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.