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Many of us are motivated by the desire to affect the world in a positive way. Everyone engaged in political activities on any level believes in their ability, working with others, to affect people’s beliefs and actions, at least on the margins. And, indeed, the fact that change is constant, and that some of that change is in part a result of intentional social movements demonstrates that intentional actions by some can affect the beliefs and attitudes of others, at least on the margins.

Most political activities and discourse target the turbulence on the surface of our shared existence, focused on passing this or that bill or getting this or that candidate elected. But the most successful and memorable movements have reached deeper, stoking either our humanity or our inhumanity, our generosity or our selfishness, our reason or our irrationality. Their focus has generally been narrower than the one I am suggesting (hatred, prejudice and discrimination toward specific groups, or ending hatred, prejudice and discrimination toward specific groups), but they are memorable for being more sweeping in breadth and more profound and lasting in effect than more superficial political struggles.

In many ways, there is a deeper political struggle that is less attended to than the more superficial issue-specific causes to which we address our attention and energies: the struggle between, on the one hand, our more primal inclinations, our bigotries and hatreds, our fear and anger, our irrational tribalistic dogmas, and, on the other, our “higher consciousness,” our compassion and imagination, our hope and aspiration, our generosity and humanity. Each year, around Christmastime, a small barrage of meta-messages celebrating the latter is repeated (e.g., A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 24th Street), and these meta-messages resonate with many people, who enjoy having those centers of their mind and spirit stimulated. We feel good seeing hope and love prevail.

One part of my proposed social movement (see A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill) is based on the constant, strategic and intentional creation, identification, dissemination and use of such meta-messages to “soften the ground” for more superficial political discourse, to stimulate the centers of the mind more conducive to the passage of rational, humane, compassionate and generous public policies. This is a movement that occupies a largely unexplored and untapped region between culture and politics, a region usually addressed only by religions, and usually enveloped in a lot of noise not related to what I’m talking about here. But what if a motivated group of people, organized to do so, targeted the zeitgeist itself, stoking and stimulating those areas of the human mind that respond in emotionally gratifying ways to messages of generosity and hope and inclusiveness? And did so in conjunction with related narratives about a commitment to disciplined reason in service to those values?

I understand the skepticism about such a movement, because we think of all of the people who will not be responsive to it, and how Quixotic it seems to be. But it’s clear that over the course of a period of time (a generation or so), similar movements a little narrower in scope and in conjunction with haphazard cultural reinforcing messages have been dramatically successful, by moving people on the margins. The Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Rights Movement are two prominent examples. Under the influence of social movements with political agendas and accompanying proliferation of cultural narratives reinforcing their agenda (e.g., TV shows “normalizing” in the collective consciousness the world these movements were striving to create), dramatic change in the zeitgeist, in the course of about a generation in each case, was accomplished.

What if we combined all of this into a single, coherent, intentional social movement? What if we created a movement whose purpose is to promote disciplined reason and imagination in service to humanity? The fact is that there are relatively few Americans who, if pressed, would explicitly reject the value of working to be more rational and humane people, despite the fact that there is a large faction that implicitly and in effect does reject both reason and humanity. But politics, at root, is a competition of narratives, a battle over human consciousness, and given that we are at a time and place in world history in which few would explicitly reject the value of reason and humanity, that narrative already has an advantage in the competition of narratives. What we need to do is to put meat on its bones, to make sure that that which is, and that which is not, reason in service to humanity is easy to identify and easy to relate with. And the successful movements to which I’ve referred give us shared cognitive, cultural material with which to do so.

America lags behind the rest of the developed world in this cultural progression because of a set of memes, a narrative, which creates a “safe haven” for bigotries and irrationality, an emotional packaging of them which gives them a veneer of nobility. That fortress of ideological delusions continues to resist the progress of reason and humanity. And those who are committed to reason and humanity simply take on the armies sent forth from that fortress, leaving the fortress itself intact. We need to get out our corps of engineers and work on undermining the battlements themselves, work on revealing what’s really hiding behind those walls of faux-patriotism and abused “liberty”. And we need to do so in an organized, strategic and intentional way.

