed through the community of ordinary Americans. Although I have personally been feeling pretty discouraged, I got this message from another citizen that I have not met personally.
Susan of Corn and Oil Blog wrote this comment to Creeping Fascism:

" I hate labels. Just hate 'em unless they're telling me what I'm putting in my mouth or on my body. (And then it's still sorta questionable whether those labels are fully accurate.) A lot of labels are so derogatory in usage. Fundies, et al..." (June 14, 2007, 9:38:00 AM MDT).

And that's the answer. We must refuse to have ourselves labeled as A or B. Or whatever the label is. We must insist that we are not that simple-minded. Our ideas and our views are multi-dimensional and complex. They are individual. And we must also refuse to label people we are talking to or about. We must develop the patience to really listen to what they have to say. To ask ourselves, "What is true about what this person is saying? Where are the points of agreement here?" And build on them, no matter small or fragile.

And as for the fanatics in the "public eye"--well, we are the public. We can take them out of the public eye, the public ear and the public vote. We must refuse to give them our valuable time. We must insist that we will not participate in their staged "debates" and simplistic division of ideas. We must not support their access to the "public eye."

In a way, I think we are doing this already. According to the ratings gurus, the ratings of all the talk-shows and news shows and news analysis are down this summer, in the print media, in radio and television. They are down more than usual in the summer. Instead we are focusing on diversions, like the arrest of certain "celebrities" for drunk driving. So we are removing the fanatics from our eye, albeit in a solipsistic sort of way, by "staying home tonight and getting lost in that hopeless little screen."

But we could choose to do it in a more outward looking, positive way. By refusing to let the fanatics define us. By talking to each other directly. By refusing to let the fanatics label us and draw us into to their tidy but irrational set of divisive definitions. They may control the TV and radio stations and the print media. But we have the internet, the blogosphere and You-Tube. It is possible. The psychologists tell us that the best way to change bad behavior is through extinction. We can ignore the fanatics, bypass them and carry out discourse for ourselves.

We can do this. If we choose it. And make no mistake about it, we are choosing what we do even if we do nothing.

"...I'm as stubborn as those garbage bags that time cannot decay.
I'm junk, but I'm holding out this little wild boquet.
Democracy is coming to the USA."
---Leonard Cohen, Democracy.


steph said...

Pardon me while I percolate! I have a lot to say on this, but very little time (mostly I just need to get to sleep at a decent hour for once.) It needs to unwind logically in my head anyway.

Great post. We are Card fans, both Brent and I, because of "Ender's Game" (Brent has many of his other books as well) and also because of the Ornery American website.

I apologize for being a link-dropper, but you might enjoy A lot of people on both sides of the aisle have become jaded over the fanaticism lately. There are really good posts on the immigration brouhaha, but she has written a lot lately so they are buried in her archives already. Suffice to say she caught a lot of flack over it by diehards on the "red" side. I'm pretty red myself (meaning that my stance on many issues is close to theirs so I vote that way), but the way they are chewing up their own...well, about a year ago shadows of that mentality (fanaticism) sent me gagging away from political blogs. I've even lately considered deleting a bunch from my bookmarks because they weren't/aren't being honest with themselves and they were/are demanding we follow them blindly (while saying we are following others blindly if we don't agree with them.) I'm a great follower if you mean "boss can count on you to follow through", but I'm a horrible "yes" gal. I was pretty close to an outcast in many of my schools growing up for that reason, and many of even my closest friends regard me as "weird" (although fortunately I think of it as a compliment now, and I think that's how they intend

So far off topic. Anyway, I really need to sit down and write that review of Manchester's bio of Churchill, as the parallels between the pre-WWI and especially pre-WWII eras are uncanny and have taken my breath away at times. We're not talking Hitler fanaticism, even, but a lockstep kind of thinking that leads to allowing that kind of behavior to foment and produce people like Hitler. I'm not even talking about the Germans. The Brits have a lot to atone for (not much was said about the Americans, but Churchill wasn't American. I read a bio of Eisenhower that made me wince, too, in places, so I think we're covered.)

It's one thing to stand up to obvious tyranny like terrorists. It takes a whole other brand of courage to stand up to your friends and colleagues when they are taking the low road. And it has been happening to the extremes on both sides of the fence in the past few years. We hate to admit that it's infiltrated more than just the fringe, but the vitriol is just too disturbing to ignore.

Anyway, you made my brain swerve all over the place, even for me--I remembered an old post about wolves, sheep and sheep dogs (I'm definitely a sheep dog) at Eject, Eject, Eject and the fact that we will really need principled "Lions" (Manchester's Vol II is called "The Last Lion") to look after this angst-and-evil-ridden world of ours. People with vision and guts but with feet firmly planted in the ground.

Well, there goes tonight's sleep! :) Just kidding! But great post...lots to muse over. I hope I made a shred of sense!

Susan Ryan said...

Ahh....Leonard Cohen...excellent quotes. I went to look and found Hallelujah again. What an interesting guy. You put this in a nutshell below.
This was also about a very real unraveling of our national institutions, in which thought has been replaced by an increasingly complex web of procedures and regulations. A "systems" approach to running institutions rather than a personal, problem-solving approach. And what is even more alarming about this, is that we do not seem to have learned from it, yet; we seem to prefer to stay within the boundaries of world-views that are stereotyped and out of date.
We are an institutionalized society. And that's pretty creepy. And idealogy is definitely getting in the way of truth; babies caught in the '0-3 years' maelstrom of governmental oversight along with parents needing 'help' from the institutions. And parents falling for that partner thing with an institution. Legislation for mental health screens to oversee pregnant women and their families and infants. The systematic approach is beginning from the beginning of our children's lives.
I'm ready for those rational discussions and can find them more easily in the homeschooling world, as we generally live in a rational manner. Because of the time we spend with our family, if for no other reason.
Here's to the Wild Bouquet!

Crimson Wife said...

I love Orson Scott Card's "Ender" series and "Empire" sounds interesting. I definitely agree that things are a lot more nuanced politically in this country than the media would have one believe. I'm a registered Independent because I don't feel either party truly represents my interests.

Sara said...

Wonderful post! Thank you for this - I've been thinking for a while now about "labels" and how they serve to divide us. This was like you were channeling my own inner ruminations, with better quotes!

No Apology said...

Ragamuffin, I working my way up from your June 12 post.

You are so right - we must refuse to accept the labels.

I am finding the same identity problem, especially among bloggers. I try to hold myself somewhat aloof from the conservative bloggers, as it is necessary for me to keep my own council.

Many conservative bloggers are all too ready to let everyone know in advance you are a traitorous, unpatriotic slime-ball if you don't agree with them. This process is often done with labels.

If we can't put aside our prejudices and national paranoia, and focus on America's problems as sovereigns, we may well lose our freedom.

No Apology said...

Elisheva (nice name) - I have one more thing to add - a post I did a couple of months ago, in which Michael Crichton addresses the increasingly politicized stance of "scientific consensus" The post is ostensibly about global warming, but it goes to the heart of how memes are disseminated.

By the bye, back in the day I was living in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, and Leonard Cohen would periodically drop by & hang with a group of us there. He once wrote a poem in the middle of a chaotic scene which proved to me he was the real deal. I had read "Spice-Box of Earth", so I knew he could write. But watching him do it amidst the chaos was fascinating.

Then we would all pile into his limo, go to the Brasserie & pig out. Long time ago - the good old days.