Monday, February 20, 2012

Why Rationality is Not Relevant

In an op-ed column in last Sunday’s New York Times (Feb 18, 2012), Tom Friedman suggests that if Rick Santorum wins the Republican nomination, a third-party candidate for president would emerge, someone more moderate and reasonable, who could appeal to a larger constituency, and possibly beat Obama.

Friedman recommends David Walker, former the U.S. comptroller general under the G.W. Bush administration, for that role, because, according to Friedman, Walker says reasonable, moderate things about fiscal policy.

This idea demonstrates that Friedman misunderstands the current political climate, which has nothing to do with policies. Rather, the upcoming election is about self-identity. Republicans want a candidate who will represent who they think they are, plain working folks. They want someone who can stand up to the snooty elites in Washington who they think try to tell them how to live and what to believe. That’s what it’s about: identity, inclusion, and respect. It has nothing to do with fiscal policy or any other policy.

Virtually no normal person willingly accepts and enjoys a negative self-identity. Nobody will admit or declare, “I am an unschooled, uninformed, unintelligent, unskilled, ineffectual, fearful, dull-witted sheep in search of a shepherd. Help me.”

Instead, a person wants a self-identity that says “I am salt of the earth; embracing the real virtues, the ones endorsed by God, not Washington; I am humble, intuitive, honest, strong, brave, hard-working, steadfast, resilient, self-sufficient, abundantly possessed of common sense, imbued with wholesome, traditional values, rooted in the past, unimpressed by fancy arguments, statistics, or reasoning; and I won’t be bullied. Respect me.”

That’s what the Republican primary is about, identity, not policy differences or “principles.” If discussion were to shift to policy, there would be no meaningful distinction between self and other, which is tantamount to psychological self-annihilation for a person without a mature self-identity.

Rational discourse will only resume when the out-party feels included and respected, and therefore sufficiently safe from bullying and humiliation. Obama thought he could facilitate a bipartisan feeling, but he didn’t count on racism, which is not rational, nor the bifurcation of American society into those who could adapt to a rapidly changing world and those who cannot. He is, in fact, facilitating the eventual return to civil discourse, just by being in the office and conducting himself with dignity. A genuine return to rationality in the body politic could take a long time, generations, perhaps. It’s like growing up: nothing can be done to rush it.

Nevertheless, we should note, the current unpleasant and unhelpful atmosphere of irrational squawking is far, far better than the alternative kind of discourse we see in other parts of the world: guns and bombs.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Why Theocracy?

What is the Attraction of Theocracy? It seems like a lot of people in the world wish for a government controlled by religious principles. Some places have that already, like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vatican City. Some countries are nominally secular but under constant influence and pressure from religion, countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Indonesia, Pakistan, Israel, America.

For certain people, controlling a government seems desirable because of the power and relative wealth it would bring to them. So naturally they would like to see themselves in power. But the venality of a few aside, the real mystery is why so many ordinary people seem also to desire government by religion. Why would anybody want that?

This thought was provoked by a recent article in the Arizona Daily Star ( Rhonda Bodfield, “2 AZ bills would allow Bible class in schools,”
posted Tuesday, January 17, 2012 12:00 am.

According to this article, “A Republican lawmaker from Tucson wants to allow the Bible to be taught as an elective in high school. State Rep. Terri Proud said … HB 2563 and HB 2473 aren't about bringing church in the classroom, but aim to familiarize students with the way biblical references impact literature, art, music and public policy.”

Apparently, instead of explaining to students the meaning of a biblical reference in Shakespeare, it would be better to just teach the Bible itself, old and new testaments.

Arizona being Arizona, this kind of thinly disguised push toward theocratic indoctrination is an endemic disease on the body politic. It can’t be stopped, and probably shouldn’t be anyway, in deference to the First Amendment. And it's not just Arizona of course. The theocratic impulse seems quite alive in national political figures like Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, and on and endlessly on.

Still, it made me wonder what motivates people like that. What do they think would be the good part of a theocracy?

Historically, government not separated from religion has led to decades, and even centuries, of violence and oppression. But let’s assume Rep. Proud, and most people, don’t know history and don’t fear it. What then are the positive benefits they would hope to gain from a government imbued with religion?

Let’s imagine the public schools could teach the Bible obsessively to their heart's content, pray in school endlessly, indoctrinate the youth, leading to a uniformity of thought centered on Christian doctrine, expunging evolution, cosmology, and other contentious topics from the curriculum. After a generation or two, we could have a theocratic government, perhaps much like Iran’s, complete with thought police. What is the good part of that?

Why is a government without diversity and freedom considered desirable? Our constitution prohibits the government from supporting any particular religion, and at the same time guarantees freedom of religious expression outside of government. What is the flaw in that setup that makes people want to move instead to theocracy? I just don’t get it.