As many of you have noticed, I’ve grown fierce about our current phase of “civil war.” The issues seem stark, especially what I deem to be #1: rediscover ing the core value of facts. That facts-are-things. All other issues – from racism/sexism to freedom, to governance and economics, to saving the planet and rebuilding world alliances – all would swing sharply if our arguments were still swayed by objective reality.
So yes, while I’m pretty vehement… and some of the chapters in Polemical Judo push harsh themes… and even as the stunning Republican convention hurls venomous hatred at every fact-using profession and all reason… nevertheless, I want to offer something that may cheer you up!
Because the divides that separate Americans may not be as deep as they appear!
Here, as promised, is the next chapter of my book, wherein I point out something crucial. that the best way to draw folks back into the light may be to start with things we share, in common.
And so, before getting to practical methods, any “judo” manual explores what’s most important. Understanding your adversary. And yourself.
of Polemical Judo
This phase of the U.S. Civil War was not of our choosing. But we’ve been complicit. First, by accepting many indolent assumptions, then by ignoring history.
Take the lesson of the Greatest Generation. As we’ll see in Chapter 3, our Roosevelt-era parents and grandparents overcame a mélange of would-be plutocrats, populist tyrants and communist commissars to craft a social contract that unleashed a confident, burgeoning middle class, spectacular universities and science, vast infrastructure and entrepreneurship – plus a too-slow but ponderously-growing momentum toward justice.
That social contract was so successful that we forget how rare and special it all was! Our parents were so successful at crafting a middle class dominated society that we members of the Boomer Generation largely assumed (and still assume) that age-old cheater plagues like oligarchy and feudalism – dominant across nearly all of the last 6000 years – were banished for good.
They weren’t. Today’s worldwide oligarchic putsch – propelling America back into Civil War – is both lethally dangerous and boringly predictable. As Hannah Arendt taught, evil can be oafish and banal, while also feral-canny. But one thing villains are instinctively good at is setting decent people against each other.
So let’s dig down to undercurrents that most of us share. Our enlightenment experiment is founded on some notions and practices that were never extensively practiced till recently – common threads that are masked by our dismal obsession to couch everything in left-right terms.
For example, if pressed, most Americans would avow:
– that liberty is desirable;
– that men and women of goodwill should negotiate in good faith – either directly or through representatives – each giving a bit in order to achieve positive-sum outcomes;
– that leaders are not the same thing as the state; they can and should be frequently replaced;
– that the rule of law must be applied evenly, fairly and transparently… though we can also change faulty laws – fairly and transparently;
– that money and power often corrupt, and it can happen from any direction;
– that a mature/sincere person should at least consider the foremost – even sacred – tenet of science: I might be wrong;
– that prejudices believed by our parents – and those clutched by us today – might be disproved by facts, at which point it’s time to let them go;
– that expertise and intelligence don’t guarantee wisdom, but knowledge and skill merit respect;
Further, couch it right and you can also get folks across a wide-spectrum to admit:
– that competition and cooperation are not opposites. Humans are inherently competitive beings and competition engenders creativity… but competition is nearly always wrecked by cheating, unless we cooperatively come up with rules and referees to keep it fair;
– that whatever is not explicitly forbidden – via duly deliberated laws that can always be questioned – is automatically allowed;
– that most ‘liberal’ endeavors – at least those aimed at uplifting children – need little more justification than “stop wasting talent”;
It’s a safe guess that you’d credit yourself with holding all those views… while denying that your opposition-neighbors do.
But try asking:
Aren’t they just as likely to claim that you don’t?
In fact, all of the nostrums listed above are fundamental to our new kind of society, though you’ve likely not seen them expressed that way. Which is the point here. The first step in bridging our chasm is to escape loaded terminology.
EVEN MORE BASIC THAN THAT
Now let me surprise you by saying other themes run deeper than those above, distinguishing America and its allies from the rest of human history. For starters, can you name any other society that raised its own children to relentlessly criticize their own tribal elders?
The way that you – yes, you – have a powerful reflex to criticize?
