I wrote in my previous post about democracy, specifically the war on democracy. Both that post and this post are a continuation of my thoughts in my other recent posts: Is Classical Liberalism Liberal?, Political Labels – Meaningless? Divisive?, and Bashing My Head Against a Brick Wall: Love of Truth or Masochism?. The war on democracy is, in the final conclusion, a war on liberalism. Conservatives are often unwilling to acknowledge that America is a democracy at all. They think by denying the word they can make the reality go away.
I’ve been trying to grapple with the issue of ideologies and labels which can irritate me immensely at times. As a liberal, I often feel misunderstood living in a country where conservatism is portrayed as the norm, although the polling data seems to show that Americans are way more liberal than most mainstream pundits and politicians would prefer. To be a radically idealistic, freedom-loving, bleeding-heart liberal is to be forever discontented with the status quo of established power and authority, forever discontented with the forgetting of history’s horrors which leads to its repeating.
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In my above mentioned previous post, I offered a simple answer to a problem often made complex by ideological debates and rhetoric. By offering that simple conclusion, I was questioning whether the problem actually was complex at all. Those with complex answers will seek to make the problem appear more complex than it is. As such, I was hoping to find the heart of the issue.
My basic point, in that previous post, was that democracy is more about people than politics, more about how humans can relate well to each other on the largescale of society. My suggestion was that, if we actually care about seeking solutions, we should begin with caring about people. Either you care about others or not. It’s that simple.
I’d also add that to the degree that you care about ideology (personal beliefs, political systems, religious dogmas, ethnocentric groupthink, etc) is the degree to which you don’t care about people. When we see people in terms of their place within society, as labels and categories, social roles and demographic data, as voters and citizens… when we see people as mere ‘other’, as strangers and foreigners, as objects and resources… when we see people as as ‘us’ vs ‘them’, as workers or unemployed, as rich or poor, as their religion or skin color, as part of or excluded from some group… when we do this, people become less in our eyes (and in our hearts). We lose our own humanity when we embrace labels and categories. And that is a very sad way to live one’s life.
This isn’t to say all labels and categories are always negative. They serve a function. In and of themselves, they are value neutral. However, labels and categories (when used without awareness and understanding) can easily lead to seeing the world through the filter of biases and preconceptions. This is how prejudice functions. Labels and categories are only dangerous when they are used in defense of an ideological worldview, a dogmatic reality tunnel.
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In the rest of this post, I will continue some of those thoughts but in the context of more personal experience and feelings, along with some complaints, questions and ponderings of a less personal nature.
I acknowledge that everything I have written applies to myself as well. I’m all too aware of that fact. I know that I don’t live up to my own hopes and ideals. I often feel the attraction of what is offered by ideological righteousness, by ideological labels and categories. I feel weak in my sense of self and in my experience of the world. I feel weak because I feel isolated, because I feel disempowered and disenfranchised. I don’t feel part of a community, that my life is integrally significant to the life of those I interact with on a daily basis. Even so, it may be true that I’m more rooted to the place I live in than many people (which, if true, is a sad statement about the lives of many people). I love this town where friends and family live, where I’ve spent much of my life (although with many intermittent years spent living elsewhere). But I always feel a bit disconnected, a blurring of the edges between myself and the world around me.
Modern life makes it more difficult to deeply connect (which causes many people to cling even more to artificial group identities). We have busy lives, each person isolated in their respective activities and goals. So many people spend their entire lives moving around from place to place… chasing careers, chasing dreams… seeking to escape the sense of dissatisfaction and unease that haunts the modern soul. I’m as much a product of the modern world as anyone else. I grew up in a family that moved on a fairly regular basis… and following that I moved around for a number of years.
