Saturday, June 09, 2012

Seen from the middle, the political extremes

(a response to a primarily liberal advocate, but the sauce in here often applies to geese as well as ganders; and part of a discussion that originated in the wake of Wisconsin’s hotly contested and divisive recall campaign)
There you partisans go again. The saw about feeling sorry for the poor corporations and recognizing that they’ve spent lots of money on both Republicans and Democrats is a quip, a thingy called humor. Although Wiki says the USA has about 412 billionaires, far more than any other country, the People's Republic of China, and Russia, with more than a hundred each, are threatening to catch up. Obviously, that's a threat to our national security and something that right-thinking Americans shouldn't tolerate. More seriously, the meat of corporate power doesn't come from a few super-rich individuals at the ultimate pinnacle; it comes from a relatively broader group of only moderately filthy rich people who aspire to be super rich; the one per cent rather than the 0.0001 per cent. And, to understand the broader citizen sympathies that might seem to be at odds with the direct self-interest of ordinary Americans, you have to recognize and understand these aspirational dreams and wishes and vicarious fantasies. Americans root for their larger-than-life characters, billionaires along with ball players, movie stars along with presidents. To fail to allow for this in one's activism is to set one's self up for failure.
-- However, the line about corporations does have a serious point that's more than mere muddying or obfuscation or trying to use justify wrong behavior by the wrong actions of the other side. While progressives and liberals may feel outspent by conservatives and corporations, that doesn't change the fact that they all spend vast amounts of money on the political process. Can you really convince the American people that only some of this money is bad, but the money spent by one side is inherently virtuous and expect them to believe you? That the money spent by a George Soros or a Hollywood actor (but not all of them) or a tech billionaire is automatically on the side of the angels but that spent on behalf of the bad people and corporations should be illegal because it's automatically corrupting?
-- Like most middle-aged middle Americans, I'd have to lose a few pounds and do a lot of yoga before having much of a chance of being able to navel-gaze, though I suppose someone like Mr. Limbaugh has even less hope in this department. However, it's those skinny, vegetarian, yoga-exercising progressives who are far better at that sort of thing. Much more seriously, one fault too many progressives and social conservatives seem to share is a disdain for those who are not fully of their beliefs. That's poison for their cause, though. But maybe some those on both ends of the political left-right would rather be pure than bother to make cause with the ordinary people in the middle. And maybe the extremists are afraid they'll be contaminated or weakened by gasp horror actually trying to understand the uninformed, ignorant, manipulated masses rather than to actually listen to and understand them. And it goes without saying that extremists should never try to understand people on other side, instead of the business as usual of underestimating the enemy and remaining ignorant of the actual reasons as to why ordinary people listen to those bad boys and girls.
-- That goes to the heart of another trend in American politics; the tendency to demonize the opposition (and the corollary behaviors of punishing one's one people for talking or compromising with the "enemy" and of shutting one's ears and eyes to inputs from outside the circle of one's fellow True Believers). We once tried to join a particular church. The people there were sweet and compassionate; they were sincere and active, and they lived their beliefs without hypocrisy or falsity. However, it was utterly inconceivable to them that good people could have significantly different and sincerely held social and political beliefs. And that frightens me. What progressives and social conservatives are extremely loath to believe is that their opponents can have sincerely held, genuine, honest, and yet diametrically opposed beliefs.
* Yes, there is chicanery, hypocrisy, manipulation, misrepresentation, lying, misdirection, and false promises in politics (and lots of it). Yes, there are many leaders who manipulate their followers along with the public. Yes there are hidden and not-so-hidden but utterly selfish agendas. Yes, there are well-paid advisors who train candidates and their staffs to go low and use dirty tricks in the name of fighting tough and everybody does it or the end justifies the means. And, yes, some pols are more notorious and willing to dive deeper into the much than others. And, yes, the hypocrisy and deception and manipulation should and must be exposed.
* BUT, and this is an enormous "but", all the major parties and essentially all the sides to each of the major issues have millions of leaders and supporters who are sincerely, truly devoted to the proposition that imposing their beliefs will make the world a Better Place. And, they do not believe they are being selfish or untrue in so believing. Their beliefs are deeply cherished. Someone from the opposing party or view point who is the least bit clumsy in criticizing the errors or falsities in the views of the other side, or hypocrisy by its leaders, risks angering that side's true believers and devoted partisans -- in other words, disturbing a hornets' nest. Clumsy, inept criticism of the other side is self-defeating. It unifies and energizes the opposition while arousing the sympathy of the unaffiliated to the opposition and against the critic.
* Smart criticism is another matter. Smart criticism illuminates errors in thinking along with hypocrisy and wrongness without unnecessarily threatening and belittling supporters and the unaffiliated. Smart advocacy and criticism is like smart salesmanship; it comes across as friendly, from a basis of common interests, from an interest in finding common ground and compromise solutions and problem-solving, and exploring and finding new solutions and in restructuring problems. It comes from a creative, counseling, supportive focus, and dare we say it, a "love thy enemies" perspective. It's also missing from the behavior of all the bloody-minded political jihadists. Take that you %&*-! political jerks!
* Too often, people believe that two opposing beliefs about something are the only beliefs to be considered, and that these beliefs are automatically irreconcilable. Beyond ruling out compromise, they rule out the possibility of new information, new beliefs, creativity, and new solutions. The extremists rather remind me of the old-line Marxists, who sought to persuade others that their social version of a Hegelian dialectic had led them to produce the ultimate society. The flaw, of course, was their dogmatic belief that there could be no dialectical or other progression beyond their “ultimate society”. And yet, time and time again, one day’s ultimate is overtaken, buried, and forgotten. “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” (Shelly) applies to more than merely Rameses.
~ ~
* Also, honest, penetrating examination and understanding of both major parties or of opposing groups or all sides of an issue, and criticism of hypocrisy and logical flaws on all sides, and recognition that one side may be guilty to some degree of what it opposes in the other side, is NOT a surrender to moral equivalency, apathy, neutrality, or indecision. Nor is tolerance and a multiculturalist perspective an automatic abandonment of judgment or evaluation. For example, one can be deeply appreciative, understanding, and accepting of Hispanic culture while still criticizing the negative social effects of “machismo”, just as one can criticize harmful aspects of any culture without being an enemy of that culture. In fact, it is only those who are most open to self-analysis, and who are most open to outside input, who have the best chance to grow, adapt, and succeed. It is they who can overcome obstacles and opposition. Yes, there is a danger that inept self-criticism might confuse one’s followers or lend ammunition to one’s foes, but we’re stronger than that aren’t we? A true, just cause will not only survive self-examination, but be re-invigorated and renewed by it.
~ ~
Too much the political extremists mistake strength for weakness, weakness for strength. They think it is weakness to actually listen to ordinary people and respect their concerns. Instead they tell them what to think. They lecture them from their invulnerable, insular fortresses of self-centered superiority. They belittle them when they don't vote "correctly" and tell they they're nothing but the mindless manipulated robots controlled by the evil enemy.
Of course, scapegoating the stupid ignorant people or the irresistibly powerful and overwhelmingly wealthy and evil enemy is a fine and wonderful way to deflect blame from the one's own failures of logic, understanding, persuasion, communication, and effectiveness. After all, if a group were to blame itself for failure to change outside opinion, it might actually have to change its message, beliefs, and behaviors -- and obviously a group can't do that if it and its Dear Leaders are obviously Perfect in Every Way.
And, if it's weakness to value what the ordinary people think, then it is utter anathema to actually listen to and try to respectfully understand the opposition -- whoops, sorry, the terrible, civilization-destroying, barbarian enemy who seeks to destroy the world and exterminate civilization as we know it. Of course, compromise is right out. Besides, if we understand what the other side really thought and wanted, we might be tempted to work together on solutions with them, and that simply can't be allowed. Heresy! And if we knew more about them, we might quit under-estimating them. Surely we can't have that when we'd rather go down with the ship and be irrelevant rather than contaminated seemingly say the self-centered purists. It’s so much more comfortable to stay within the warm, snug cocoon of mutual adoration within a group, and to accept leadership uncritically. Maybe that works out okay for bees and ants.
Look on my feelers, termites, and despair
I am the biggest ant you’ll ever see.
The ants of old weren’t half as bold and big
and fierce as me. (Monty Python)
-- Without scouts, seers, philosophers, navel gazers, or plain old self-examination and "heads outside the boat", it's all too easy for group-think, paranoia, tribalism, fossilized thinking, and maladaptive behavior to dominate a political organization or group of believers. Only genuine openness to new ideas and even to the "enemy" can save a group from irrelevancy. Listening genuinely and thinking freely is only a threat if a person or group cannot survive change; or if one's own character has no foundation, and one’s own beliefs are without foundation. Otherwise, listening is the path to growth and success.