A relentless stream of propaganda has poured from the indoctrination system known as Hollywood, pushing themes you agree with! Doubt that? Quick then, can you name a popular film you’ve enjoyed, across decades, which did not promote the following?
Suspicion of Authority
Personal autonomy and individuality
Above all, suspicion of and resistance to unfair authority figures. These are traits of a successful Hollywood film. They are also the very traits that enable and empower criticism, of the sort that you – as a politically active person – apply to your nation and its mistakes. It’s all part of a critical self-improvement campaign that enabled us to thread (sometimes just barely) a minefield of potential disasters across the last century, achieving many kinds of progress. It is also the trait that – despite every effort of the oligarchs – may yet win us the stars.
Right now you may be simmering, offended by the notion that you imbibed such values from movies, novels and songs, instead of inventing them yourself. Even worse, the effrontery to suggest that your opponent-neighbors might share those same deep reflexes.
Get over it! We don’t have time for self-indulgence. Nor is this the place to explore philosophical implications of such a strange propaganda campaign, so unlike the mythologies of any prior culture. Though elsewhere I’ve called it The Dogma of Otherness. What matters now is the calamity that’s befallen us! Because these memes, which underlie much of our success and our strength, are now being used against us.
Suspicion of Authority (SoA) is reflexive in both liberals and conservatives. Both denounce Orwellian plots against freedom and light. But they part company over which groups aim to be Big Brother.
– Conservatives fret about power grabs by snooty academics and communists and faceless government bureaucrats.
– Liberals see cabals of conniving billionaires, racists and faceless corporations.
But when you put it that way, isn’t the answer Duh? All power centers are inherently dangerous! At various times, cheaters and would-be tyrants used corporate, or bureaucratic-socialist, or owner-elite centers of power… and if you’ve spent time at any university, you saw mini-despotisms in many departments. Exploiters and cheaters will fester and plot wherever they feel they can. It’s why we finally invented habits and tools of accountability.
Ideally, we’d warily guard each other’s backs, with liberals grudgingly admitting “all right, I am more worried about plutocrats, while you fear bureaucratic excess. Tell you what. I’ll listen to you a bit if you’ll listen to me.”
Ideally. I’ve seen it happen! Though not in 21st Century America. Alas, that synergy shatters amid re-ignited civil war, when each side tells its partisans that freedom can be harmed only from one direction. This political fused-spine disease leaves us unable to turn our heads. A form of tunnel vision, it’s one reason we get trapped into grunting sumo-shoving, instead of thinking two or three dimensionally… helping our neighbors do the same.
If these matters truly interest you, I recommend a brief Socratic questionnaire on ideology that might reveal added dimensions. I promise you won’t view the hoary-insipid-lobotomizing “left-vs.-right axis” the same way again.
Our key point here is simple. The putsch-masters need us at each other’s throats, so they exploit the most inherently American meme – SoA – getting us denouncing each other as authoritarian elites!
This book offers many ways to thwart them. The best and most honorable approach? Get our cousins and fellow citizens to admit:
Yes, we share the same instincts and underlying fears.
We differ over particulars.
Might there be some way we both are right?
And perhaps both wrong?
EXAMPLES OF WRONG
Oh, I clearly believe one side in our current culture battle is wrong far more often than the other. I will prove it, in Chapter 6. Still, there’s a habit of obstinacy that is all-too humanly shared also on the left.
Example: we all know how American conservatives spent decades ignoring human-generated Climate Change, sneering at the leading role that conservation must play in resolving this peril. Refusing to let efficiency and sustainability become urgent projects, they pray instead to the “problem-solving magic of markets,” the way natives of Rapa Nui beseeched big statues to restore their ravaged isle.
But it’s arguable (elsewhere) that the Left has its own incantatory nostrums, e.g. rejecting any role for nuclear power, which helped lift millions out of poverty worldwide without adding appreciably to greenhouse emissions. Three generations have seen high benefit-to-harm ratios from fission reactors. Despite Chernobyl and other scary cautions. Despite pollution that – while frightening – has always proved containable. (This outcomes-ratio stands, astonishingly, even if you include Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) Yet, liberals won’t even debate adding carefully designed, next-generation nuclear plants to our toolset for crossing a potentially Earth-killing Greenhouse Gap.
