Monday, March 19, 2007

Democracy and the Irate True Believer

Andrew Sullivan published a brilliant analysis of "the core conservative question" sent to him the other day that really opened my eyes to the limits of liberal democracies. As is my habit, when first reading it, I extrapolated its insights to explain a wide range of paranoias or conspiracy theories (I come from the land where every conspiracy theory is true until proven otherwise, and still then, we'll cling to it), and decided to rant about how it explains the ruthless accumulation of power by the religious right that we're witnessing and the death of democracy that that fortells. And I think it does explain the potential for that (to some much smaller degree than my first draft suggested), but after watching a biography on Eleanor Roosevelt on the American Experience last night, I realize both that it isn't that dire and that this notion also offers insight into the actions of more than just the religious right.

First,
the quote:

The question is...not whether political frameworks can be neutral [they can't], but how and against whom they ought to discriminate. At the basis of the democratic truce lies the presumption that a viewpoint-neutral framework – not absolutely neutral, but still as neutral as possible and consistent with its own survival – is the only fair and transparent one. But this excludes the true believer, who could never accept a system that proclaims neutrality between truth and error, virtue and vice. [...] As soon as a democratic system becomes sufficiently diverse, the true believer will begin to be unsatisfied with it. For a while the true believer's vision can still be enforced through democratic majorities. But then even the majorities begin to dwindle. At that point the true believer has to decide whether to lie down peacefully and see his beliefs swamped, or whether to turn anti-democratic, to reject the most basic clauses of the democratic contract. [...] Would the religious right accept defeat gracefully? I do not mean one or two elections, I mean total defeat: Drip by drip, state by state, issue by issue, the culture wars are lost, first in the culture at large, then at the ballot box; there is first a mellowing and then a great falling off of Christian belief across the country; after 20 or 30 years, the US is well set on its way to becoming as secular as Canada. [...] 99% of the religious right would surely accept this with good enough grace, but a toxic remnant may just turn against the systemic engines of secularisation. A self-styled "Stonewall Jackson Brigade" of Christofascist terrorists perhaps, secretly liaising with (the successors of) Al-Qaeda. [all emphasis mine]
Watching the E.R. bigography (funny how her initials are the those of her spiritual counterpart in England, eh?), I realized that we've already seen toxic remnants of true believers turn against the system in this country. The KKK is a good example, but so are eco-terrorists. In fact, as brilliant as this analysis of the issue is, it doesn't discuss the fact that that there are genuinely "true believers" on both sides of most cultural war issues. Folks so "pro-life" they'll kill doctors on one side are counterbalanced by animal rights activists who feel firebombing people's cars and terrorizing them at home is a good way to get their point across.

A good deal of the intense acrimony we're witnessing in the US at the moment (the red vs. blue flame wars on the blogs being a good indication of just how heated it is) seems to boil down to true-believer ground that otherwise democratic folks refuse to cede. In other words, it seems to me that there's a bit of true believer in most of us.

What's frightening about that idea to me is how easy it is to tap into that inner true believer and manipulate it. We witnessed this, I think, in the co-ordinated campaigns against gay marriage. Folks who might have lived and let live, permitting change to come drip by drip, state by state, were things to have evolved without disturbing their comfort zones, found themselves voting for all kinds of truly uncivil legislation they wouldn't have dreamt of supporting a few years back, essentially letting themselves be rallied by zealots to penalize gays for reaching too far too fast.

And sometimes it didn't take anyone else to manipulate them to that. It was merely their preference for a slower pace of change. In fact, when I've pressed otherwise rational folks on right wing blogs to explain why they supported such legislation, many, if not most, of them will eventually concede it was in response to feeling rushed into the new cultural acceptance of gays as equals. "If you hadn't pushed so hard, I wouldn't have pushed back."

