What You Should Think About Hope

October 13, 2008

“I steer my bark with Hope in my head, leaving Fear astern.  My hopes, indeed, sometimes fail; but not oftener than the forebodings of the gloomy.”

–Thomas Jefferson

Virtually all Americans desire a peaceful and prosperous future for our nation.  I can say this with confidence because virtually all <insert nationality here> people desire a peaceful and prosperous future for <insert nation here>.  This is universal human nature.  Even in time of war, opposing forces are each mobilized by concern for the security of their homeland.

The most insidious sort of combatants, terrorists, can be distinguished by life-changing experiences in parts of the world devastated by constant violence.  Unable to imagine a secure homeland, their desperation drives them to undermine the security of strangers and neighbors alike.  Yet even they harbor the twisted hope that shocking violence could raise awareness and bring an end to the brutal oppression in which their darkest tendencies were forged.

Away from the insanity of a place like Belfast during the Troubles or the Gaza Strip today, hope and malice are less likely to intersect.  From the yokels responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing to the killers who lash out at abortion clinics, our homegrown terrorists have clearly lost all hope.  Consumed and deranged by a potent blend of fear and hatred, they lash out despite having no coherent vision of a better future to follow from those actions.

Responsible civic discourse is always degraded by appeals to fear and hate.  Yet it can be elevated by appeals to hope.  This nation has made many monumental efforts through the decades.  Some, like marginalizing indigenous tribes or organizing the Confederacy, were the product of fearful and hateful rhetoric.  By contrast, hopeful rhetoric has inspired our greatest achievements, from the Internet to the Apollo Program all the way back to the Constitution itself.

As fuzzy and sentimental as this analysis may seem, its strength is revealed by the rarity and weakness of exceptions to it.  Direct your mind to the past.  Did a President’s angry words ever serve as the birth cry of a great national success?  Did any dark chapter in our history begin with earnest appeals to the better angels of our nature?  If those questions are answered in the negative, a clear relationship between hopeful rhetoric and real success in statecraft has been observed.

The present election provides mixed messages from both sides.  The Republican ticket offers hope that there will be more use of domestic fossil fuels, more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and more cold shoulders for foreigners seeking high level diplomacy without preconditions.  Few people seriously believe a surge in fossil fuels can address our economic shortcomings, never mind dealing with serious environmental issues.  Faith in the panacea of tax cuts remains popular, though in the present historical context that can only be characterized as blind faith.

As far as American exceptionalism goes, that point is a blend of hope and fear.  It is all well and good when citizens hope that our nation’s conduct on the world stage is so amazingly wonderful that there are no errors to acknowledge.  It is neither well nor good when citizens hope that our nation’s position in the world is so coercively dominant that there is no need to acknowledge errors as they become apparent.  When the line between patriotism and jingoism is crossed, so too is the line between hope and fear.

By contrast, the Democrats’ chief appeal to fear draws mainly from a reasonable apprehension about continuity in public policy after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left their mark on world history.  Sure, occasionally there is a low blow about Senator McCain’s aversion to modern information technology (after all, a President should have no shortage of top quality clerical assistance.)  However, the bulk of the attacks go negative on the record and plans of the Republican nominee — not his personality and assorted minor foibles.

With the rest of their enormous media buys and direct communications, Senator Obama’s supporters articulate real hopes.  His health care proposal may not rid the nation of parasitic middlemen, but it does constitute a real effort to address a serious national problem in terms of access to medical goods and services. Few Americans would argue that poor citizens should be allowed to die in the streets due to the costs of treatment.  Yet some legislate and millions vote as if that they hoped for precisely that.  Not since the early 90s has any prominent American leader tried to realign hope with basic human decency in this crucial way.

Elsewhere, Senator Obama’s idealism takes even more noble forms.  His plans for education and science funding would make our workforce more competitive and could bring about a technological renaissance.  Healing damaged international relationships, getting serious about renewable energy sources, providing tax relief for families that have never seen a six figure paycheck — the list of appeals driven by hope and joined by substantive specifics is lengthy.  Heck, the man even hopes to radically transform [warning: PDF link] the national failure that is our policy on broadband infrastructure development.

Perhaps there is no force in the universe that could silence all the fearmongering and hatemongering noise machines in American politics.  Yet that is no reason at all to bend to any particular agenda.  The ultimate tax cut would not address the realities of homelessness, domestic hunger, and preventable loss of human life that occur in our cutthroat economy.  The ultimate drilling initiative would not address the realities of toxic byproducts, industrial emissions, and rising greenhouse gas levels.