Did you fume at one paragraph while nodding at the other? Step back. Can you see a common reflex? To ignore contrary evidence and automatically say no? These “opposite” party lines share an underlying trait – a reflex to prefer distrust over the can-do spirit of modernity and science.
Only dig it… many liberals can be argued out of their reflexes.
Conservatives can too, on occasion… but not during any phase of our 250 year civil war.
SEZ YOU! EVERYTHING IS RELATIVE
Alas, the honorable approach won’t work if anyone using it is already an “enemy.” I’ll return often to the mad-right’s all-out war on facts and all fact-using professions, a vendetta that diverts the SoA reflex of red Americans toward smartypants “elites” – the scientists, journalists, teachers, doctors and “deep state” officers –who stand in the way of oligarchy’s rule. We’ll get to that in Chapter 5.
But here we’re exploring our neighbors’ underlying assumptions. And the strongest – that they almost always fall back upon – is: Everything’s a matter of opinion.
Let’s say you gather powerful evidence to support your argument – e.g. regarding climate change. Nowadays, your links are instantly canceled with counter-links, and outraged opponents denounce any claim you make for ‘credibility.’ If you cite specialists, that only makes you a lackey to authority. And don’t you know that “experts” are all conformist lemmings? Every fact-checking service is a would-be Orwellian Ministry of Truth.
As Thomas Paine put it, in The American Crisis: “To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.”
But then, that too is citing an authority.
I’ll offer several ways to fight these well-tuned defense mechanisms. But only a few of them are potent enough to overcome the final bastion of defensive relativism, one that our parents and grandparents knew all-too well:
“Oh yeah? Sez you!”
THE PENULTIMATE CURRENT
And some things flow even deeper, below conditioning and culture, to a level that’s biological.
Elsewhere, I’ve both spoken and published papers about the very worst and most damaging addiction to vex humanity – especially America – a plague of self-righteous indignation. Each year, evidence accumulates that sanctimony-rage is a physically addictive state, flooding the body with endorphins, serotonin and the kind of pleasure rush that draws many people to return – relentlessly – to this voluptuous high. The high of feeling so, so wrathfully right. Each of us, if we are honest, can look in a mirror and admit there’s truth to this.
That doesn’t make it wrong to be indignant! Often, only outrage can stoke enough courage and drive to fight a powerful foe who flat-out deserves it. Heck, this volume is propelled by my own righteous anger over what’s been done to a nation, world, species and children whom I love. I’m furious!
But we’re supposed to be the calm, rational, sapient ones, able to choose when the self-righteous rush may take us… and when to say “hold, enough.” Above all, self-control may let you do as Sun Tzu recommends, controlling your passion, while letting the enemy’s draw him into errors.
THE ULTIMATE APPEAL OF DONALD TRUMP
I won’t quibble with George Lakoff’s diagnosis of Trumpism. Lakoff is correct that many “red” Americans – yes, even deeply religious Christians – admire a man who is opposite-to-Jesus in every way, because he projects confidence (“I am the chosen one”) and an appearance of macho strength.
Trump’s bravado – absent any sign of past physical or moral bravery – is that of a 7thgrade playground bully. Perhaps some followers look back fondly on that time of life, when nerdy guys weren’t successful or attractive to women. Lakoff says it’s the symbolism of confident strength that counts over reality. (We’ll discuss Republican symbol-obsession in several places.) I don’t disagree, though I suspect that something else is even more important to them.
Despite his dismal record at governance, a myriad character faults and his endless spew of lies, Donald Trump delivers on one vital count. He enrages the very people his followers most hate.
Recall our discussion above, about suspicion of authority (SoA.) Each of us worries about one or another variety of scheming elites. But as commentator Thom Hartmann put it: “When liberals talk about ‘elites’, they mean rich people. When conservatives talk about ‘elites’, they mean smart people.”
Okay, that’s a self-flattering meme. And it should terrify us all.