At 4:34 PM, June 09, 2012, Blogger Pat said...

Corollary: Are the ordinary citizens and voters mindless sheep?

I think not. But is this just wishful thinking on my part?

I believe not. Yes, I know and respect the power of advertising; I know about and fear the “big lie”, I know that politicians go negative because it works. But I also believe that all of this is of limited relevance to those who would change the political process by reaching out to the people.
I believe, along with Abraham Lincoln and later P T Barnum, hard-core realists both, that “You can fool some of the people some of the time… but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” I think that We the People do have an inherent, enduring wisdom and resistance to tomfoolery that has been honed through centuries of attacks by bamboozlers and crooks. And I believe that the oft-observed swings and pendulum effects in American politics are signs of the corrective effects of that popular wisdom.

If we want to restore civility and reasoned discourse, we will have to make the sacrifices entailed in being better than our enemies. Yes, negative works all too often. Too bad. It’s a terribly hard sell to tell the public that “She did it first” or “Yes we did it but not as bad as he did” or “He did it first” or “Our campaign dollars aren’t as tainted as theirs”.

Favorite Foolishness:
Who's the more foolish: the fool, or the fool who follows him?
Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

Humanity is a parade of fools, and I am at the front of it, twirling a baton.
Dean Koontz, Brother Odd

Ordinary fools are all right; you can talk to them, and try to help them out. But pompous fools -- guys who are fools and are covering it all over and impressing people as to how wonderful they are with all this hocus pocus -- THAT, I CANNOT STAND! An ordinary fool isn't a faker; an honest fool is all right. But a dishonest fool is terrible!
Richard Feynman, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman

A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.
Douglas Adams, Mostly Harmless

A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.
William Shakespeare

Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.
Abraham Lincoln; similar quote attributed to Mark Twain

Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain and most fools do.
Benjamin Franklin

No man is so foolish but he may sometimes give another good counsel, and no man so wise that he may not easily err if he takes no other counsel than his own. He that is taught only by himself has a fool for a master.
Hunter S. Thompson

A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer.
Bruce Lee

Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.
William Shakespeare


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