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A brief response on accusations of socialism

January 26, 2011 1 comment

Last night, Rep. Paul Broun (Ga.) tweeted the following: “Mr. President, you don’t believe in the Constitution. You believe in socialism.”

The responses have been amusing. But I think Mandy Patinkin put it best in this scene:

Quick reminder: Name-calling, particularly inaccurate name-calling, is not a utilitarian value.

What’s our responsibility in confronting evil and ignorance?

January 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Jon Stewart has responded brilliantly to the Tucson shooting and its aftermath, warning us against finding an easy scapegoat but hoping we will stop treating political adversaries as enemies. If you’re not among the 500K plus who have seen the clip from the official site or the couple million more who have seen it elsewhere, take a look:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Arizona Shootings Reaction
www.thedailyshow.com
http://media.mtvnservices.com/mgid:cms:item:comedycentral.com:370499
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog The Daily Show on Facebook

The follow-up question: How can we react to clear ignorance and knee-jerk hostility with something other than hostility of our own?

It’s a question common to theology and philosophy. Jesus tells us to speak up, yet he tells us to remove the beam from our own eye before telling someone else about the speck in his.

In one of my church-going phases, I heard a sermon in which the priest started to talk about “witnessing.” I nearly rolled my eyes, associating “witnessing” with a gaggle of naive high school kids singing, “If you’re saved and you know it, clap your hands!” and thinking they’re going to win subway riders over to evangelical Christianity. But she changed my perception in a hurry. The sermon took place near Martin Luther King’s birthday, and she described MLK’s life as one of witnessing. That, I could accept. He chose to confront injustice with nonviolence. He succeeded so wildly that all manner of political ideologues look up to him. Irony aside, that’s rather impressive.

We’re confronted daily by willful ignorance. Some people have rationalized it as a means to an end, thinking it’s OK to use a few half-truths and distortions to stir up the masses for their great cause. Some can’t or won’t think outside of what they find comfortable.

Coincidentally, I’ve been collecting a few examples of reckless distortions in the hopes of eventually finding the time to post here. Pardon the link dump, and skip ahead if you like:

– The government may force you to eat your vegetables!

– As Republicans continue to dig in their heels against scientific consensus on evolution (see Delaware) and climate change (see everywhere), fewer and fewer scientists are identifying themselves as Republican. It’s one thing to go against academic trends in areas in which reasonable people can disagree; it’s another to go through an extraordinary divorce between a political party and the realm of objective research.

– Republican-leaning states continue to benefit from government largesse while denouncing it.

– In the wake of the shootings, Facebook was deluged with posts suggesting that Sarah Palin’s “RELOAD” Tweet had been posted immediately after the incident. In fact, it was posted in March.

– Do you rent your apartment or house? Sorry, you shouldn’t vote.

– Bumper stickers decrying “socialism” (sorry, not even close), suggesting we ban the burqa to “avenge 9/11” or imploring us to “Honk If I Paid Your Mortgage!”

Perhaps we lack the capacity to discuss things from a rational point of view. A buzzworthy topic in December was a study suggesting our political views may be “hard-wired into our brain.” “Liberals” may have more of a chemical that makes them more receptive to new ideas. “Conservatives” may have larger amygdalas, rendering them more anxious and fearful by nature. We may have ways to confront this hard-wiring, but I’d imagine those with the “new idea” chemical would be more likely to try it than those being led around by their amygdalas.¬†Rush (not the radio guy but the band unfairly held up as Rand Paul spokespeople in Facebook ads) summed this up nicely:¬†“Ignorance and prejudice and fear walk hand in hand.” (Witch Hunt)

Another Rush quote is more optimistic: “Folks are basically decent, conventional wisdom would say. But we read about the exceptions in the papers every day.” (Second Nature)

In his brilliant speech on Tucson, Jon Stewart asked us to look into the lives of the “basically decent” people killed or wounded in the shooting. It’s easy to forget that, beneath the shouting that preoccupies several million people, we have a society that functions through basic decency. Some may call it “a thousand points of light,” some may call it an “invisible hand,” some may call it “anticapitalist.” None of those fit perfectly, but if it makes an ideologue feel better about things, so be it.

And Americans have demonstrated that they’re not going to follow a rigid ideologue off the cliff of ignorance. Willfully ignorant candidates in Nevada and Delaware likely cost the GOP the Senate. Polls show American voters, particularly educated voters, have resolved not to elect Sarah Palin in 2012.

But the decent folks who aren’t screaming at each other aren’t being heard. The people who watch cable punditry and listen to shoutfest radio may be a distinct minority of the population, but they’re getting the attention. Congress is representing the noisiest people, not the will of the people as a whole.

Given that, the natural reaction is to fight fire with fire. That would explain the skeptical reactions across the political spectrum to Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” and similar calls for calm after Tucson. MSNBC, having searched in vain for an identity after shedding the friendly techster-news niche in which it started, is now content to have left-wing pundits who say they’re fighting back against the right but not quite using the same fear-mongering tools. Salon mocked Michael Bloomberg’s call for an “ideology-free” opinion section.

Two problems with this approach. First, the left simply doesn’t do vitriol with the same enthusiasm and intensity as the right, mostly because the left is motivated by compassion and openness. That’s why Air America was doomed from the start.

Second, this is not a battle of left vs. right. This is intellectualism vs. ignorance. Progress vs. prejudice.

And the good news is that it can be an asymmetrical battleground. This blog said before Election Day that utilitarianism can be dented by popular vote but not defeated by it. GOP politicians aren’t winning over scientists who persist in looking at facts rather than rhetoric. Compassion exists almost everywhere. As another preacher once told me in the wake of the devastating tsunami a few years ago, if you’re wondering where God could be when such a tragedy happens, you’ll find God in the response from the rest of the world.

By all means, we should speak up. Sometimes utilitarians will need to confront ignorance directly — often, sadly, at the school board level. But we win those arguments because the facts are on our side. Not because we yell louder.

Martin Luther King, like six people who were unlucky enough to be present at the Safeway in Tucson, died at the hands of a madman. The Freedom Riders were beaten, sometimes with the implicit support of local law enforcement. And yet they won. May we be just as patient and brave.