I believe in the human ability to organize to accomplish great things. And I believe it’s time to organize to try to affect the zeitgeist in an intentional way, working to stimulate and liberate our collective genius, to stimulate our compassion and humanity and to lay bare and unprotected the cultural pathologies that stand in the way of our collective genius and our compassion and humanity. It’s time to work in a conscious and organized way at becoming a more conscious and humane people.

Many things have led to this moment, and have made it ripe for all rational and humane people to stand up and speak with one voice, and do so in an effective way. The struggle between those driven by fear and loathing on the one hand and those driven by hope and humanity on the other has come to a head. Both forces are at or near a peak. And those who preach hatred, those who preach irrationality, those who preach implicit inhumanity, are an embattled faction, with only residual influence on the zeitgeist.

When a fresh and inspirational young candidate was elected president in 2008 on a wave of hope and a widespread desire for the kind of change I’m referring to, the resistance rallied, fear and hatred rallied, irrationality rallied. It is a desperate and embattled opposition, crying out in the death throes of a failed ideology. We need to stop letting their anger and irrationality penetrate us, and need to smile at it indulgently, saying, “you are the past, and we are the future.”

Because by doing so, we can make it so.

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A Facebook posting of an audioless YouTube clip of Michelle Obama whispering something into President Obama’s ear during a 9/11 ceremony, the movement of her lips slight and completely indecipherable, with a caption insisting that her unknown and unknowable words were  a comment about the amount of ceremony surrounding the flag, eliciting on the Facebook thread the typical hateful comments about her being “the worst first-lady ever” and “not being a lady.” Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum disdainfully calling President Obama a snob for saying that he would like to see all children go on to higher education, whether college or trade school or technical training. The phenomenon I’ve dubbed “Sharianity”, in which any act of violence committed by any Muslim anywhere in the world is taken as proof that America is being overrun by Sharia law (huh?). The Basal Ganglia of humanity dominating comment boards and Facebook threads.

This is not a right-left issue. Yes, it’s true, the preponderance of the belligerence, especially on the substantive side (see The Basic Political Ideological Grid), comes from the Right, but there is more than enough (especially in the form of how it’s expressed) coming from the Left. And there are both reasonable people of goodwill to be found on the Right, and irrational and belligerent people to be found on the Left.

The real political divide is not between the right and the left, but rather between, on the one hand, people who strive to be reasonable people of goodwill, humble enough to know that they don’t know all of the answers, and committed to working together with all others willing to do so to confront the challenges of a complex and subtle world; and, on the other hand, people who surrender almost completely to their own irrationality and belligerence, attacking any pursuit of knowledge as “snobbery” and any attempt to implement knowledge as “elitism,” eager to vilify all members of all out-groups (e.g., Muslims, Hispanics, Gays, Non-Judeo-Christians and Non-Americans in general) and ostentatiously both wave the flags and crosses of the in-group while subjecting those who don’t to a soft-Inquisition into why they lack the virtue to do so.

But, while the substantive positions of the Right are saturated in this error, the expressed attitudes of many on the left are so as well. To paraphrase and adapt Shakespeare to the current context, “The Fault, Dear Brutus….” is not with those enemies over there, but with ourselves. If the Right turns hatred into planks in a platform, the Left too often turns into a habit of thought and speech directed reflexively against those on the Right. We have to attack the offending ideas more than the people foolish enough to embrace them. And we have to do so even when the offending idea is that those on the Left are pure and good while those on the Right are villains to be vanquished.

