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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.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

One of the subtexts running through the current meta-debate between the Left and the Right is a constant volleying back and forth of accusations and refutations of racism. The Left accuses the Right of racism for a variety of reasons that I partially capture below. The Right indignantly denies it, retaliating with accusations back, insisting that “playing the race card” is the real expression of racism.

Personally, I think this discussion is generally overdone and often distracting, but the thread of validity in the criticism by the Left of the Right, and the reinforcement of irrationality and counterfactuality in the Right’s response, motivates me to give it a comprehensive treatment.

First, it is important to explore the concept of “racism” itself. If, by “racism,” we mean only explicit, overt, self-conscious antipathy toward members of another race, then I’d say that only a small minority of politically active people of either major partisan camp are “racist.” The vast majority denounce such crude racism, and the extant but dwindling population of such unreconstituted racists in the population at large are not a significant political force anymore.

Before I turn to the more implicit forms of racism that I think do continue to play a significant, if not central, role in political affairs, I’d like to emphasize that I think that the ideological thread most prominent in right-wing thought isn’t racism proper at all, but rather what I’ll call “quasi-racism,” an intense in-group/out-group bias, informing a set of beliefs and positions that are very tribalistic, and very dismissive of “the other.” The antagonistic attitude toward numerous non-racial outgroups (though sometimes with strong racial associations), such as gays, Muslims, undocumented immigrants, foreigners in general, the poor, atheists, and, basically, anyone who isn’t perceived to be an in-group member, is one of the most prominent defining characteristics of modern right-wing thought.

Explicit racism, however, is not absent from the right-wing echo-chamber. On a Facebook thread following one posting of the statistic that a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to be the instrument of the death of a member of the household than to be used in self-defense, for instance, one commenter responded to another by referring to “a group of n*****s raping your boyfriend” (the point being that you’d want to have a gun handy in that apparently representative scenario). On another thread at another time, a southern Tea Partier included among the problems besetting us “ungrateful blacks.” These are not isolated examples: While such explicit expressions of racism are not the norm, they recur at a constant rate on such threads, always, of course, by right-wing commenters slipping over a line many others approach without crossing.

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, there was a Facebook wall post of a news story about a trio of “scary” black violent offenders, apparently being used to make the argument that it is understandable that armed vigilantes should go out in their neighborhoods and pursue unarmed black teens walking home from the store  –even if the price of such “liberty” is the occasional shooting death of one such unarmed black teen– because, in their unself-aware but deep-rooted world view, it’s rational to be afraid, it’s rational to presume that a hoodie-wearing black teen walking through your neighborhood is up to no good, and so it is, implicitly, rational to provoke a deadly encounter with said black teen under those circumstances.

In other words, the right-wing insistence that it’s a non-issue that their ideology can lead to instances of overzealous vigilantes pursuing and killing unarmed black teens walking home from the store is an astounding illustration of an underlying –and effectively racist– defect in their ideology. (The contention that it’s a non-issue because it was allegedly self-defense on the shooter’s part neglects the fact that the alleged need for self-defense was indisputably created by the decision to go out with a gun and pursue the arbitrarily “suspicious looking” unarmed black teen in the first place.)

These same people champion Jim-Crow-like voter suppression laws (on a discredited pretext and repeatedly struck down by the courts as unconstitutional), use code words like “Chicago politics” and “ACORN” and other allusions to blacks-as-inherently-corrupt, advocate discrimination against Muslims (and denial of their first amendment freedom of religion rights), frequently vilify and denegrate Hispanics, want to deny civil rights to gays, and, in general, are committed to a tribalistic orientation to the world, in which the small in-group of overwhelmingly white, mostly male, almost exclusively Judeo-Christian bigots opposes the rights and aspirations of the myriad out-groups surrounding them, denying the reality of a legacy of historical injustices and of current inequities, fighting for a regressive, aggressive, compassionless, irrational, barbaric society, in which those who feel well-served by the status quo (or, more precisely, by the status quo of a previous era) fight to recover an archaic -if all too recent– social order more preferential to their in-group statuses.