It’s not that I haven’t tried to find a community to be a part of. I choose to live in this town where I’m surrounded by memories, a place that feels like home. During a period of my life, I sought to find my niche in this community. I went to many churches and found one I liked to an extent. I socialized and volunteered. I found people I connected with and made some new friends. But in the end the effort was too taxing for an introvert like me. It takes a lot of effort to try to create, almost ex nihil, a sense of community in the modern world. This town, for example, is a college town. It’s probably a majority of the population that either attends or works for the university and the university hospital. It’s a very transient population with very few people who were born here and lived their entire lives here. In a place like this, people come and go.
My life isn’t unusual and the town I live in isn’t atypical. Most cities in urban and suburban areas are to varying degrees like this town. Most people live in larger cities with transient populations and most people have moved a number of times in their lives. It’s just the social norm of modern life and of American society.
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This is the challenge we face.
Most of the evolution of the human species happened prior to modern society and so human nature isn’t designed to work optimally in large societies with concentrated populations. Well, to be more accurate, the problem didn’t just begin with modernism for the world we live in is merely the outgrowth of the first civilizations. The Axial Age religions were a response to the early urbanization of human society… which was when the human species first had to deal with the conflicts of cultural diversity, with the disintegration of traditional lifestyles, with challenges to ancient religious authority.
The reason Buddha and Jesus preached universal love and forgiveness, unreserved acceptance and compassion for all (even strangers, even criminals, even prostitutes… heck, even the rich) is because the rise of civilization was stretching the limits of human nature. Humans are mostly just capable of identifying with and sympathizing with a very small group of people who they know intimately. In many ways, this is as true today as it was millennia ago.
However, humans didn’t stop evolving after civilization began. If anything, evolution quickened because civilization allowed the simultaneous mixing of diverse genetics and the concentrating of certain genetics. We can see the results of this today with the fact that liberals tend to gravitate toward cities and conservatives tend to gravitate toward rural areas. There is a theory that liberalism is a newer trait in human evolution which intuitively makes sense to me and which seems to accord with some data I’m familiar with.
A major difference between conservatives and liberals, as shown in psychological research, is that: (1) the former tends to respond with fear and disgust when faced with the new and different, the unusual and foreign (one particular study showed conservatives feeling disgust toward rotten fruit which, from a liberal perspective, seems like an oddly strong response toward such a harmless object); and (2) the latter is more open to new experiences, new ideas, new possibilities and, as such, more sympathetic to the plights of those perceived as being outside of the norms and standards of any given society (strangers, foreigners, criminals, drug addicts, the poor, and the homeless; those who challenge authority figures, those who don’t submit to traditional rules of behavior, those who are ostracized, and those who are considered to be at fault for their own problems).
There is nothing wrong with the conservative attitude in and of itself. In a traditional society, such an attitude was beneficial and even necessary. But such an attitude, by itself or in aggressive opposition, doesn’t serve us well in a global society and we presently have no choice but to live in a global society, unless someone wishes to either seek the destruction of civilization or else colonize space. Even the few remaining isolated indigenous people can’t avoid the effects of modern society in that they are forced to drink water and breathe air that has become polluted, forced to depend on food sources that become increasingly scarce, forced to deal with new and deadly diseases introduced by foreigners, and are forced to constantly retreat from encroaching poachers, loggers, farmers, miners, missionaries, soldiers, bureaucrats, and others.
All humans (of all persuasions, in all places) are forced to adapt to a changing world. There is no conservative paradise where everything is frozen in some idyllic moment in time.
The Axial Age prophets like Jesus preached an essentially liberal vision, and radically liberal at that. Jesus was a leftwing loon of his era. The Axial Age prophets taught that we should treat all others as we would want to be treated; that we shouldn’t judge others according to ethnocentrism, class divisions, and other social norms; that one’s spiritual family was more important than one’s traditional nuclear family (that the water of baptismal rebirth was stronger than blood). The liberal ideals of egalitarianism and compassion (i.e., bleeding heart liberalism) are at the core of all civilization because only such ideals can counteract the negative side effects of building a civilization. Unless civilization collapses and we return to small traditional communities, we will have to come to terms with these liberal ideals.
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This isn’t about liberal ideology defeating conservative ideology. I’m not saying conservatism doesn’t have it’s place, but I am saying that liberalism is increasingly necessary.
