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The Religion of Politics
This is an article about the religion of politics. And the harm it does to our country. And - since we're a big fat superpower - the harm it does to the world.
By ‘religion of politics', I don't really mean religion at all. Religion is, without question, the greatest disaster to plague humanity, and that's just on one of its good days. But that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about, instead, the manner in which too many of us do our politics. I'm talking about how too many of us (which is to say any number above zero) approach politics like we approach religion.
Fundamentally, it seems to me there are two basic ways in which we can seek to comprehend our world: the empirical or the assumptive. The scientific or the faith-based. The (roughly speaking) cognitive or the emotional.
I know its fashionable in our time to try to reconcile the two, to say that science has its domain and religion has its. But that's rubbish. The truth is that they are competing modalities for engaging life and the environment in which it dwells. On any given matter, one can make a judgement based on evidence and logic, or you can take a position based on what you prefer to believe. Those two approaches apply to every question ranging from the existence of god to whether the US should invade Iraq (and those who answered the latter affirmatively should count themselves lucky that the former answer is negative).
Of course, there are rarely if ever fully ‘correct' answers to any of these questions in any abstract sense. But there is an investigatory process that will get you as close to the ‘correct answer' - or a best functioning approximation - as is humanly possible, and then there is an alternative approach, called ‘let's all pretend'. The first path may not get you where you want to be, but the second one is almost sure not to. The first approach may not solve your problems, but the second is almost guaranteed to exacerbate them.
This is not exactly a new observation, of course. The Founders of the American state were profoundly men of the first category, as leading figures in the Enlightenment, a movement which practically defined itself over the principle of rejecting superstition and assumption in favor of rational analysis. For all the faults that would later be attributed (some rightly, most wrongly) to rationality, science and Enlightenment thinking, this cognitive sea change marks one of the greatest moments of the entire human story. I see it as the adolescence of humankind.
The Enlightenment approach is also, among other things, at the very foundation of the idea of democracy. First be cause it gives humans license to control their own destiny. And second because there is, after all, no point to the concept of self-rule by the people if the body politic is ill-equipped to make thoughtful decisions.
America faces so many huge problems in our time. But I see none as consequential as the fact that our body politic is indeed ill-equipped to make thoughtful decisions. We are fast losing the capacity for anything even approximating dispassionate empirical observation and rational analysis. Ultimately, this will mark the greatest of the many triumphs of the dark forces of regressivism - to regress us as a society to a pre-Enlightenment modality in our relationship with our world. To push us back three hundred or more years, to a time when ‘knowledge' was given, fixed and dogmatically defended. Or worse - when even questioning such ideas would itself be considered heretical if not absurd.
This is the greatest victory that the right can win - to discredit, disdain and destroy heterodoxy, to elevate unquestioned and unquestionable authority to the supreme power of popularly-enforced social convention, and to ultimately destroy the societal value and even the capacity for critical thinking. If you want to plunder, unfettered by resistance or even the legitimacy of challenge, you must not only remove the questions from the table, you must take away the table as well. You want to turn the art of independent, rational analysis into the political equivalent of something esoteric, like ancient Tibetan calligraphy. Practiced by lepers.
This is the America we live in today, or at least the one we're fast headed toward.
On election night earlier this month, I sat in doing analysis of the returns on a Long Island radio station. With me was a very personable, well-informed (by conventional standards) guy who holds a significant position in local government, and who told me that he had been asked to run for Congress this year, but declined because he has a small child at home. At one point in the broadcast, I mentioned that it was absurd to call Barack Obama a liberal, let alone a socialist. At the next break, he good-naturedly teased me for saying that, as if I hadn't really believed it, but was just trying to do a little liberal propaganda work. I looked at him and said, "I'm dead serious. I can name ten examples of right-wing policy from this White House. Can you name three examples of liberalism?" His face fell a bit. I said, "Okay, how about one?" Then he sort of uncomfortably laughed and said, "You know you're never going to get me to believe that!"
As a matter of fact, he had no idea how much I knew I was never going to convince him to believe that. I knew I wasn't because I've come to see over the last decade how the regressive mind (I'm being generous in my nomenclature here) works (again). It is not only increasingly incapable of rational thought, it is increasingly defined by that incapacity. It is characterized by the pre-Enlightenment tribal mentality in which our team is always good and right, and ‘facts' are either accepted dogmatically, rejected out of hand, or just plain fabricated out of whole cloth to service that desperately held weltanschauung.
