This might ruffle a few feathers amongst my Liberal friends; it might even in part the purpose for which I write. Start with the word. I say Liberal to refer to what I hope in my lifetime might one day be thought of as the Unreconstructed Liberal. I do suppose I think of myself as a Liberal, but I’m not always happy about it, simply because it seems to limit my sensitivity to the entire intellectual scope of political philosophical possibilities. Why can I not, for instance, propose that limiting government reach or spending may be good in some ways? Because that’s not my thing, not the Liberal thing. Or, while I do feel strongly that part of the government's responsibility is to ensure general equality and wellbeing for its peoples, I also feel that society should promote personal, family, and community responsibilty and ownership. That view often gets shouted down in lefty circles.
Or perahps, and this is the most topical point, while I don't agree with the proposition that we’ve left racism behind in society, I also don't always feel that I can express my belief that racism may be a somewhat misconstrued problem, that it may be better eradicated if we ignored (for instance) a fringe group of loud mouth neo-Nazis and white supremacists who are angry about pulling down Robert E. Lee statues, and concentrated more on the trickier, less headline-worthy, ways that racism is perpetuated behind the scenes institutionally and societally. One might say we should do both, but the media frenzy over relatively small group of angry white men seems crazy when compared to, say, the 2017 Womens' Marches, which attracted anywhere from 3 to 4.5 MILLION people. What if we just turned off the cameras when white supremecists manage to scrape together a few hundred socially challened bullies? I know that the numbers here are larger than they might have been five years ago, and there is no doubt that this is connected to the signposts and dog whistles of the current tweeter in chief, but it still is not evidence of a mass movement of white supremacy in our country. That's not our problem. Our problem is the harder to see, harder to fight, deeply embeddded systemic racism that is perpetuated by people who are doing so largely unwittingly. Charlotteville type bombast is a distraction from this. I say all this at risk of seeming insensitive to the realities on the ground of that situation, and I have no intention of doing so. Heather Heyer died, after all, trying to defend what she and most everyone feels is right. But there is a particuar kind of sensitivity – an idea that people are just not meant to say some things – that stifles so much of what we could say about how racism is perpetuated in America. And we, Liberals, Conservatives, everyone, need to start saying things a whole lot more.
And yeah, it isn’t too much to say that I hope the whole Liberal vs. Conservative social fantasy will one day come to an end. And it probably will, because these things never last forever. Home team vs. away team, Rangers vs. Celtic, Cards vs. Cats, Coke vs. Pepsi, “mmm Marmite” vs. “holy shit, is that meant to be food?!” and yes, Liberal vs. Conservative; we like to be in tribes, still. I’m no anthropologist, but looking at it from a natural selection perspective, there may be very good reasons why people who have most liked to identify with a particular group and its leaders have been the ones who were able reproduce the most. But now we're left in a modern society where our tribal allegiances tend to turn all political discourse into condensed and oversimplified opposition; as if the political debate about firearms in America came down to guns vs. no guns. Metaphysically signing up to a idealogical tribe in the media age saves most people the trouble of learning anything. Why try when someone else tells you what to think? Socialism is a kind of case in point; most people in America on what we call the Right Wing pretty much reach for their holsters as soon as they hear the word. But how often is that reaction informed by the real philosophical and political history of socialism? Fear of something you don’t remotely understand is fear of the dark. One can see this every time someone accuses pro-market, Clinton-ite Democrats of being socialists. (I mean, WHAT?)
It is fascinating to me what words were used when the folks in Charlottesville were trying to out-chant one another (can we just try and get comfy with how absurd doing that actually is? And yeah, OK, fine, I know I'm now giving even more attention to a situation that I feel got too much attention, but I'm real complex like that, you know, full of paradoxes and conundrums and what not.) On one side there, the bogey man was the Nazi, on the other, it was the Commie. Stalin vs Hitler all over again. It seems that both sides wanted to stain the other with the 20th century’s most egregious fascist movements. This is not to equivocate on the reality of that situation, however, as Trump did. Calling someone a Nazi because they are carrying Nazi insignia, using a Nazi salute, and chanting “Jews will not replace us” makes sense, calling someone a Commie for opposing that, regardless of how they go about that opposition, is really very stupid.
Calm the F down everyone. I argue here not simply for an understanding of our innate desire for identification, but also for transcendence. All of us identify, and we construct a worldview that validates that identity. And that includes making our enemies seem as bad as we possibly can. Can we all stop that now, please? I'm mainly talking to Liberals here, because the three or four who MAY end up reading this will no doubt be members of that tribe. No, don’t prevaricate on things like the Charlottesville scenario, but yes, do question the idea that someone who takes a different ideological position than you do is necessarily doing so because they are in some way disingenuous, or stupid, or evil, etc. This only exposes the weakness of your own position, which is not a good position if it does not stand up to logical scrutiny from good folks who do not agree with it.
More broadly, I see it this way: when you step outside of the good vs. evil narrative, that is to say, when you look at humanity for what it is, and not for what you think it should be, you must start to reveal the possibility that your own moral guidebook is every bit as much a socially constructed reality as one you completely disagree with. The trick of socially constructed realities is that they look very different from the inside than they do from the outside, like a house made of inward facing two-way mirrors. It takes very little effort to think about what's outside and shout and shake your fists like a grumpy pensioner. It's harder to be objective about your own views, or (to beat the tar out of the metaphor) to step outside and have a look back through the windows.
Alternative Title: This is the Abyss, folks! Come on in, the water's fine