Even conservatives today are more ‘liberal’ than conservatives a few centuries ago. It’s all relative. Conservativism and liberalism exist on a spectrum which is always shifting. Conflict is only perceived when the middle of the spectrum is ignored and when history is ignored. The liberalism of one era becomes the conservatism of the next era. This is particularly confusing for American society. As Gunnar Myrdal explained, “America is conservative in fundamental principles… but the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.”
American conservatives may be an extreme example, but they may not be highly unusual. Jesus challenged the conservatives of his day (the social norms, the political status quo, the traditional religiosity of Judaism, etc) and yet has been embraced by the conservatives of later generations. Once Jesus was dead, he was safe for being turned into an idol, sterilized of radicalism. Similarly, classical liberalism is safe for conservatives today because it’s an ideology from the past, i.e., a dead ideology. A liberal ideal or vision, if successful, eventually becomes a set of dogmatic beliefs or other ideological system. Once that happens, liberals leave it behind and conservatives will then defend it (as a defense against the next new thing that liberals seek out). As such, every conservative principle began as a liberal ideal because every tradition began as a challenge to a former tradition.
Liberalism ultimately isn’t ideological because ideology closes down the mind which is the opposite of the liberal impulse. Liberalism is the impulse toward ever greater inclusion, acceptance, and openness. This liberal vision is idealistic but it isn’t ideology. Jesus wasn’t preaching politics. In fact, Jesus put no faith in politics whatsoever.
Maybe this is why liberal ideals can be placed in the context of any ideology, including conservative ideologies. The liberal impulse, by nature, will seek to expand any ideology to be ever more inclusive. Even the most righteously dogmatic Christian fundamentalism can’t entirely obscure the radical vision contained in Jesus’ own words and actions. Christians, no matter their ideology, can be inspired by these ideals. Liberals don’t own these ideals. This liberal vision isn’t liberal ideology. Liberalism, as a general concept, is defined ‘liberally’ because liberalism is expansive, ever reaching beyond divisions, reaching even beyond the status quo of liberal ideology. There is no and can be no definitive explanation of what liberalism is in specific terms for liberalism challenges limiting definitions, all definitions being limiting to some degree. The moment a liberal vision becomes an ideology it becomes less liberal, i.e., more conservative (to defend an ideology is to seek to ‘conserve’ that ideology).
That is the power of the liberal vision which is an inclusive vision, aspiring toward inclusion of all people even conservatives. It’s the same as Jesus preaching a universal message that applied to all people, even those who weren’t his followers, even those who actively opposed him (i.e., forgiving one’s enemies). There is no greater, no more radical vision of liberalism than this. And the most radical liberal vision of all is anarchism, both political and epistemological anarchism, because this is the extreme endpoint of the liberal desire for liberation, for liberty. Jesus’ refusal to acknowledge any earthly authority was a form of anarchism.
In the larger sphere of society, this liberal vision is basically the same as what is called ‘social democracy’. You can make it complicated with theory and with specialized terminology, but the ideals of freedom and egalitarianism are very simple. Even a child can understand these ideals. Even a child wants to be treated fairly. Children tend to be natural liberals because everyone is born with an openness to experience, a desire to explore, an endless curiosity. A child is just being a good liberal when he endlessly asks, ‘Why?’ And, when given an answer, asks ‘Why?’ again.
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It might seem like I’m getting a bit abstract or speculative here, but this relates to the personal for me.
I’m someone with a liberal predisposition. I feel strongly and I empathize easily. I care about others, even random strangers on the street or in the news. I’m a bleeding heart liberal. I don’t want to live in a society of blame, of ‘us’ vs ‘them’. I intellectually can understand that those with conservative predispositions are less likely to see the world this way, but in my heart I can’t understand.