It is a frightening world, precisely because it is so frightened a world. The people who inhabit it are so uncomfortable with the real world that they have created a bogus one to which they tenaciously cling. The vociferousness with which they demand Fake World's hegemony over others is anything but an indicator of their confidence in the power of its principles. Quite to the contrary, that obstreperousness represents instead an inadvertent indication of the falsity of their beliefs, of the brittle precariousness of a world view that possesses all the solidity of cotton candy, and of the urgent requirement for total vigilance in order to keep the dogs of cognitive dissonance well at bay. To paraphrase Jefferson (who knew a thing or two about cognitive dissonance): It is error alone which needs the support of ideology. Truth can stand by itself.
Truth is a big problem for the right. A really big problem. And, regrettably, it is increasingly becoming a really big problem for America.
This is a country that just elected a government which - for the third major iteration in a single generation - is once again promising radical tax cuts for the wealthy and a balanced budget at the same time. How willfully stupid do you have to be to believe that that little exercise will turn out differently this time than it did when Reagan instead tripled the national debt, or Lil' Bush doubled it?
And how intentionally ignorant do you have to be to continue to take right-wing economic policy at face value anymore, anyhow? Thirty years ago, Reagan's OMB director, David Stockman, told us to our faces that the whole trickle down line was pure bullshit, used for the purpose of justifying tax cuts for the wealthy to moronic voters. And yet we pretended like we never actually saw what was behind the curtain Toto pulled aside. And still we pretend, even as we've now lived through - and lived with the consequences of - the greatest transfer of wealth in all of human history, a massive looting of the middle class, working class and poor alike, all to benefit the already fantastically wealthy. So just what kind of fervently-held political religion must you desperately be clinging to in order to still take the economic policy pronouncements of a John Boehner or a Dick Armey seriously in the year 2010?
Or how about foreign policy? Paul Wolfowitz - a reptilian combination of academic aloofness and lethal arrogance not seen on the American stage since Henry Kissinger cashed it all in for the money - played the role of George Bush's David Stockman. The son of a bitch came right out and told us to our faces that the whole WMD riff was nothing less than a Madison Avenue marketing campaign of epic proportions. Then the Downing Street Memos confirmed that truth with leaked evidence from the highest levels of the British and American governments. And yet we nod and yawn today as a proven war criminal now tours the country hawking ridiculously deceitful lies in the form of a presidential memoir, to cover ridiculously destructive prior lies in the form of a government, and one which, for that matter, only came into being on the basis of ridiculously ominous earlier lies in the form of the conservative cabal on the US Supreme Court. But, hey, it's only millions of lives at stake. Why bother noticing?
These are only the most glaring and prominent examples. The list is endless. We continue to flatter ourselves with the idiotic mantra that we are the greatest thing to happen to the planet since Rome, even while just about every statistic measuring the health and well-being of societies show us rapidly becoming a banana republic. But you can't say that in America today. It's heresy. We have a religion to protect.
It's bad enough for a society to make the wrong decisions, particularly since the effects can be devastating. But what makes our present situation especially hopeless is that we continue to insist on making decisions the wrong way. That approach to policy making, and indeed to reckoning the very world we inhabit, will almost always guarantee disaster. Go ahead and believe if you want that Jesus will save you from losing your suburban, white-collar, big-screen HDTV existence, but that don't make it so, pal. The guy couldn't even save himself, and then he hasn't bothered to show his face on the planet for more than 2,000 years now. Not even for the Thirty Years' War, when Catholics and Protestants annihilated each other, to the tune of about eight or ten million dead Christian souls.
Religious zealots love to note that there are no atheists in foxholes. They're probably right, but it always struck me as hilarious the degree to which that truth undermines rather than affirms such attempts to bolster their insecurities about the fantasies to which they adhere. Of course there are no atheists in foxholes. That's because mortally frightened humans will cling to any superstition, any cosmic parental savior figure, any super-hero, any deus ex machina, or any hasty bargain they can strike promising to forego this or that vice in order to save their skinny asses from molten hot chunks of lead whizzing toward their soft fleshy bodies at petrifyingly scary velocities.
