So this morning, I’m following this Twitter exchange between Van Jones, former advisor to President Obama, and some mostly anonymous American gun lovers who are blowing collective gaskets (or is that muskets) over measures announced by the President this last week to try and curb armed violence in America. The righties are coming at Jones with the suggestion that ever-more-powerful arsenals are needed by “the people” to combat government “tyranny” (the latest buzzword, like socialism, used to define a paranoid’s impression of some indefinable monster lurking in the shadows: “I sure don’t know what it is, but I’m damn sure agin it!”) Jones counters by asking what would be enough for these same people to be able to successfully subdue U.S. soldiers acting on behalf of this hypothetical tyrannical government – chemical weapons, nukes even – and calls what his opponents are suggesting, i.e. firing on American servicemen and women, treasonous. At which point one individual says Jones is being ridiculous and in the event of this prophesied calamity of Biblical proportions, “the soldiers will be on our side.” To which I’d say, please see Square, Tiananmen. But it got me thinking about the course of the entire discussion, where no minds will be changed, no needles will be moved and no one will come away with anything but a heated temper and a more intractable position on the issue. We act like this is a phenomenon unique to the era of Fox News and infinite blogs and talk radio shows, but the power and the rigidity of belief, whether it is political or spiritual, is one of the defining aspects of humanity. We’ve seen in countless examples how it is both our greatest gift and our greatest curse. The noblest accomplishments we have ever achieved have come from strong beliefs, and sadly, so have our greatest evils.
As a liberal humanist, I’ve chosen my spot on the spectrum and have as much of an ideology as the next guy. Yet I temper my beliefs with reason and my own personal notion that faith unchallenged is not faith: one must question everything and back up one’s claims with concrete, scientific, provable evidence. And one shouldn’t linger in the comfort of one’s own “side,” as it were – you owe it to yourself to look at what the opposition thinks and try to figure out the reasoning behind their points of view. As I mentioned in my piece a few weeks ago about the Newtown shooting, the obsession with guns comes from a place of fear – as does a great deal of the conservative mindset. Fear of the untrustworthy, the indigent, the other. Bad people. Bad people are coming to hurt you, so you need a gun to protect yourself. Bad people want to steal your money and spend it on other people, so you want taxes cut. Bad people overseas want to blow you up for reasons you can’t understand, so you want a huge military arsenal to defend your shores. Bad people want to force you to sleep with men. Bad people want you to stop going to church. Bad people this, bad people that. There seems to be a need to collect all this fear and focus it against a single, identifiable target, hence the evil liberal menace, stoking this fear into the hatred that naturally follows.
Fear, of course, isn’t unique to conservatives. Liberals fear plenty of things – the devastation of our planet due to wars, environmental pollution or outright greed, religious extremists forcing antiquated and in many cases physically harmful doctrines on the masses, losing our democratic voice to an ever-encroaching corporate plutocracy. The major difference I see in how a liberal approaches the world is that for liberals, there are no absolutes – and we are more willing to admit that we might be wrong. On Real Time with Bill Maher a while back, someone, I can’t remember whom, was sparring with a climate change denier and made the argument that if he was wrong about global warming, no big deal, but if the denier was wrong, everyone and everything on Earth would die – so why not try to mitigate the problem anyway? But a conservative will cling to the same tenets no matter how many times he is proven to be in error; for him, flexibility is weakness. There was a story a few months ago how Senate Republicans suppressed a study that proved conclusively, through decades of evidence, that tax cuts do not spur job growth. Canada’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, during our 2011 federal election, kept insisting that corporate tax cuts were desperately needed or this hazy figure of “400,000 jobs” would be lost. The meme was repeated, unquestioned, ad nauseum by friendly media and likely helped throw more than a few votes his party’s way. Less than a year later Flaherty was out begging corporations to please oh please if you wouldn’t mind sir, kindly use your hoards of cash we just gifted you to hire a few folks, y’know, if it’s not too much trouble. Yet you won’t see Flaherty calling for his tax cuts to be repealed, no matter how much red ink is generated, how much proof he is shown that said cuts are as helpful to the economy as fairy dust. Night after night conservatives yell the fallacy that “tax cuts increase revenue!” as government after government that follows their approach spirals down into deficit and debt (see: Greece). Either it’s a massive conspiracy to “starve the beast” – personally, I don’t think most people are that clever – or these folks genuinely believe the fiction they’ve been sold, and like all conservatives, won’t change their minds no matter how often their approach flounders in the practical world.
Ironically, there is a singular example of a near-universal experience of a belief being undone by reasoned analysis. Nearly all Western children grow up believing that Santa Claus delivers gifts to them every Christmas Eve. Yet as they age, cracks begin to appear in the story; perhaps some wisenheimer at school brays snottily, “You know it’s just your mom and dad, right?” (I still remember the name of the kid who did that to me – thanks a lot, Chris Campbell, wherever you are.) Perhaps they start to do the math and realize it’s physically impossible for one man with one sleigh to deliver billions of toys in less than 8 hours, and they’re less and less satisfied with the explanation that it’s because Santa is magic. How many adults, even conservatives, still believe in Santa Claus? But the same method of examination and deduction fails for almost everything else, resulting in decade after decade of the same flawed ideas being offered up regardless of how badly they’ve gone in the past. It’s like how in Ontario, Conservative leader Tim Hudak has reignited a debate on privatizing the LCBO (the government-owned corporation that manages the sale of alcohol throughout the province and generates loads of income to fund our social programs), despite the utter financial shambles that was his party’s decision to sell off our only toll highway to a Spanish corporation for a song when they were in power, and which we’re still paying for. And just like how for the National Rifle Association, the answer to the problem of guns in schools is more guns in schools. Part of this, as I’ve pointed out, is their executive looking out for sales opportunities for gun manufacturers, but this absurd notion would still be defended to the death (or to the cold, dead hands, as they like to put it) by regular rifle-lovers with no financial interest in the outcome. Apparently, to admit one’s logic is perhaps flawed is to expose a chink in the armor – to risk the entire house crashing in on top of you. Perhaps that’s the ultimate fear. Fear of the shell being stripped away to reveal… absolutely nothing.
So long as we’re speaking about shells being ripped away, it’s an interesting happenstance of linguistic evolution that the words “ideology” and “idiocy” both begin with “id” – Freud’s concept of the impulses of the inner self unleashed, at their wildest, with none of the rational examination of said self needed for it to function within the framework of a civilization. Likewise, beliefs – and indeed, faith – cannot function to the betterment of ourselves and those with whom we share the planet without critical examination. Be open. Be open to being wrong. Those who enter into a debate should entertain the possibility that their beliefs may be changed by the discussion that follows, as much as you are attempting to change the beliefs of those you’re debating with; otherwise, you’re left with people hurling abuse at one another for no perceptible reason other than getting one’s rocks off by being an idiot. And we all remember the last time being an idiot worked out toward the improvement of the human condition.