From my (biased) perspective, liberal values seem to be the only way we will avoid collective self-destruction. Sure, if civilization collapses, the human species can return to it’s conservative roots. But I would hope that even conservatives aren’t seeking the destruction of civilization merely because it would benefit the predominance of the conservative worldview. It’s true that, during times of societal conflict and violence, the conservative worldview becomes persuasive and hence popular. However, any conservative who promotes a vision of conflict or incites violence in order to achieve this end has become cynical to the point of utter moral depravity. I hope most conservatives are above such realpolitik games of hatred and fear.
Also, I’d like to believe that empathy and compassion aren’t merely liberal values. Everyone has some capacity for empathy and compassion… well, everyone except psycopaths. It’s not that conservatives are heartless, but research has shown that conservatism as a trait predisposes one to have less capacity for empathy and compassion (relative to liberalism as a trait)… or rather they have a more limited, narrow focus of their empathy and compassion, less empathy and compassion for those not perceived as part of their group. But are these attitudes inevitable and predetermined? Are people just born one way or another?
The question is whether people, all people, have the potential to develop more empathy and compassion. If we are fatalistically determined by our genetics and our early upbringing, then maybe our only or best hope is that there will be an evolutionary leap. The problem is we can’t exactly plan for and depend on an evolutionary leap happening. But how else will change happen in society unless some fundamental transformation happens within human nature? Isn’t such a radical transformation what was being envisioned, even prophesied by some, during the Axial Age? Is there a way that we as a human species can manifest on a global level our potential for empathy and compassion? Is Jesus’ inspiring message of love a real potential or merely an empty dream? Isn’t there a way conservatives can maintain their conservative values while also stretching the comfort zone of their ability to empathize and be compassionate toward others, especially those different than them?
The conservative impulse is to identify with their group, their religion, their tradition, their culture, their ethnicitiy, their nation, etc. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but I’d like to believe that this group identity can be expanded to include all humans. But do we have to wait for an alien invasion before we have an enemy ‘other’ that will force all humans to identify as a collective humanity with a collective fate?
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This is the problem I face.
I can, like Jesus, preach about love and compassion. But, as a liberal, I’ll mostly be preaching to the choir.
Is there a way to translate liberal values into conservative terms? Is there a way to translate conservative values into a larger and more inclusive global context? I don’t want to blame conservatives any more than I want to blame the rich. I don’t want to blame anyone, to exclude certain people or groups (because they are different, because they don’t conform to my values, because they don’t agree with my ideology). However, what am I to do if, as a liberal, conservatives want to blame and exclude me? And what am I to do if, as a working class person, the rich want to blame and exclude me? How does one persuade others toward an inclusive vision if their own vision opposes it? If someone doesn’t care about the poor living in slums or oppressed people living in developing countries, I can’t force them to care. I have a hard enough time convincing myself to care and not give into cynicism.
I hate this situation. It’s the eternal conundrum of being a liberal, the desire for universal values that transcend mere ideology… while, no matter what liberals desire, conservatives will still just see it as liberal ideology for the lense through which conservatives see everything is ideology. Liberals are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The desire to include those who desire to exclude you. The desire to treat others fairly and equally who don’t desire to return the favor. The desire to compromise with those who see compromise as moral weakness and failure. The desire for compassion even of those who choose prejudice and blame. Between openness and conformity, between idealism and ideology, why is it so often the latter that wins? I realize Jesus said my reward would be in heaven, but it would be nice to see a bit of heaven on earth.
I just don’t understand. Why are empathy and compassion often perceived by many as almost entirely exclusive traits of bleeding heart liberals? Why is unreservedly caring about others deemed to be a mere liberal agenda? And why do conservatives believe unreservedly caring about others will destroy society? Aren’t empathy and compassion traits found in all normal (i.e., psychologically healthy) people?