You bet they're praying for some god or another to save them, just as the wounded ones all cry out for "Mama" before they die. Of course there are no atheists in foxholes. That only confirms that people will do or believe anything if you frighten them badly enough. What's more clarifying is the fact that there are no true believers on surgeon's tables. Oh, sure, they're praying still. But if they really believed in their prayers, and their deity, they wouldn't be going in for surgery at all. Surely god is skilled and powerful enough to just heal our owies without having to work through doctors, right? And wouldn't it be so much better that way, anyhow? Think of the months of painful post-op recovery you could skip. Or all the bad television watched from your hospital bed you could avoid. Or the interminable hassles of trying to get your insurance company to actually pay what it owes. Does god really only work through Anthem Blue Cross?
Unfortunately, though, when it comes to politics, there are a lot of true believers. That is because of the luxury of time intervening between cause and effect, I suppose. When the doc says you've got cancer and you need to have surgery or you're gonna die, you check into the hospital like yesterday. But when scientists say that global warming is going to wreck the planet over the next half century, you can pretend it ain't so, especially because you know it surely means that some Washington bureaucrat is gonna come take away your freakin' Hummer. I imagine we'd act quite differently if the damage that global warming is slated to inflict upon us was going to be delivered instead by an asteroid. Oh, we'd pray like mad in our little planetary foxhole, to be sure. But first we'd get every scientist we could - you know, like climatologists - and put them to work finding a solution to save our butts.
But global warming ain't fast-moving, like an asteroid. So, instead, we allow pigs like Rush Limbaugh - locked in an endless attempt to purge all the bad memories of the bullying they endured as children - to engorge themselves at the expense of a charred planet, just as we engorge ourselves by following their lead rather than an academy full of expert climatologists. When I encounter the selfish and willfully stupid idiots who subscribe to this transparently filthy set of lies used to cover up transparently evil levels of greed, I just want to shake them by the shoulders and ask whether they'd also let Limbaugh perform their open heart surgeries as well? You know, given his vast scientific expertise on things like climatology and medicine and so on...
Our problem today runs much deeper - frighteningly deeper - than our problems. Endless wars, economic depression, environmental collapse - these are actually the good news, relatively speaking. The (very) bad news is not that we have these catastrophic crises to deal with, or even that they are all coming home to roost simultaneously, but, rather, that we have regressed back to a medieval modality for grappling with the world we inhabit. We are rapidly returning to a culture of faith, instead of one of reason. Or, put differently, we are giving up on the painful but potentially productive struggles of early adulthood to return instead to the comforts of being children.
This week, Jonah Goldberg, right-wing liar (pardon the redundancy) published a piece in which he trashed the (not really Christian, not really white, not really American) president for not embracing the idea of American exceptionalism with sufficient fervor. He quoted Obama. But, of course, he left out all kinds of other parts of what Obama said - in the exact same answer to the exact same question - that directly and completely contradicted his assertion that Obama doesn't really believe in the greatness of the country he is (supposed to be) leading. Things like "I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world". Or, "The United States remains the largest economy in the world. We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional."
This stuff goes on all the time. Basically, with regressives, if their lips are moving, they are lying. The great wonder, of course is why do people like Goldberg and Limbaugh and Beck and Bush and Palin have a voice, let alone such prominence, in what is supposed to be a grown-up, sophisticated democracy? Why do we accord them legitimacy, while disdaining and jailing pedophiles or drug dealers who do far less damage? How can a country which once achieved so much now revel so joyously in the stench of its own soiled diapers?
Beats me, man. Ah, but let's give credit where it is due. Goldberg is right. There is such a thing as American exceptionalism, after all.
Think about how exceptional you have to be to take the pioneering political, economic, human rights and technological great power of the twentieth century and return it all the way back to the Dark Ages.
And think about how truly exceptional you have to be to do so in the name of the American Founders, whose entire raison d'être was to transcend the superstitions of those times, and replace them with the empiricism and reason of the Enlightenment.
That's a beautiful sight, if only in the sheer boldness of its scope and its gall.
Yep. America the beautiful.
America the exceptional.