“You believe them? Are you out of your mind?! How can you not see through their lies?! It’s so obvious your leaders are manipulative. And you just don’t get it, do you?”
Conservative friends have said that to me about my respect for likes of Obama, Reid, and Boxer, and I’ve said that to them about their respect for Palin, Beck, and McCain.
As America becomes increasingly partisan, I sometimes wonder if we’re not just two separate species. What distinguishes species is an inability to make children. We’re sort of like that. It’s hard for us to make brainchildren with each other. I do know partisan couples– a liberal married to a conservative with kids between them. They can cross breed, just not on political issues. Our government is like that now. The prospects for bipartisan legislation these days are about as good as the prospects for Israeli/Palestinian peace accords in the past few decades.
In evolution the most common source of speciation is allopatry, or geographic separation. Communities of organisms that don’t co-mingle will tend to drift genetically in different directions and when they’re brought back together they can’t mate. Asian and African elephants were one species that split, migrated, and then adapted to different environments. Now they can’t produce offspring together.
There’s cultural allopatry too. I grew up in an almost exclusively liberal intellectual enclave, and here I am a liberal intellectual having trouble interbreeding culturally with conservative anti-intellectuals.
If you’ll pardon a cosmic parallel, a variation on allopatry makes the universe go round. Literally. The reason there’s usable energy to make planets or your washing machine orbit is that things that were once unified (before the big bang) became separate for long enough that when they come back together they don’t just re-unite, they bounce off each other from different angles and at different speeds. The difference is what’s called energy.
In general, time apart creates fresh, divergent often, conflicting angles of re-entry. The technical definition of work has to do with the way contact between two formerly independent things forces both off of their natural or “spontaneous” trajectories. This explains some of what makes Glenn Beck rub me the wrong way. Obviously he’s been somewhere else.
And sometimes I’m grateful to be rubbed the wrong way, like when a friend brings me a fresh perspective on things. Sometimes diversity is the spice of life. It’s great to be rubbed the wrong way the right way. Vive la difference that in the long run I’m grateful for, and as for the rest–the differences that rub me wrong the wrong way, the Glenn Becks of the world– I wish they’d go away. This is one of the most horrifying consequences of human leverage. In our newly interconnected world, it’s harder to just live and let live. Our different beliefs have consequences for each other. Beck and his leveraged effects won’t leave me alone.
I’m proud to be a liberal intellectual, but that’s not probably saying much. That my parents and my former self would be proud of and agree with my current self is about as affirming of my grasp of the truth as advertising is a credible endorsement of a corporation’s products. I agree with myself. So what? For the most part, who doesn’t? As George Bernard Shaw said “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.” I’m an intellectual patriot. I believe my ideas are superior because I was born into them.
Most of us don’t fall too far from the tree. You could call it your “inheristance,” the stance you inherited from your place and people of origin. I know people who made an all-out effort to fall as far from the tree of their intellectual origins as possible and yet still show the signs of their culture of origins. Some new age former Catholics I’ve known, for example. Though they are anti-Catholic and adopt liberal openness with a vengeance, you can still hear the Catholic battle between pure good and pure evil rumbling away under their flowing lavender garments. Maybe you can’t go home again, but can you ever really leave it in the first place?
One could conclude that since we’re all creatures of different circumstances there’s really not much more to be said. We should simply be tolerant. Everybody’s truth is true for someplace of origin.
There’s a hitch to that conclusion: Reality. Philip Dick said, “Reality is that which when you stop believing in it doesn’t go away,” to which I’d add “…which when you stop believing in it can turn around and kill you. There are many consequences that are oblivious to our opinions of them. Lung cancer seizes smokers even if they don’t believe that smoking causes cancer. Reality’s consequences make some truths more truthy than others.
I’ve got a idea for a new web site. You go on and register as either a Democrat or a Republican, and your name is verified against voting records. Then you answer a bunch of multiple choice questions—factual predictions about important features of the future. We could tally and see which party is right more often. That way we could begin to transcend our self-affirming self-proclaimed “realism,” and find out whose interpretations tend to prove more accurate in the long run.
Jessie Jackson said “you can’t be big and dumb for long,” to which I’d add, “You can’t be dumb and be for long.” Reality kills the inheristances that don’t fit it. That’s the self-correcting feature of the relationship between reality and belief. Where belief has consequence, the swift hand of nature blesses the realists and smites the fools.
And there’s a hitch with that too. The swift hand of nature isn’t so swift. The Darwin awards are granted to people who did things so foolish that nature was quick to act. But often we’re not that lucky. There are beliefs with real consequences that are affirmed or at least not disaffirmed by reality long enough that by the time reality stops affirming them it’s too late to correct for our errors.
I keep trying to put my finger on what’s the difference between good and bad belief. How do you distinguish the processes that generate wisdom from the processes that generate foolishness. How would you objectively define wisdom and how to define stupidity other than that trait possessed by people from a different tribe from mine. My quest pegs me as an epistemologist. That’s what epistemologists try to do, even though the quest for what constitutes wisdom is pompous and the steep climb to a solid answer is slimed over by the sloppy chauvinism of the epistemologist’s own inheristances. I have a new idea I’ll try in a coming article. I’ll call it meta-confidence: There are your beliefs. There’s your confidence in your beliefs and then there’s your confidence that your confidence is warranted, justified and virtuous. That last one would be meta-confidence, and I wonder if it’s really what distinguishes the two species.