- The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however, and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike is the disease of the mind.
When the deep meaning of things is not understood, the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail. — Sengtsan, 3rd Zen Patriarch
Humans have a proclivity for framing issues as dichotomies — this and that, right and wrong, black and white, us and them. Old Sengtsan would have called this “dualism.”
Dualism is actively at work distorting our ongoing political discussions. For example, few days ago Glenn Greenwald wrote about the Iraq Study Group:
But more notable than the supposed exclusion of neocons (something that should be believed only once it is seen) is this claim about Washington-style balance and “centrism”:
The panel was deliberately skewed toward a centrist course for Iraq, participants said. Organizers avoided experts with extreme views on either side of the Iraq war debate.
I’d really like to know what the excluded anti-war “extreme view” is that is the equivalent of the neonconservative desire for endless warfare in Iraq and beyond. The only plausible possibility would be the view that the U.S. ought to withdraw from Iraq, and do so sooner rather than later. What else could it be? Nobody, to my knowledge, is proposing that we cede American territory to the Iraqi insurgents, so withdrawal essentially defines the far end of the anti-war spectrum.
Is withdrawal — whether incremental or total — considered to be an “extreme view” that the Washington “centrists” have not only rejected but have excluded in advance even from consideration?
Good question, and I fear the Baker panel does consider withdrawal to be an extreme view not under consideration. We’ll see.
But I’ve long believed news media screws up discussion of abortion the same way. We’re told there are two “extremist” views, pro- and anti. But what is the “pro” extreme view? I know of no reproductive rights organization that advocates elective third-trimester abortion, for example. Reproductive rights organizations have been fighting to maintain Roe v. Wade, which allows states to ban abortions after the 23rd week gestation (earliest possible viability; late second trimester) as long as exceptions are made for life and health of the mother. That’s extreme? Extremists on the other side not only want to eliminate the “health” exception. They’re not crazy about the “life,” “rape,” and “incest” exceptions, either. And don’t get them started on birth control.
I could be wrong, but I suspect the enormous majority of pro-choice people would accept some kind of legal gestational limit on elective abortion as long as it wasn’t set absurdly early and as long as physicians are allowed a decent amount of discretion for deciding what constitutes a legitimate medical reason for a non-elective abortion. In fact, I think a big whopping majority of the American electorate would accept that compromise. The Fetus People, on the other hand, will not rest until they achieve a total ban on abortions, no matter what voters want.
So who’s “extreme”? Seems to me the preponderance of the extremism is on one side.
I thought of dualities today when I read this column by Cathy Young:
Behind the political divide in America, there is also a religious divide.
The split is not just between people who believe and people who do not; it is between those who see religious faith as society’s foundation and those who see it as society’s bane.
I guess those of us who see it as neither society’s foundation nor society’s bane don’t count.
A look at recent best-selling books illustrates the divide. Ann Coulter’s “Godless: The Church of Liberalism” excoriates liberals for being, well, godless. Bill O’Reilly’s new tome, “Culture Warrior,” urges traditionalists to combat the evil influence of the “secular-progressives.” For the other side, there’s “Letter to a Christian Nation” by philosopher Sam Harris, who calls all religion “obscene” and “utterly repellent,” and “The God Delusion” by biologist Richard Dawkins, a tome whose title speaks for itself.
Both sides in the debate traffic in simplistic stereotypes.
Sort of like Cathy Young?
It doesn’t help that religion has become intertwined with politics. A recent column by film critic and pundit Michael Medved conflates attacks on religion with criticism of the political power of religious conservatives.
Such books as “”The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back from the Religious Right” by Rabbi Michael Lerner, written from a religious point of view, are lumped together with Harris’ anti-religion screed. Meanwhile, conservative author Heather MacDonald, writing in USA Today, complains that “skeptical conservatives” feel marginalized in today’s discourse.
Over the past several weeks I’ve seen the “religious right” juxtaposed against the “unreligious left” dozens of times, and hardly anyone questions this. I don’t think it reflects reality, however. There are plenty of deeply religious lefties, and plenty of atheist and agnostic righties.
