Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Beyond the Fringe

The latest batch of polls and displays of popular opinion seem to show that people more eagerly identify as liberal when a conservative government is in power and people more eagerly identity as conservative when a liberal conservative is in power. Based on that data, it would appear that we only band together with any degree of solidarity in the face of a mutually perceived common enemy. Said enemy being dispensed with, we scatter like pieces of paper on a windy day, feeling largely satisfied with how we are being governed. The same activists who will always be out in the streets or signing innumerable petitions no matter what will keep up the good work no matter what the climate might be, but when the rank and file can only be counted on to jump on the bandwagon in the face of grave danger---the conclusion to be drawn from this inaction is not the most inspirational of hard truths.

One of the most overused qualifiers ever used to roughly define the political sensibilities of the American people is the phrase "center-right". When a recent Gallup poll reveals that popular perception insists that the makeup of the Supreme Court is too liberal rather than too conservative, even when its true balance is probably as close to evenly matched as it has been in years, then here we see the phenomenon in action. Attempts to define Americans in broad terms never provide satisfying answers because there is no such thing as "America". Regional differences, class distinction, income disparities, racial identities, and other factors prevent us from having a truly uniform sense of ourselves, though this pervasive rallying cry of American patriotism is a particularly potent myth that many conservatives like to pull out at every opportunity to justify their own positions.

I'm reminded of a particular skit that was performed by the 1960's UK comedy revue Beyond the Fringe, a favorite of President Kennedy. In the excerpt below, the group pokes fun at American racism.

Alan Bennett: I think there is a danger though of seeing the colour problem simply in terms of black and white.

Peter Cook: It's a lot more complicated than that.

Dudley Moore: I gather the Negroes are sweeping the country.

Jonathan Miller: They are. It's one of the few jobs they can get.

Many Americans like to perceive of themselves either as centrists or as moderates. However, if we wrote out our own personal beliefs and charted them, we'd find that, unless we were zealots, they pulled somewhat unevenly from both liberal and conservative philosophy. "Centrist" might then be a catch-all term that leaves one indebted to no side, nor to any party. But the problem with centrism is that once a controversial single issue like health care reform heats up, everyone suddenly takes on a forceful opinion which is either strongly conservative or strongly liberal in orientation. One might then be able to infer that we are far more partisan than we often bill ourselves or that self-identifying as moderate is a way for us to minimize potential conflict within ourselves or with other people.

This recognition shows the sharp limitations of polling data and the convoluted, unsatisfying reality of a strict two-party identification scheme. It simplifies matters considerably to look at every issue up for debate as in terms of us versus them or Democrat versus Republican, but doing so vastly and unduly oversimplifies something as influential, complex, and asymmetric as personal conviction. For example, during last year's Democratic primary season, we were often implored to look at the two remaining candidates we had in front of us in terms of male versus female. If we learned anything from that frequently heated and contentious fight (as I hope we did), it's that viewing gender in terms of binary doesn't provide a satisfying, nor especially conclusive means to determine much of anything especially relevant to the discourse.

One needs only to learn from the ignoble legacy of No Child Left Behind to observe that quantitative analysis and statistics can be modified to buttress any position. Numbers are finite. Basic math problems draw neat conclusions using set formulas and established rules that provide irrefutable answers once they are solved. Perfection might not be possible in the material world, but in the world of elementary, not theoretical mathematics, perfection is not just possible, it is imperative. Our Founding Fathers were products of the Age of Enlightenment, and as such this sort of ideal was desired, emulated, and anticipated. Their idealism brought this nation together and laid the groundwork for the country in which we live today, but they were also men of their time who did not recognize that the challenges of neither politics, nor life, can always be met and solved by the application of reason. If people were always rational or, for that matter, driven by rational leadership, we'd have had health care reform or a variety of other reforms long before now.

Being that flawed humanity is what we have to work with, we would do well to modify our strategies accordingly. This does not mean we should expect only a minority of our convictions to find their way into established precedent or that we need always compromise rather than stand firm in our demands, but merely that we ought to challenge ourselves to always look at the bigger picture before we advance any and every position worth fighting to achieve. Humans are too contradictory and too paradoxical for us to ever formulate any grand unifying theory that can be followed to the letter of the law like a battle plan. At times we forget that our battles these days are increasingly fought within the hemispheres of our brains and the brain hemispheres of those who oppose us, not by the violent brutality of hand to hand combat that was present in a different, more barbaric age than our own.

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