Now the truth of the matter is, I think we're seeing the acrimony we're are in the US, because we've made so much progress in ensuring equality (under the law at least), and we're now negotiating the tougher issues affecting smaller subgroups. Indeed, think about how far we've come in granting rights to folks who didn't have them when the country started a little over 200 years ago, even though they represented much larger chunks of the population. The closer we get to greater diversity and greater equality, though, the more the true believers will burrow in to defend their last patch of chosen holy land, and the harder the fight will be. But fight on we must. It's just wise to be aware of how easy it is to make dangerous true believers out of regular folks and to plan accordingly.

UPDATE: Sullivan (again) points us to this collection of images of the sort of actions that true-believers-turned-toxic convince themselves are appropriate responses to having their world views challenged. The Without Sanctuary website is beyond brutal, just be warned.

Labels: ,

16 Comments:

Blogger ondine-nyc said...

Saw the whole two and a half hours of Eleanor Roosevelt last night as well. Wow, that was one amazing lady.

She was considered so 'left' that Hoover had a 3000 page FBI file on her. He hated her guts. The joke is on him thank goodness, she's venerated and he's vilified.

3/20/2007 09:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that Ayn Rand would have trouble with Andrew's point.

A republican form of government, that limit's itself to protecting people from the use of force- excludes those true believers who want to force their beliefs on others- that means pretty much the faith based true believer. It would not exclude the person who truely believes in reason.

I firmly believe that 2+4=6, but since it does most other people believe it too.

3/20/2007 11:26:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

How does reason determine when it's appropriate to legislate legalizing gay marraige, for exmaple?

There are some issues that don't add up so nicely. That's where true believers, religious and not, come in.

3/20/2007 11:38:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

he was considered so 'left' that Hoover had a 3000 page FBI file on her.

She was so staunchly anti-Communist that it is (and should have been) clear to anyone who paid attention that her mission wasn't about left or right, but equality, pure and simple.

3/20/2007 11:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seriously Edward. Do you think that in a rational society the state could tell consenting adults who they could love?

I get your point though-- A true believer isn't swayed by facts or reality.

3/20/2007 11:46:00 AM  
Anonymous jason said...

The KKK is a good example, but so are eco-terrorists.

Oh no, you didn't ... as far as I know, the Earth Liberation Front (for whom the U.S. government has invented the term eco-terrorist) has never been involved in any action that in any way harmed another human being. I have no interest in attempting to defend the moral or political justifications for property destruction here, but to make any comparison between the hate-mongering, lynching, murderous KKK and environmentalists who perform acts of property destruction or intimidation towards those willfully destroying the planet, is totally irresponsible and ridiculous.

Regarding the earlier post concerning your continued drift towards a more conservative philosophy, maybe it has less to do with the conservative turn of the MSM, and more to do with your obsession with Andrew Sullivan (whom many of us, I think, consider to have the same intellectual insight and credibility of a Rush Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly).

As far as this post is concerned, I'm not sure what you're really getting at. It sounds like your definition of "true believer" would include anyone who refuses to accept the law as determined by majority-elected representatives. Is this really just an argument against civil disobedience? Is not the U.S. political system a kind of "true believer," who has no tolerance for anyone rejecting either (1) nationalism, (2) representative democracy, or (3) capitalism? How is submission to these so-called "majority-determined" principles the same as embracing diversity and equality, as your post would seem to suggest?

3/20/2007 11:52:00 AM  
Anonymous bambino said...

E.R. was a great women. I gained a huge respect for her after watching the documentary last night. Wish everyone could try just little what she has done, we could be in different position now and better shape. God bless her soul.

3/20/2007 01:07:00 PM  
Blogger ondine-nyc said...

i have to say just the word 'eco-terrorist' is Bushco/Neocon jargon.

3/20/2007 02:00:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Oh no, you didn't ... as far as I know, the Earth Liberation Front (for whom the U.S. government has invented the term eco-terrorist) has never been involved in any action that in any way harmed another human being

Calm down, anon, if you don't define Earth Liberation Front activists as "eco-terrorists" then there's no need to defend their record. My point is simply that both sides of any given issue will have its true believers, and anyone who thinks either side couldn't be driven to murder is fooling themselves.

It sounds like your definition of "true believer" would include anyone who refuses to accept the law as determined by majority-elected representatives.