I am not shy in my criticisms of right-wing ideology (see, for instance, the essays linked to in the box labeled “Tea Party Political Fundamentalism and Responses To It” at Catalogue of Selected Posts). But I am no less inclined to let left-wing intransigence and belligerence get a free pass (see, for example, many of the essays linked to in the “Politics of Reason and Goodwill” box at Catalogue of Selected Posts). And, despite the incessant attempts to equate this criticism of belligerence to a Pollyanna call for perfect civility and cordiality, a spirit of compromise that assumes and requires that others are reasonable people of goodwill as well, that is not, in fact, what it is. Reason and goodwill do not require passivity, or surrender, or an unwillingness to confront irrationality and belligerence with implaccable resolve. There is a place for strong words and “offensive” analogies (see, e.g., Godwin’s Law, Revisited and Humanity v. Civility), even occasionally for actual violence (such as to prevent a genocide), but only as long as they are done not in service to hatred or anger, but rather in service to a genuine commitment to humanity.

People often aren’t sure how to tell the difference. Here are some guidelines: 1) Those who refuse olive-branches sincerely offered are acting in pettiness rather than in service to humanity; 2) Those who revel in their belligerence are acting in service to anger rather than in service to humanity; 3) Those who vilify individuals more than they critique ideas are acting in service to hatred rather than in service to humanity; 4) Those who are certain that they possess the one, definitive substantive truth that their political enemies just don’t get are acting in service to  hubris rather than in service to humanity; 5) Those who cling to their false certainties rather than commit to processes by which to refine them are acting in service to moral and intellectual laziness rather than in service to humanity.

We can do better. One step toward doing better is for each one of us who is so inclined, each one of us who wants to act more in service to humanity and less in service to pettiness, belligerence, hatred, hubris, and moral and intellectual laziness, to decide to strive to exercise the discipline involved, invest the effort involved, make the commitment involved, to walking the walk as well talking the talk (see The Power of “Walking the Walk”).

Social change starts within each one of us, in the battle to be committed enough to do more than gratify our own emotional need to smite the enemy, in the struggle to be, not perfect, but sincerely committed to making this a better world, a commitment which requires each and every one of us to strive to make ourselves better individuals. Reason and goodwill, sincerely felt and sincerely advocated, are powerful forces, difficult to deny, easy to gravitate toward. All we need do is commit to them more diligently, make them our guiding forces, and act accordingly.

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(This is my most recent post on a thread on a Denver Post comment board, my participation beginning here: See Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding for the essay to which I am referring)
windbourne wrote:Do you feel that he should apologize for locking up rapists as well? Perhaps murderers, or bank robbers as well?
I already made a distinction between crimes of predation, and “crimes” that are an artifact of trying to legislate human migration. Border control is one thing; creating a permanent underclass within our borders by ignoring the reality of how our society forms itself is another.
windbourne wrote:Or he should apologize to those that have had their lives destroyed by the drugs that gangs from Latin America bring in?

And there we have it: Guilt by membership in a race or ethnicity. Since some Latin Americans join gangs and smuggle drugs, all Latin Americans share in the guilt, and are to be treated accordingly. I’m sure that you apply the same logic to whatever group you belong to, and consider yourself guilty of every crime any member of your own ethnicity or race ever committed, and thus believe that you should be treated accordingly as well. You have chosen to illustrate for us the dimension of the similarity that I did not emphasize, between the two historical contexts I compared in my essay.

If you respond by falling back on the illegality of their presence, then please explain what the relevance of the mention of the criminal activities of other Latin Americans has.

windbourne wrote:NONE of these illegals are suppose to be here. Many of them are DESTROYING American lives and livelihood. PURPOSELY.

Add in a hefty dose of hyperbole and paranoia, and the similarities become even more striking, almost down to the language used. You have a dehumanizing label that you apply (“these illegals”) which reduces human beings merely migrating toward opportunity to some subhuman status that you can then dismiss and revile. You can’t see it; you won’t see it. But others can and will, and America will wake up from the nightmare it is drifting toward. One of the tensions of human existence is the degree that we, as individuals and as socieities, yield to the basal ganglia of the human brain (“the reptilian brain”), rather than striving to be rational and compassionate human beings. That tension, and which of those two poles is dominant in what is being expressed on this thread, is clearly in evidence.

windbourne wrote:At what point will you show compassion for your fellow citizens that these illegals are harming??

