Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Limits of Reason

What follows began as an argument about Obama. We'll get back to that later, but first I'd like to reflect on some lessons learned and address a few points that were raised in a recent online encounter with several former acquaintances on my second foray into the Facebook jungle.    

After holding my writers' tongue for probably far too long and far too deep into the election season I found myself reacting rather strongly to the posting of what I thought were extreme characterizations of president Obama as a betrayer of the people. Having actually gained in my admiration of Obama since his election, this response led to an escalation of emotional accusations and counter attacks that devolved into increasingly incoherent and personal aspersions, finally leading me to abandon the argument altogether. I withdrew, having flashed back to other fruitless discussions that have raged across online forums since the earliest days of online chatter. This time however, I took some lessons and insights away that brought new clarity to where I stand and how I see the issues involved. It certainly wasn't a total loss. 

The comment that triggered my deepest reflection was in response to allusions I made to my Buddhist (Zen) practice and an impulsive decision to "let the beast out of the box." I was told that I should rely on reason to guide my path, rather than either religion or emotion. The implication I take from this is that if we only allow ourselves to be guided by reason, both individually and as a society, we can overcome our various disagreements and advance with more steadfast promise toward the future.

This is the classical humanist position and I certainly lean toward that position in my more wishful moments. I place a high value on the use of reason and logic when addressing most situations. The catch that always appears to trip up most excellent intentions is that structures of logic are always built upon platforms of belief. When you get right to the core of every argument you invariably find a set of unquestioned assumptions based on what resembles more than anything else a form of religious worship.

Everyone on every side of every issue believes themselves to be reasonable. Michele Bachman and Glenn Beck present themselves as reasonable people struggling with destructive idiots, as does Keith Olbermann and Bill Maher. I've listened to Tea Party advocates that sounded as reasonable as anyone on Democracy Now. I'm not saying that all positions and premises are equally valid, certainly not in the face of actual evidence or circumstance. I recognize, however, that the premises we adopt influence not only our conclusions but the way we perceive data, as well as the data we selectively chose to ignore. 

Where does that leave all reasonable people? 

I'm reading a book, The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning, by James Lovelock. In it he makes the most dire predictions about the evolving climate of the earth and its probable effects on human civilization. He strongly advocates the development of more reliance on nuclear power and is generally skeptical about the potential of so-called "renewable energy" to meet the challenges of both climate and population. I have great respect for Lovelock, who is the scientist credited with the "Gaia Hypothesis" that views the earth as a single living organism. His theory is influencing increasing numbers of scientists and has had a profound effect on our understanding of the earth as a complex unified system. 

But I don't agree with his conclusions about nuclear energy. Any system that produces large quantities of the most poisonous and long-lived substances known casts an unacceptably long shadow full of unintended consequences. The recent effects of tsunami and earthquakes in Japan and the probable forecast of similar events on our own coastlines have given us a glimpse of these. Lovelock's arguments are certainly reasonable, but in my view they leave out whole areas of complexity that involve things that a strictly scientific approach at its present stage can't even begin to consider. If the earth is a living being, does it possess some form of intelligence? Does three billion years of evolution leading to the development of human intelligence logically conclude in that intelligence eradicating itself? These are all unknown factors that can't be reliably measured any more than the effect of a positive attitude in the curing of cancer.  

Finally, the determination of what is true or false, or what is right or wrong, and in politics questions of moral absolutes and political expediency are never fixed, but emerge out of a continuing struggle in which there are always winners and losers and it's the winners that write history. Of course True Believers of every stripe will adamantly deny this to be true.

And that brings me firmly back to politics. In the struggle between moral absolutes and political reality I tend to favor the practical over the ideal. I disagree with those on the Left who say that there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats. True, both do what they can to support the corporate state, but let's face it, that's the state we all live in. The difference is that a Democratic government begins from a set of premises that, in my view, more closely correspond to the facts on the ground and less on positions relating to ideological and religious purity (the far Left excluded). With Democrats there is more diversity and more room for alternative forces to maneuver in the open. This factor in itself is of immense importance. Under a Republican administration there are huge areas of potential change that can't even be seriously talked about. Democrats are funky and colorful and full of hope, even if it's unrealistic hope, whereas Republicans these days lead with the face of fear and rigid moral judgement. 

Many people say that voting is irrelevant, but I don't comprehend how this is true, as those who win an election are those who get to set the agenda. I'm all for winning. Personally I hate voting over and over for losers and am tired of politics that veer from unrealistic expectations to extreme disillusionment in the face of short term defeat. I've come to view the morally pure and righteous in politics with deep suspicion, including those on the Left. (Those on the Right are so beyond the pale that I don't give them a second thought.) The Left is all too prone to turning on those it has supported, often exhibiting the realistic political acumen of a Unibomber.

Every time an administration comes to power a similar pattern repeats itself. When the realities of governing a whole country (as opposed to an ideological faction) lead inevitably to compromise the ideologues turn against those they previously supported and become unreliable allies or even out and out adversaries. At which point the choice is inevitable for the persons in power who, in order to be re-elected are forced to throw the extremists off the train and move toward a more centrist position. 

My support for Barack Obama was slow in coming, and didn't really kick in until after he was elected and I saw his style of governing. I see him as an adept poker player, who is unruffled by the noise around him coming from all sides, who is ruthless in calculating the odds, and who does not waste his capital in political posturing unless he is quite certain it will gain him long term advantage. I see him as someone who has demonstrated that he will do what it takes to win. I may be wrong in my assessment, but we won't really know until all of the votes are counted in November of next year. 

Do I agree with all of Obama's decisions and compromises? Certainly not, starting with health care and the decision to take single-payer off the table. On the other hand I can understand the difficulties of the job a Democratic president faces, when confronted by an activist Republican congress in the midst of an economic meltdown. There are some things that we wish for that simply won't fly. Still, I believe that Obama's moral vision and the premises from which he acts are immeasurably closer to my own than any serious challengers. 

Does the Left offer any realistic alternatives? They play an important function in representing important alternative points of view. Certainly they are needed to balance the more extreme tendencies of the Right. Unfortunately, as political allies they have made themselves almost irrelevant. The Left has largely failed to connect with the American voter who is not ideologically inclined. We can blame the media or 'Faux News' for this, but I sense that it comes down to the fact that many of those on the Left have become relatively comfortable as a result of privilege and education and are less than willing to risk real sacrifice when it comes to sharing the economic and social burdens. I believe that this is changing with the continued spread of economic hardship, but the failure of communication must still be addressed with new imagination and creativity. Meanwhile, as long as the Left is not a reliable ally it can expect to be regarded more as an expendable liability in the world of real politique.    

I think it's very important that Democrats retain the power they have and gain more of it where possible. I don't think we can afford four or eight more years wasting time in a Republican wilderness of denial. I don't think the world can afford it. 

So, those are the premises with which I weigh in, presented as best as I can without resorting to emotional demagoguery or personal attacks. I am a Democrat and a committed supporter of Obama for President in 2012. 

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