Even if political conservatives accomplished goals as stated in this election cycle, unsolved problems growing, some already devastating in scope, would create far more trouble than the most loud-mouthed partisan pundit ever could.  All loyal citizens bear a duty to disregard, dismiss, or dismantle sources of political fear and hate.  Likewise, civic duty calls for heartfelt hopes to be expressed clearly and harmonized with the realities of our times.

Not even a sitting President gets to live in a United States perfectly altered to suit his every whim.  Hope must be tempered with reason if it is ever to bridge the gaps between our noblest dreams and our daily realities.  Fear and hatred repulse reason and hope.  What Machiavelli wrote on the subject has little relevance in an open society with regular peaceful transitions of power.   Perhaps appeals to fear and hatred have a part to play in popularity contests and power struggles.  Yet they can only diminish any civilized leader’s ability to govern effectively over the long term.

Barring one of the greatest surprises in the history of American politics, the contrast will be clear as voters go to the polls on November 4th.  One candidate offers ample thoughtful specifics in a long list of plans to make life better for honest working Americans.  The other adheres to the failed politics of the past while framing precious few appeals without falling back on themes of fear or hatred.  When taking the time to exercise a citizen’s right to vote, think of which future is more desirable — a nation driven forward by hope or a nation frozen in place by fear — then act accordingly.

What You Should Think About Organized Religion

December 25, 2007

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

–Jesus Christ

“It is impossible to prove a negative,” is a statement far from insightful. For example, “this essay is not written in the Klingon language,” is a negative statement that can be verified as well as any practical standard of proof would require. Proof of negative assertions becomes more problematic as discussions move from the specific to the general. “There are no polka-dotted swans,” is an eminently likely proposition. However, it is possible to remain reasonable while taking the position that the best available proof merely establishes that a polka-dotted swan is an extremely improbable phenomenon.

When it comes to belief in an omnipotent being, a negative position is even more difficult to prove. Not only is it plausible to argue that such a being could defy any efforts at detection, but there is even a case to be made that an omnipotent being would not be constrained by logic. For absolute atheists, these conditions are problematic. Of course, monotheists are challenged just as strongly by the inability to prove that there are not multiple omnipotent beings.  Then consider the challenges of proving that their specific concept of a supreme being is a generally accurate reflection of reality.

Some people reach their own conclusions about matters of the divine. Yet many more allow their beliefs to be shaped by cultural traditions or even the dogma of religious institutions. This can be extremely problematic. Among other things, the embrace of organized religion tends to promote an unhealthy sort of inflexibility. This often stems from the perception that beliefs promoted as ancient wisdom are largely consistent with actual ancient beliefs. Yet is that perception justified?

Never mind variations in the content of sacred literature from one era or even one century to the next. Applications of religious thought consistently change to remain compatible with underlying social conditions. Excessive delay in this process simply results in a popular movement away from old faiths in order to embrace younger traditions. An honest study of religious history turns up all manner of examples where a faith that failed to speak to the great questions of the day yielded popular support to new spiritual movements eager to address those questions.

Even within a particular faith, there may be tremendous change over time. In the Middle Ages, Christian organizations actually ran brothels, not to mention encouraging priests to marry. It was only after being challenged on the practice of selling indulgences, an issue that helped bring about the Protestant Reformation, that the Holy See sought to demand chastity among all orders of clergy. Up to and during the American Civil War, some Protestant churches taught that God had ordained white hegemony and black slavery. Today some of those same pulpits are used to advance the argument that God demands equal treatment for all races.

Secular thinkers sometimes unfairly criticize religion for being unable to change with the times. Science may have produced flawed understandings of reality, but it does so in a context of focusing on empirical evidence. Setting aside pseudoscience like global warming denial or “creation science,” real science is driven to change not by passions or politics, but by data that satisfies reasonable standards of proof. Even wild new ideas can be quickly adopted by science if they can be supported by hard evidence.

By contrast, social change and personal whims are the driving forces behind change in religious thought. The popularity of a belief about the natural world is not a factor in how much it is accepted by scientists. In recent history, attitudes about race, gender, and sexual preference have, and continue to, bring about change in religious practices and teachings. Looking back further, changing attitudes about government, sexuality, violence, and a host of other issues have left their mark on the ways of modern faiths.