What harm is produced is an artifact of pushing people into the shadows, and forcing them to find ways of surviving there. My compassion is for all, as the real rather than imaginary or manufactured need arises.

While I am writing for those lurkers who are not so completely lost to their hatreds and their bigotries, who recognize that we can be more or less cruel as individuals and as societies, and more or less reasonable, I also suspect that many of you who are most outraged by my posts are so outraged in part because you know, just beneath the surface of your awareness, that there is at least a grain of truth in what I am saying; that there is a disconcerting similarity between the attitudes expressed here toward our own undocumented population living among us and the infamous attitudes of Nazi Germans toward German Jews in the prelude to the Holocaust; that there is something unpleasantly familiar about the suggestion that these Latin American immigrants are somehow contaminating our otherwise pure society with the evils imputed to them as a race (as happend to the waves of Chinese, Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants before them, many of whom also came here without documentation); that there is something cruel and ugly about mocking the suffering of others you’ve managed to dehumanize (“waaahhhh, waaahhhh”).

I have no ill-will toward anyone here, though I do have a feeling of disgust at what is being expressed and demonstrated. But I am a hopeful person; I remember an interview of a woman several decades ago, who had been a teenager at the time the Little Rock Nine had been escorted into their new school, a cluster of Black students accompanied by National Guard troops surrounded by whites whose faces were contorted in hatred and rage. She was in the photo as a teenager, a white girl whose face was more contorted than all the others. And she said in this interview, in all sincerity, that she now knew that she had been wrong, just plain wrong. I have more respect for her, and for people like her, than for those who never had to grapple with those particular inner-demons, for she demonstrated the wisdom and courage of someone who could triumph over her own hatred.

We can and should discuss our immigration policies, and consider the balance of interests involved. We can and should weigh our real interests (not those that are based on arbitrary beliefs mobilized in service to blind bigotries, but rather those based on considering all analyses applied to all reliable data) against our commitment to humanity, and decide how to balance the two. But we do not have to contaminate that with hatred and indifference to the longings and strivings of other human beings; we don’t have to dehumanize those we decide to exclude or even remove.

Or, perhaps, that’s precisely the point: If we don’t dehumanize them, then we have to own our choices, and take moral responsibility for how we treat those seen in the light of what they truly are rather than what we need them to be to avoid any qualms about our own brutalities.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what you think of me, or even what your opinion is about the policies under discussion. What matters is that each and every one of us strives to avoid the orgies of hatred and irrationality that have played such a prominent role in human history, and that are clearly implicated in the attitudes being expressed by some on this thread. That, at least, would be a step in the right direction.

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“Godwin’s Law” is, of course, a reference to the ironic observation by Mike Godwin in the 1990s that the longer an internet conversation goes on, the more inevitable it is that someone will draw a comparison to Nazi Germany. The overuse of this iconic moment in world history as a reference point does not mean that all comparisons are invalid or inappropriate, but does make the utilization of legitimate comparisons problematic. (Godwin himself emphasized that this is precisely the problem, legitimate comparisons getting lost in the flood of meaningless ones. Thus, the invocation of his “law” to reject out-of-hand any comparison made to Nazi Germany accomplishes exactly what he thought needed to be prevented.)

We are at a moment in our own national history when one such legitimate comparison is of particular salience. In order to invoke its legitimacy, I’ll preface my remarks with an important qualification: The American mass hysteria to which I’m referring does not appear to be on the brink of  a genocide, and is not characterized by widespread physical violence. That is a major distinction, which renders it highly unfair to paint the adherents of the American mass hysteria I am about to discuss as the equivalent of Nazis. They’re not. My point only is that there is a certain salient core similarity between the underlying logic of German Nazism and a highly popular modern American political ideological belief.