And they do so by disregarding fact and reason; by dismissing as bastions of liberalism precisely those professions that methodically gather, verify, analyze, and contemplate information (which, as a liberal, I take as a complement and as an affirmation of how much more rational our ideology is than theirs); by selecting, revising, and ignoring historical data to serve their fabricated ideological narrative; by ignoring the weight of professional economic theory and analysis (prompting the free-market-advocacy Economist magazine to label them “economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical”); by cherry-picking, reinterpreting, and selectively disregarding constitutional provisions and phrases in service to that same ideological narrative; and, in general, by defying fact and reason in service to ignorance and bigotry.

Whether we emphasize the racist overtones, the more explicit in-group/out-group tribalism in general, or just the prevailing ignorance and brutality of their ideology, the final evaluation is the same: It’s a perfect storm of organized irrationality in service to implicit and explicit inhumanity. And it’s not who and what we should choose to be as a people and a nation.

So, how much racism is there on the far right? It’s a moot point; the racism is enveloped by so much more that is the very cloth from which racism is cut that the accusation of racism is too narrow a focus and too much of a distraction. Emphasizing the broader irrational inhumanity that defines this ideological camp both captures and goes beyond the identification of the racist overtones within it.

(For more on these themes, see The New Face Of American Racism, The Tea Party’s Neo-”Jim Crow”, The History of American Libertarianism, The Presence of the Past, Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding, Basal Ganglia v. Cerebral Cortex, Basal Ganglia Keeping Score, and “Sharianity”)

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Of the many ideological debates we have, what we do least often and least well is to dig beneath the surface of conflicting ideologies and clearly identify the underlying values and attitudes informing them. Even those who adhere to a particular ideology are often unaware of what is at its core when you peal back enough layers of the onion. And that is how the rise of vicious and inhumane ideologies is possible, how it circumvents the cognitive dissonance imposed by countervailing moralities. Those who participate in that rise are either convinced that they are participating in something just and right, or have simply managed not to measure their beliefs by any moral standard.

There is nothing historically exceptional about viciousness and inhumanity. It is not the occasional violation of a norm of rational goodwill dominating our lives, but rather at least as potent a force, erupting into orgies of mass violence at frequent intervals around the world, but also ever-present in every society, percolating below the surface, sometimes bubbling upward and gaining force. America today is in such a moment of its history, allowing a vicious and inhumane attitude to gain prominence, to dominate public discourse and public policy formation.

Nor is it only those “others” who are to blame. It is not the fault of just one ideology. There are few who have not contributed to it. Regrettably, I cannot name myself among those few, for my own defects as a human being have too often and too greatly led me to serve my own emotional gratification at the expense of this ideal of a more rational and humane society to which we all should strive.

I don’t admit that gratuitously, but rather to make two sets of  points: 1) One does not have to be perfect to strive to be better, nor does one have to be perfect to encourage us all to strive to be better, nor does one have to be perfect to identify the most robust ways in which we as a society are failing to strive to be better; and 2) we do not most successfully strive, as a society, to be better, to do better, by laying all blame on others and exonerating ourselves, but rather by recognizing that we ourselves are all implicated in our failings as a society, and that the ideology across the aisle we respectively blame for all public sins may have its own virtues and we our own vices.

Most importantly, like Batman and the Joker, we create each other, and if we perceive in “them” something hostile to humanity, then we also must perceive in ourselves what we do to produce and maintain that hostile force.

Having said that, and recognizing that the hostility and anger and blind ideological rage on the Left is a contributing force to our growing inhumanity (rather than, as those who engage in these follies desperately wish to believe, a bulwark against it), the inhumanity itself is funnelled through and given voice by their counterparts on the Right. While we all need to strive harder to exemplify and exude a sincere commitment to reason and compassion and universal goodwill (which is not synonymous with complete pacifism or non-confrontationalism, but which does temper the degree to which our emotional inclinations too readily embrace hostile expressions of our ideological convictions and various interests), we also all need to recognize the growing inhumanity of our nation’s most prominent and vocal contemporary ideological phenomenon.

It is not wise to reduce this to individual substantive policy positions because, to be honest, it is not automatically the case that such positions, that on the surface appear inhumane, actually are: There is sufficient nonlinearity in our social institutional ecology, and a sufficient number of counterintuitive truths, that such assumptions aren’t warranted. But beneath those policy positions, informing those policy positions, is an attitude in which this inhumanity can clearly be discerned, an attitude of extreme individualism, of indifference to the realities of social injustice and unnecessary human suffering, an attitude stripped of real compassion or concern for those less fortunate than the holder of that value, an attitude which blindly blames all those who have not fared well on the basis of an arbitrary and more-frequently-than-not erroneous assumption that people get what they deserve, that we live in a meritocracy and those who do not succeed do not succeed as a result of their own failings. It is within that attitude, rather than within any particular substantive policy positions, that our growing inhumanity as  a nation, as a people, resides.