How can any ideology (whether religious, political or economic) be seen as trumping the basic human value of caring about others? How can conservative Christians continue to ignore Jesus’ message of love which, according to Jesus himself, trumps the oppressive Old Testament laws of hatred and divisiveness, of fear and vindictiveness, of blame and guilt, of retribution and scapegoating? Jesus never asked if the blind or sick person had the money to pay for being healed, never asked if people were deserving before he fed them, never asked if someone was to blame before dispelling the demons that were possessing them. Jesus simply acted compassionately in response to suffering. Jesus wasn’t acting according to ideology. Jesus wasn’t preaching about meritocracy or a free market, wasn’t preaching about constitutional republics or political revolutions, wasn’t preaching about traditional values and norms.
Why aren’t there bleeding heart conservatives? Why do compassionate conservatives seem lacking in compassion toward anyone who doesn’t conform to their own ideological agenda? And, when conservatives do help those in need, why is their attitude typically that of condescension and superiority as if the needy person should feel lucky that the well off conservative didn’t leave them to starve to death or to freeze alone under a bridge? Yes, I’m speaking of the extreme variety of conservatives, but I speak of them because this is also the extremely vocal variety of conservatives who vocally defend conservatism.
If we as a society are going to ignore Jesus’ radical message of love, then we should stop calling ourselves a Christian nation (not that Jesus would approve of nationalism in any form, especially not in his name). If being a Christian nation wasn’t mere ethnocentric nationalism and instead meant being a nation of love and forgiveness, a nation of acceptance and inclusion, a nation of helping the poor and needy, then maybe I (along with many liberals, atheists, and non-Christians) wouldn’t take such issue with this prideful labeling of America.
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It’s become increasingly clear, with events over the past decade, how interconnected is the global society. What one person, one group, one corporation, or one government does, effects people all over the world. We can’t continue to live pretending we are independent and isolated. We benefit and suffer because of the choices made by others. No one succeeds or fails simply based on their personal merits.
Poverty exists despite there being plenty of wealth in the world to allow everyone to live a decent life. Homelessness exists despite the resources being available to provide everyone basic shelter. Starvation exists despite there being enough food to feed everyone in the world. Many diseases continue to exist and proliferate despite there being known cures. The amount of money that the US government alone spends on international meddling (wars, military bases, CIA, propaganda programs, etc) probably would be enough to build schools, hospitals, health care clinics, and food banks in every city in the world. Most of the oppression and suffering in the world exists because of decisions made by other people, usually not by those who are oppressed and suffer. People born into poverty, homelessness, and hunger don’t deserve those conditions because of some personal failure. People living in war zones aren’t responsible for nations fighting over the resources that happen to exist in the ground beneath their homes. People born black in America aren’t to be blamed for the history of prejudice which is still being imposed upon them.
What we choose to do (what we buy, how we vote, who we donate to) or what we choose not to do (injustices we ignore, prejudices we accept, suffering we don’t seek to end) isn’t just a personal choice. Every action is public because the results of our actions are collective. We are forced to be responsible for each other, whether or not we accept that responsibility. If we walk past someone who is homeless or hungry, they remain homeless or hungry because we choose to allow such conditions to continue. We may not consciously realize we’ve made a decision, but that doesn’t change the fact that a decision was made.
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I’m complicit in all of these failings and problems. That is what pisses me off.
I want to live in a society of people who care. I want to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. It’s been said that we need to be the change we want to see. But I can’t get rid of the feeling that all actions seem futile, that nothing is ever going to change for the good. Despite all the superficial progress, the world just keeps getting worse in so many ways.
I’ve nearly lost all hope for the future, all faith in humanity. Part of me still wants to care and yet another part of me wants to give up. I just don’t know. What is the point? Change seems potentially so easy in that there is nothing stopping change besides ourselves (“We have met the enemy and he is us”). We are individually of no significance, but collectively almost anything is possible. The problem is that collective action too often is fueled by ignorance and fear-mongering, propaganda and herd mentality.
It may be true that, “United we stand, divided we fall.” But, even if united, are we united in anything worthy?
As someone raised as a Christian, how do I live up to Jesus’ radical vision?
As an American, how do I live up to Thomas Paine’s radical vision?
What can any of us do about such radical visions? What is the practical value of such inspiring idealism?