I am referring to the hostile attitude among many highly vocal and passionate Americans toward undocumented immigrants. For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus only on the attitude toward undocumented immigrants living in our country, not toward their employers, or toward any concerns about lack of enforcement of immigration policies at our borders. Those individuals who criticize the latter aspects of our immigration policy, but accept the presence of those who have already immigrated illegally and integrated themselves into our economy, our communities, and our society as de facto members of our society are excluded from this comparison, without my implying either agreement or disagreement with their positions by doing so. But this conversation is only about our national attitudes toward a population living among us.

First, it’s important to distinguish between law, morality, and reality. We pass laws to order our lives and arrange the framework for our mutually secure and beneficial coexistence as members of a society. Our laws may be moral or immoral in any particular instance, and they may be more or less well-attuned to reality. For instance, our laws prohibiting slaves from escaping from their masters, or others from assisting them in doing so, were clearly, from our current perspective, highly immoral. Similarly, if a law were to be passed making it illegal to be unkind, it might not be immoral, but it is simply unrealistic: We are not capable of legislating kindness. Taken as a whole, our laws are neither perfectly moral, nor perfectly attuned to reality.

One reality to which they are not perfectly atuned is the reality of patterns of human migration. We all implicitly know that our immigration laws and the reality of immigration into our country are at odds. Some believe that this can be rectified simply by enforcing our immigration laws. Very aggressive and expensive attempts to rectify the gap between our laws and our reality have proven that this is far easier to demand than to accomplish. Fences are tunneled beneath. Comprehensive human and technological vigilance of a 2000 mile long border is a practical impossibility. Gaps are found and exploited. People continue to flow across.

Some believe that since the exploitation of the impossibility of perfectly sealing our border is labelled “a crime” according to American law (though this is technically erroneous), those who do exploit it are simply “criminals,” and, as such, are fugitives to be rounded up and either locked up or deported. But this, too, is not perfectly attuned to reality: Humans throughout world history, and around the globe, have migrated away from destitution and toward opportunity, whenever and wherever such migration is possible. In the Biblical story of the Exodus, for instance, the Hebrews with whom we empathize, who escaped Pharaoh in Egypt, had come to Egypt uninvited in the first place, fleeing drought and famine in their homelands. I have never heard anyone condemn these authors of monotheism as uninvited intruders on Egyptian civilization.

We pass our laws to order our lives, which is all well and good. And we are a world carved into nation-states as a by-product of world history, convincing ourselves that the lines we have drawn in the sand (and in our minds) have some fundamental reality, have become a part of Nature itself. Therefore, a violation of the laws which violate those lines is an offense which merits disdain and antagonism.

Let me now turn for a moment to Nazi Germany. The lines drawn in the minds of Nazis was a racial and ethnic one, separating out those of pure German-Aryan blood from those of “impure” or “inferior” blood. Laws were passed making that border inviolable. People were punished for crossing it, and, eventually, for living within the geographic borders of the nation. They were marked as criminals, as a threat to the welfare of the German people, as unwanted foreigners within the German homeland, and thus to be rounded up and removed.

Some will argue that in America today, those who are hostile to undocumented immigrants are not drawing any racial or ethnic lines. We will return to this question shortly, but let’s, for the sake of argument, accept for the moment that it is a purely legal distinction between those who had permission to enter and those who did not. I contend that that is a distinction without a difference: In both cases, a sub-population comprised of ordinary human beings pursuing ordinary lives in an ordinary manner is seen by a major ideological faction as being defined by a nation’s law as “criminal,” as a threat to the welfare of the nation, as a foreigner within, and, therefore, should be rounded up and removed. The similarity in attitude and ideology, even devoid of any racial component, is certainly striking. I would say, in fact, that it is jarring.

We all know, of course, that there is at least some racial component to the modern American anti-undocumented immigrant hysteria, since Arizona passed a law which explicitly targeted one particular ethnicity for exceptional scrutiny. Those who read comment boards and blogs know all too well how many comments decry the degree to which “they” speak Spanish rather than English, or fail to assimilate to an acceptable degree, or, in some other way, keep themselves apart, and are thus the foreigner within.