I have written extensively on the irrationality of many of the substantive positions and ideological certainties that have grown in the soil of this essentially inhumane attitude (see, e.g., “Political Fundamentalism”, “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, Small Government Idolatry, The Tea Party’s Mistaken Historical Analogy, The True Complexity of Property Rights, Liberty & Interdependence, Real Fiscal Conservativism, Social Institutional Luddites, The Inherent Contradiction of Extreme Individualism, Liberty & Society, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” American Political Edition (Parts I-V)). And I have alluded to the parallel between the sense of personal well-being and joy associated with striving to be compassionate, socially responsible, generous human beings on the individual level, and the similar benefits to our health as a society when we strive to institutionalize those attitudes through our pre-eminent agent of collective will and action (see, e.g., A Political Christmas Carol). Certainly, I have not been bashful about identifying our current right-wing ideological movement as one which is analogous in too many ways to that which we revile most as one of history’s worst eruptions of inhumanity (see, e.g., The Tea Party’s Mistaken Historical Analogy and Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding). But we need to be explicit and urgent about what it is we are talking about: The rise of an ideology of inhumanity.

It seems to me that there was a time, not long ago, when virtually no American would argue against the proposition that we have a shared social responsibility to reduce poverty to the best of our ability. Yet today we are in the throes of an ideological passion that says that poverty is not our shared responsibility, but rather a matter of individual choice (which, as those who have any knowledge of history or economics realize, means not addressing the issue to any significant degree at all, since it involves a collective action problem which is surrendered to by eliminating the notion that we have to address it through public institutions).

Despite the abundant statistical evidence that the legacies of historical injustice are reproduced in current distributions of wealth and opportunity, this ideology simply disregards any commitment to fairness, to trying to maximize equality of opportunity by facing the simple reality that it is not currently maximized, by insisting that any use of government is an act of violence against their individual liberties. It is an ideology informed by the obscenity that those who benefit most from our current political economy have no enforceable responsibility to those who benefit least, despite the fact that the disparity between the two is many times larger than it is in any other developed nation. It is a socially disintegrative, callous, and inhumane ideology. And it is has a significant and possibly still growing hold on us as a nation.

Those of us who recognize this, and recognize how imperative it is to confront it effectively, need to divert a little of our time and energy and resources away from arguing on an issue-by-issue, candidate-by-candidate basis, and toward arguing on a fundamental, underlying moral basis. We need to make clear in every word and gesture and deed and effort that what we perceive as wrong is not, for instance, the suggestion that we may have to reduce our long-term accumulation of public debt through some combination of spending cuts and tax increases, but rather the underlying attitude that while we are doing so our commitment to those who are most vulnerable and who are benefiting least from our social institutional arrangements still merit our collective attention and our collective commitment. We need to argue not only that this or that specific immigration reform is right or wrong, but far more emphatically that vilifying other human beings who are merely migrating toward opportunity in the only way they can is wrong, period. We need to argue not only that this law or that regrading marriage is just and right, but that burdening people with any inferior status on the basis of their sexual orientation is just one more form of bigotry, just one more way in which some human beings justify hating other human beings, and that that’s not who and what we are or who and what we want to be.

We need to define our political battles as a fight for our humanity as a nation and as a people, because it is our humanity that is very much in jeopardy. Let us be committed to respecting the dignity and rights of all human beings. Let us form our identities more inclusively rather than more exclusively. Let us always strive to do better as individuals, recognizing that that is part of what it takes to do better as a nation and a people. And let us be humble about substantive policies on complex issues (e.g., economics, energy/environmental, foreign relations), admitting that it’s a complex and subtle world, many aspects of which require in-depth analyses to arrive at well-informed conclusions. But let us never let up in our insistence that those analyses, that that  humility, be directed toward the end of benefitting humanity, because to stand for anything less is an act of violence and a cause for eternal shame.