Nearly all adherents to the teachings of an organized faith arrived at those beliefs by traveling one of two paths. The most common is inheritance. Early in life, perhaps even from infancy, a person may become immersed in rituals and indoctrinated in religious teachings. Rather than forming the capacity for sound judgement then pursuing answers to questions of theology and morality, a personal attachment to a particular set of answers is firmly imprinted on pliable young minds.

In other instances, faith is the product of experiences that coincide with an intense episode of personal distress. As emotions impair rational judgement, the wholehearted embrace of a new worldview (not to mention entering a new social circle,) can provide relief and support in a time of crisis. Sometimes the mechanism resembles a one-two punch as childhood immersion in a specific organized faith produces a sense of comfort in religious association that is reinforced by subsequent refuge provided by a religious rebirth.

Religious belief is not a uniformly pernicious influence. It provides real comfort to real people facing real problems. It can provide a sense of togetherness in times of increasing individuality and social isolation. It may even increase the intensity of the good feelings associated with personal triumphs or significant milestones in life. Perhaps other institutions and practices could serve these same needs. Yet it is hard to argue that, if all religious practice suddenly ceased, nothing worthwhile would be lost to humanity

Of course, religious belief is not a uniformly positive influence either. Different faiths offer different teachings. Many of these faiths teach that others are false. In some instances, religious leaders actively promote hatred of human beings associated with different faiths. In fact, the condemnation of difference may even involve extremely violent struggles over relatively subtle theological distinctions. When a difference of opinion emerges among scientific thinkers, observation and analysis are decisive. When a difference of opinion emerges among religious thinkers, sheer force of advocacy is the decisive factor, as empirical evidence is rarely available (and often marginalized when it is available.)

A measure of faith can be useful as an alternative to being consumed by the complexities of resolving all moral issues or surrendering to nihilism. Yet faith is counterproductive to the degree that it straightjackets ethical thought in hallowed, yet ultimately arbitrary, human doctrines. Perhaps no capacity for belief is more important than the capacity to believe in one’s own ability to have faith in erroneous conclusions. Whether the context is secular or religious, that capacity is essential to remaining in touch with reality and adapting to new information as personal growth, new experiences, and fresh discoveries provide access to increased knowledge.

In theory, participation in an organized religion may be just as harmless as participation in a social club. In practice, participation in an organized religion may be just as harmful as involvement with the most destructive political movements. If you are involved in such a faith, and you manage to take away from it only messages of love, peace, goodwill, tolerance, humility, etc.; then you may benefit from that involvement. Yet if such involvement also generates ill will toward your fellow human beings, compelling reason exists to recognize the flaws of any teachings or practices that add fuel to the fires of hatred.

What You Should Think About Hate

December 15, 2007

“Few people can be happy unless they hate some other person, nation, or creed.”

–Bertrand Russell

Like most active bloggers, it brightens my day to notice a surge in readership or some hint that lively discussion might unfold. Yet I knew from the beginning that my daily posting habit tapped reserves of proverbial steam that would not last indefinitely. Social activities, other creative efforts, etc. can draw attention away from a project like this. Yet there are other forces that may also work against its momentum.

My problem is peculiar in that I have just the opposite of ideal detraction. By that I mean I would much enjoy the challenge and stimulation of facing many thoughtful critics each able to level sound sensible arguments in support of some view I do not presently hold. Instead I find myself intermittently preoccupied by a single fool apparently unable to formulate coherent thoughts, never mind applying them in the form of sound sensible arguments.

A day or two after each new post hits the Web, I can expect a little hate sent in my direction. This should not be a problem for me. Save for a small number of people I know personally, I do not have any emotional investment in how others regard me. Of course it is nice to see one’s ideas well-received elsewhere, but even an enormous amount of hate would be a small price to pay for an enormous amount of insight into the reasoning that supports different perspectives on the world. Instead I find myself crestfallen with each new realization that the only challenge I have raised is really no challenge at all.

I am certain typical political conservatives, never mind intellectual leaders of the subculture, are neither as ill-mannered nor ignorant as the thorn in my side. I know plenty who are far superior on both counts to the one presently vexing me. On the other hand, even when I pour over the content of the American political right’s most credible publications, I find a wealth of appeals to misplaced or twisted idealism instead of fact-based analysis of the world as it exists.

It is not a fact that most Americans long to live in a cutthroat society where economic competition starves the weak and enables the strong to thrive. It is also not a fact that slashing taxes and social services promotes the kind of socioeconomic mobility in which such competition could theoretically focus on merit. Yet those non-facts (a.k.a. fictions) may be the most crucial beliefs at the heart of the political movement dragging this nation in the wrong direction.