These people probably do not know that that was a large component of the Nazi complaint against the Jews, clearly exaggerated, just as it is in America today. Jews kept apart, maintained their own religion, used their own language (“Yiddish”), and, in general, were the foreigner within. In both cases, factually false claims of parasitism were (are) repeated endlessly, claims divorced from the economic and political reality of the coexistence of the culturally distinct peoples involved.

Some might argue that a major distinction is that the German Jews persecuted in the Holocaust had been established in Germany for many generations, whereas American anti-undocumented-immigrant ideology targets only those who themselves physically crossed the border without permission. The two things that would make this distinction at least somewhat salient are: 1) Differing extents to which the members of the “foreign” population are integrated into the host society, and 2) the responsibility that comes with volition, having chosen to cross a border without permission.

However, in many cases, both of these distinguishing factors are absent: 1) Many undocumented residents of the United States are fully integrated into their communities and our society (some, in fact, speaking only English, having been brought across in infancy), and, in many ways, German Jews kept themselves more “removed” as a separate people within Germany than undocumented Hispanic residents of the United States do today (rendering the comparison just that much more poignant, since that separateness was a major rationalization for the Holocaust, and is in America today a major rationalization for current bigotries here and now); and 2) people brought across the border in their infancy or childhood exercised no volition, and thus can’t be held responsible for the choice they made. (I want to emphasize that I am not legitimating the belief that these considerations justify the harsh attitudes toward any undocumented immigrants, but merely pointing out the limited reach of this particular distinction from Nazi German attitudes toward Jews.)

As Sinclair Lewis once sagely noted, “when fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” It comes as no surprise, therefore, to note that the core of the mass hysteria of which I speak is to be found among those wrapped in the flag and/or carrying a cross. The anger, belligerence, and irrationality consuming America today in the form of The Tea Party and its fellow travelers is not a mere voice of civic discontent, or respectable ideology engaging in healthy public discourse. It is the antithesis of what reasonable people of goodwill desire for our country, and for humanity.

Discussions about the balance between growth of government and containment of public spending, of optimal taxation and spending, of how best to define and articulate the responsibilities of the public and private spheres, are all legitimate topics of civil discourse. But the disdain of the foreigner within and of the impoverished and destitute, of those less fortunate, that infuses this discourse is not. Our growing denial of our interdependence, of our co-existence as members of a society, of our social responsibilities to one another, is not part of legitimate civil discourse, because it denies the existence of a civic dimension to our lives about which to discourse. It is literally “incivility,” often in form but always in substance, because it is dedicated to absolute individualism, and the destruction of the bonds of being members of a society, of a polity, that gives that individualism its vehicle of expression and realization.

America is at a cross-roads perhaps more consequential than any it has been at in well over a century, since perhaps the Civil War. As many have noted, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally, we are on the brink of another civil war. Few, however, have correctly identified the sides in this new civil war: It is not liberty v. socialism, or even conservative v. progressive, but rather is reason and goodwill v. irrational belligerence. It is the civil war that Germans fought and lost prior to World War II, because it is a civil war that is lost, to the detriment of all, when irrational belligerence prevails, and reasonable goodwill is defeated. This is not a trivial incarnation of that perennial civil war which recurs so frequently in World History, in so many times and places. Lives are at stake. Our decency as a people is at stake. Humanity is at stake.

This is a war that is fought within the heart of each of us, across the dinner table in our homes, in taverns and meeting places and on internet sites. It is a war for our minds and hearts, not just that our minds and hearts are convinced of one thing or another, but for our minds and hearts themselves, whether we are people whose minds and hearts prevail, or people whose basal ganglia (or “reptilian brains”) prevail. And this is the crux of the comparison I am drawing: In Nazi Germany, it was clearly the basal ganglia that prevailed. In modern America, it is clearly the basal ganglia that is in control when we define ourselves by our hostility toward perceived “others.”

This is not a war we can afford to lose.

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