God no. The definition I was working from was the one offered on Sullivan's site: someone who could "never accept a system that proclaims neutrality between truth and error, virtue and vice." In other words, absolutists. It's possible than an absolutist's position is just (but even that has degrees of relativity to it always), but where it gets tricky is when they claim they have the right to violate other people's human rights in pursuit of their absolute ideal. In other words, the "true believer" is someone blinded by their belief toward the reality of the compromises democracies demand. Sullivan's guest notes how that makes democracy and true belief incompatible.

egarding the earlier post concerning your continued drift towards a more conservative philosophy, maybe it has less to do with the conservative turn of the MSM, and more to do with your obsession with Andrew Sullivan.

An obsession, is it? Methinks you ought look in a mirror. I've quoted Sullivan more times than I have some other blogs, but far fewer times than I have the New York Times, or artnet or artinfo or MAN or a whole host of other sources. I think the obsession is yours.

3/20/2007 02:12:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Edward:

A very interesting post, all in all.

I also find myself thinking about another reason many folks drift into knee-jerk, absolutist positions, one that is rarely popular (or readily admitted as valid) among progressives, and that's physiological evolution. We're coded to choose A or B; the necessity of survival doesn't often allow for thorough rumination or thoughtful, complicated decision making. This is one of the terrible truths that haunts advanced civilizations, particularly those idealistic and hopeful enough to fight for a sustainable democracy or republic.

As you say, though, we must continue to do our best; after all, evolution also saw to it that we use only a fraction of our brain capacity. ;)

3/20/2007 03:45:00 PM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

RE: "the US is well set on its way to becoming as secular as Canada"

Canada isn't as secular as people think. It's liberal, but there's no separation of church and state.

Until very recently, for example, Montreal had two separate school boards: one Protestant, one Catholic. (The idea of non-Christians seemed to have escaped the bureaucrats.) Our local PUBLIC school when we moved here was Saint Patrick's, with a cross in every classroom and mandatory Catholic education. But if we'd been three blocks west, we'd have been in the Protestant discrict.

So, to the people who clamor for official religion in public institutions: be careful what you wish for. The official religion may not end up being your own.

3/20/2007 04:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

>>>The Without Sanctuary website >>>is beyond brutal, just be warned.


And what good does it serves exactly?


To me it's the same as when the other day here they shown on national tv a policeman being shot and his blood splatter a wall, before his family was even contacted.


Fuck morality and politics, you all are just enjoying the gritty details.

Whatever,

Cedric Caspesyan
centiment@hotmail.com

3/20/2007 07:45:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

And what good does it serves exactly?

One should be able to face up to history...or one will surely repeat it, Cedric. Those photos aren't exploiting the situations (how could they, they happened long ago)...they're, at this point, documents of them. They now serve to remind us what we once were. Your comparison makes no sense to me.

3/21/2007 08:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Where I come from we painted black kings on our tapestries centuries ago. Where are the records of that?
Maybe that's what the black people deserves to see.

To me, racism is just a pretext for evil. These photos don't teach me anything. This evil has simply gone elsewhere (when it has), took other forms.


I would hope that the people here
are sensible enough that they expect that seeing these photos or not would make no difference on their opinion or knowledge except for the temporal titillating of their fear and anger.

May I suggest the movie Slither?
That was a pretty scary film.


I'm just saying, one should always be honest with themselves and know the exact reason why they would want to see something.

Cedric Caspesyan
centiment@hotmail.com


(ok..I hear an activist screaming "Or why they WOULDN'T WANT to see it, hey Ced?", but trust me I got other historical guilts up my sleeve than american racism)

3/21/2007 07:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Earth Liberation Front people are moderates. If they were true believers they would take their ideas to their logical conclusion and kill people. The Unibomber was a true believer and so were the Khmer Rouge

In general the best test of a persons basic ideas is to take them to their logical conclusion.

3/22/2007 10:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

Those guys are all poseurs. True believers blow up cars with the kids still in them: Children used in Iraqi militant attack-US general (Reuters).

3/22/2007 12:20:00 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home