Surrounding themselves with like-minded (or at least similarly visceral) individuals, anarcho-capitalists have something in common with white supremacists — both are lunatic fringes populated by people convinced that a majority of American citizens are being oppressed because institutions do not enact a particular lunatic fringe agenda. This is not to say that anarcho-capitalists are necessarily racist. It is to say that they compound ignorance and arrogance in distinctively despicable ways.

Yet hatred of human beings is a barrier to finding solutions to social and political problems. In theory it may have some use in the context of an actual military engagement. Yet whenever time for reflection exists, hatreds concentrated on specific individuals or generalized toward entire groups are emotions every bit as useless as they are dark. For example, a number of weak-minded Americans find that hating Islam is more comfortable than trying to understand Islam. Yet the pro-apocalypse crowd are not the only ones to be tainted by hate.

People with a good grip on the facts of recent world history may find it hard not to hate George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. An honest informed assessment reveals that they sent many brave soldiers to die carrying out ill-conceived plans in pursuit of nebulous goals. The extent of this tragic waste raises serious questions about their fitness to pursue the offices they now hold as well as the purity of their motives in governance. Add to that getting mediocre economic performance out of unprecedented deficit expansion, deliberately obstructing national efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, merrily accepting campaign victories achieved through profound acts of sleaze, etc. and they certainly stand out as two of the most contemptible figures in modern public life.

Yet personally, I do not go beyond contempt and into the realm of hatred when it comes to villains of that, or any other, variety. Contempt is an attitude that can coexist with reason. Hatred and rational thought are mutually exclusive. It could well be that the difference between an ascendant American political left acting as a refined tool or a blunt instrument is the difference between contempt for or hatred of outgoing executive officials.

If those who support successors to the Bush-Cheney team are driven by hostility, the tendency will be toward change for the sake of change. If they are instead driven by contempt, then the tendency will be toward change for the sake of progress. To those of us deeply desiring progress, that is a crucial difference. One approach could leave the nation bogged down in endless investigations and recriminations, dedicating years to dwelling on the past. The other might instead restore Constitutional checks and balances and implement new protocols to guard against future abuses of executive power. Clearly one has more potential to benefit the nation and the world.

As a particularly portentous Presidential election year approaches, it is vital that we minimize the extent to which we indulge personal animus. The outgoing President and Vice President have done some truly horrible things. They certainly do not deserve to be remembered as honorable public servants. However, they also do not deserve to be elevated in status to the point where they are considered the root of all evil. This nation is a big complex place with big complex problems. If we settle for “not Bush” as enough to demand of our future leaders, then we face a long haul before those standards rise back up to expectations held in the late 20th century.

To the degree people of differing opinions are willing and able to engage in a meaningful clash of ideas, the best results for all involved will follow from a high levels of vigor and fairness in those clashes. To the degree that willingness or ability is lacking, then the clash of ideas must give way to the clash of tactics and strategy in generating electoral turnout. Yet through it all we must remember that it only diminishes us, and the appeal of our beliefs, if we should rely on hate for motivation.

Like the figureheads of the modern political right, a substantial portion of social conservatism’s grass roots seethes with some witches’ brew of hatred and fear and avarice. Individuals unable to produce or receive any sort of insight may rightly be ignored, but even they are unworthy of strong emotional reactions. Should I step in fresh dung while out hiking, I do not become angry at the crap on the ground. Instead I seek a means to clean my shoe before continuing on my journey. Our reaction to an encounter with one, or even a swarm, of the Internet’s many right wing sock puppets should be much like my reaction to an errant footfall on an unclean trail.

On the other hand, should you be so fortunate as to find someone who holds different views and can defend them with more reasoning than bluster, double the cause exists to transcend hostility. Not only may it cloud your own reasoning, but it may also obscure a clear view of real insights offered up by that prospective adversary. Recognize that there is a real human on the other side of those disputes. Recognize that if the truth is knowable, exchanging reasonable arguments provides you both with a unique way to grow closer to it. With such recognition comes the knowledge that there is value in worthy opposition.

Then, when all this recognition is achieved, send along some pertinent contact information — I can’t seem to shake my troglodyte’s fixation, so it would please me to be able to refer him to some sane civil sensible examples that he might one day know the joys of being somewhere much closer to effective in his own attempts at advocacy. I do not want to actually hate a living breathing human being. As a hedge against that dark emotion I hold out hope that his profoundly contemptible online persona is a hollow shell that could be redeemed if only it were filled with useful substance.