What’s more, if the “extremes” are pro-religion (as defined by Michael Medved) and anti-religion (ditto), then what the hell is the center? The “I don’t give a shit about religion (and/or Michael Medved)” faction?
What if we change the dichotomy? Let’s put everyone who thinks religion should be everyone’s bleeping personal business at one extreme, and people who want to coerce everyone else to think his way (a.k.a. God Nazis) at the other? This would put Richard Dawkins and Michael Medved together at the “God Nazi” end of the continuum, opposite from me.
I’m sure Dawkins and Medved would disagree with this model, but I care what they think about as much as they care what I think.
But I suppose I should try to take Sengtsan’s advice. Looking at religion dispassionately reveals a lot of people frantically grabbing for something to either soothe their existential fears or stoke their egos, or both. There are people looking for easy answers to difficult questions and finding difficult answers to easy questions. There are dogmatists and there are mystics; there are those who approach religion with fear, and those who approach it with love. There are those who find comfort in familiar liturgy and iconography and those who leave the familiar behind and wander off in search of something else. And there are those who don’t see any point to religion at all.
The problem is that people mistake whatever little bit of doctrinal or institutional jetsam they’re clinging to as the Complete and Total Absolute Truth and Wisdom of the Cosmos Forever and Ever Amen. This reminds me of an essay written by John McGowan and posted at Le Blogue BÃ©rubÃ© in June 2005. This is about politics, but it speaks to any issue (emphasis added) —
My point is that liberalism, first and foremost, is a set of expedients (mostly institutional and legal) for minimizing tyranny by setting limits to government power. It also tries to prevent the consolidation of power by fostering the multiplication of power. Democracy, in my view, is not worth a damn if it is not partnered with liberalism. Democracy and liberalism are a squabbling pair; they each locate power in a different placeâ€”democracy in the people, liberalism in the lawâ€”and they aim for different goods: democracy (in its most ideal form) for something like the â€œgeneral will,â€ liberalism for a modus vivendi in a world characterized by intractable conflicts among people with different beliefs, goals, ambitions, and values. Neither one trumps the other; both, in my view, are essential ingredients of a legitimate polity.
Not only the Republicans, but the American nation as a whole, seem to have lost any sense whatsoever of what liberalism means and what it strives to insure. Even at the best of times, the liberal check upon power is a tenuous bulwark that fights against the odds. There is nothing that underwrites the rule of law except the continued practice of upholding it. The law must be reaffirmed anew each and every time it is enunciated and enforced. And the temptation to circumvent the law, to rewrite it to accommodate oneâ€™s current beliefs and practices, is also ever present. To pay the law heed is to accept that oneâ€™s own virtue is doubtfulâ€”or that oneâ€™s own beliefs are, in every sense of that word, â€œpartial.â€ It is their assurance in their own virtue that renders the Republicans most dangerous, most prone to set the law aside when it gets in the way of doing when they know in their hearts is right. Impatience with the law is endemicâ€”and it is the harbinger of extreme politics of either the right or the left. (It is here, of course, that the leftist will leap. But why should we think leftist self-righteousness any more attractive or less dangerous than the rightist variety?) …
… I just want to end by noting how â€œunnaturalâ€ liberalism seems. It involves self-abnegation, accepting the frustration of my will. It involves, as I will detail in my next post, compromise in almost every instance, and thus can seem akin to having no strong convictions, no principles. Yet its benefits are enormous; it provides, I am convinced, the only possible way humans can live in peace together in a pluralistic world. Given how distasteful liberal expedients are in experience, it is a miracle that they ever get established and maintained. But the benefits of that miracle are multipleâ€”and we, as a nation, will sorely regret it if we trash our liberal edifice out of impatience, frustration, or, even worse, sheer forgetfulness of why that edifice was put in place, how it works, and what it accomplishes.
It frustrates Michael Medved’s will that filmmakers are allowed to express their own points of view in their films. Religion itself seems to frustrate Richard Dawkins’s will. But the contest shouldn’t be between opposing points of view on religion, but between those who support the First Amendment of the Constitution and those who would circumvent it.
Whatever your religious beliefs, as long as you’re with me on the Constitution’s side, we’re good.