Monday, October 25, 2004

Common Ground

My political awareness began with Watergate, so this is the 8th presidential election that i've followed (starting with Carter/Ford). This seems like the most contentious and angry so far, though it's more likely that i've just developed a greater intolerance for contention and anger than i had when i was younger. Still, i think there are certain things that almost all Americans agree on.

1) We don't want to be told what to do.

No, i've not taken a poll, but i'm convinced that virtually all Americans feel this way. Note that i didn't say that i think we have a basic problem with telling other people what to do, so long as the institution/organization/entity dictating correct behavior more or less agrees with our own beliefs. That's unfortunate. Democracy without sympathy for opposing viewpoints is, i think, classic tyranny of the majority. This attitude is not exclusive to any political perch. In my view, both socialism (i.e., the government tells you what to do), and theocracy (i.e., God's representatives tell you what to do) are fundamentally anti-American, even if they happen to make society more stable or more safe.

2) We value privacy and freedom over safety.

Many people will probably disagree with this given the post 9/11, Patriot Act world we live in. But i was listening to radio reports from Iraq recently and i was struck by how many Iraqis claimed that they were happier in Saddam's Iraq rather than in the obviously unsafe and unstable country they now inhabit. I can't really criticize this viewpoint-- if my children's lives were in daily danger i'd be willing to make many compromises also. But i suspect that many Americans would claim that they'd rather fight than submit to an invasive, totalitarian government. I'm less convinced that so many would actually fight for it, but i'm beginning to realize how much these are Western values rather than fundamentally human values.

3) We're all convinced that people who disagree with us are misinformed.

I can't even count the number of times during this election year that i've heard somebody on radio or TV claiming that they are dismayed by the fact that some other party (with whom they disagree) has clearly not bothered to find and assess the facts. These other people do not attempt to understand the issues but instead are swayed by celebrity endorsements or religious dogma or television pundits. The other people are often a) young, and therefore incapable of seeing the full historical context of the issues, or b) members of special interest groups that reflexively vote the group-think line, c) fanatics, incapable of reason, or d) idiots.

My crackpot theory is that we think this way now because we don't have to ever consider anyone else's viewpoint. Regardless of your personal positions there's probably a news source out there that will confirm all of your prejudices. There was a good article on the humor website [not for kids or the weak] about the elections that concludes with the phrase "Be willing to make yourself mad". I think that's great advice, though i might have rather sad "Be willing to make yourself angry". Chances are that if you really attempt to absorb information from opposing sides you'll have no problem driving yourself mad.

4) We want the best possible world for the next generation.

It's impossible to explain to people without kids how a parent feels about their children. The way i generally put it is this: i'd be willing to die for my wife, but i'd be willing to kill for my children. Put another way, the love i feel for my children is completely irrational. There's no "good of the many" calculus that goes on in your brain with regard to the well-being of your kids. If i knew that i had the power to blink an entire civilization out of existence, and that doing so would save my kids, i'd do it without hesitation.

If that sounds nuts, you probably don't have kids. The positive thing about this is that in principle it leads a parent to want to cultivate a world that is both safe and abundant in opportunities. The down side is that when the system breaks, it breaks bad. Threatening or harming the children of one culture by another culture will lead to generations of hatred.

OK, so this is a long-winded way to advocate life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But, let's face it: if we can't have these, then there was no point in my ancestors fleeing all of the best countries in Europe.

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