Category Archives: Politics

Ingredients of political evil

  1. The incapacity to reason from any perspective but my own is ideological narrowness.
  2. The need to explain the complexity of life by reducing them to simple concepts is intellectual stuntedness.
  3. To undermine beliefs, judgments, feelings or actions of others using theories which I do not accept when used to cast doubt on my own beliefs, judgments, feelings or actions is intellectual hypocrisy.
  4. To judge others by different standards than those by which I judge myself is moral hypocrisy.
  5. Indifference to pain except that which I and my kind feel is empathy failure.
  6. The desire to make myself feel better by making another person feel worse is sadism.
  7. To listen only to those who agree with me, and to revile anyone who disagrees with me is tribalism.
  8. To attribute concealed malevolent motives to others despite their claims to believe and intend the opposite is paranoia.
  9. To see myself as exceptional, endowed with exceptional abilities, and entitled to exceptional treatment is hubris.
  10. To believe my own faith is ultimate and that there is nothing I can learn from my enemies is spiritual blindness.

These are all the ingredients of political evil I can think of.

My cultural assimilation

When I entered the work world, I had to abandon many of the cultural habits I’d acquired as a youth growing up weird in rural and semi-urban South Carolina.

Many of us in my social circle had developed a sort of subversive irony and had woven it into our personal styles, manners and subcultural customs. In everything we did and said, we signaled “I only work here.” If we were made to put on a suit and act straight, we wanted our act to be unconvincing: “This not me.”

We saw everyone who tried to assimilate and achieve as sell-out phonies, and any adoption of any externally imposed etiquette or shared efforts was beneath our dignity. We were proud to not belong.

After years of professional cultural assimilation, looking back I realize most of this worldview was just a punk-mutated form of standard working class attitudes — devices used to insulate and protect an individual’s dignity from the degradation of low-paying, low-autonomy jobs. My own family history straddles classes, and I believe a got a pretty strong dose of working class attitude as a kid, enough that I found well-adjusted, classier kids uninteresting and unfit for friendship.

Basically, in becoming professional, first through incredibly awkward attempts at code-switching, then later through genuine internalization I learned a couple of really important things I never could have learned without undergoing this incredibly uncomfortable, occasionally depressing, ordeal.

1) We cannot thrive in institutions we secretly despise. If we withhold ourselves, preserve our alienation, participate with reluctance and wear our membership like a mask, instead of figuring out some mode where we can be who we really are within the necessary constraints of social existence, our withholding is palpable to peers and leaders. If you are half-in and half-out, whether you know it or not, everyone around you feels it and knows it with immediate, intuitive certainty. And committed members of an organization will not — and should not — give you responsibility they know you will not own.

2) There is profound wisdom in professionalism. What seems like arbitrary etiquette that only signals in-group from out-group is in fact an organic social technology that permits members of organizations to function effectively and gracefully as collaborators, while protecting everyone from potentially conflicting personal idiosyncrasies. We suppress at work whatever is not needed to get the job done, not because it is essentially unacceptable and unworthy, but because it is sacred, unique and vulnerable and requiring the protection of privacy. Those things we keep to ourselves at work — or at least, in wiser times, used to keep to ourselves — politics, religion, controversial opinions — are the very things that might conflict, cause friction and drive unnecessary wedges between people who need to get along and work together.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be at least somewhat initiated into the professional world. If I’d chosen a counter-cultural life outside of business I may have clung to my romantic ideal of proud and principled alienation from the superficialities of professional life.

I am even more grateful I was not indoctrinated to believe that my childhood culture determined my essential identity  and defined who I am and who I must forever commit to being, lest I become a sell-out phony and a betrayer of my culture.

If I had been taught this, and learned to believe it with all my heart, I would have been left on the margins, locked out by my own refusal just to open the door and walk in. This would have been a disservice, a miseducation — a passing down of a self-defeating tradition.

We are not who we are because of culture, nor are we who we are despite culture. We discover who we are by collaborating with culture, experimenting with who we can be, and maturing into well-socialized but authentic individuals.

Nouveau puissant

If you are truly marginalized, you are used to being misunderstood, disregarded and misrepresented by people around you. You feel vulnerable and anxious about what might be done to you. You seek allies wherever you can find them to help and protect you. You learn to understand alien perspectives, so you can make effective appeals and influence the actions of other — or at least anticipate what they might do next so you can defend yourself.

Marginalized people are forced by necessity to develop insight and empathy. This is the consolation prize of marginalized existence, and its one real advantage. This is the source of the belief that powerless people know things powerful people cannot imagine.

When I meet a person who calls themselves marginalized, but who is overcome with imperious fury if someone seems to understand them with insufficient nuance — who is willing and able (or at least feels able) to punish anyone who dares treat them with less than perfect conformity to their expectations, without any apparent fear of reprisal — whose theories about their enemies are used only only to condemn and insult them, not to illuminate their logic or make sense of their behaviors — these people do not seem marginalized to me. They show no evidence of real insight or empathy — only a presumption of omniscience. Maybe they were taught things or read books by marginal people, but they themselves seem to have missed the real point of the lessons and absorbed nothing but the vices of marginalization: resentment and intellectual arrogance.

They are like nouveau riche, who play out the grotesque image of what poor people think rich people are like.

The nouveau puissant play out the evil, tyrannical image of what powerless people think powerful people are like.

They think it is now their turn to be what, in fact, only existed in their own imaginations.

Fact and opinion

Where do you draw the line between news and editorial?

The exact placement and sharpness of the line is debatable. This, however, does not make the distinction meaningless. Editorial argues a conclusion, and data is selected to support that conclusion. News attempts (with varying success) to present all relevant data regardless of what conclusion it might support or undermine.

Most of us learned long ago to scoff at claims of actual achieved neutral objectivity. We should not scoff at the intention to attempt it, though. After all, what is an ideal but an attempt to approach something unachieved and perhaps finally unachievable, but which points us toward something we believe is better? Facts are the product of such an effort, and their quality is a matter of how successfully they avoid being deployed to support any single argument. Opinions are the beliefs we argue, and their quality is a matter of how well they deploy facts to persuade others to reach a desired conclusion.

So basically, I am proposing that the difference between fact and opinion is one of intent, not of the truth of the content or how well supported it is.

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I would argue that the line dividing fact and opinion should also govern what is and is not taught in public schools. This is the line that separates education and indoctrination.

If I were a parent with young children I would be livid if I discovered that their school had officially adopted a political position and were intentionally indoctrinating my children to share their political opinions.

If the leaders of that school were to argue that their political opinions were not simply their own views, but were objectively true and good, I would be doubly alarmed because this indicates a degree of naivety and political immaturity that should disqualify a person from leadership of any organization.

If the leaders of the school argue that all education is intrinsically political, and all they are doing is foregrounding the political content, I would argue that whatever political content they are foregrounding should be a matter of public deliberation.

A belief that one is permitted to use whatever authority one has (or rather, has been temporarily granted) to advance one’s own political opinions indicates contempt for liberal democratic process.

If we were to subject the political content our children are being taught to public scrutiny, I am confident the outcome would be what it always is when things are done out in the open with full transparency: we will agree to teach pluralism and honor the right of individuals to reach their own conclusions. We would return to teaching what the vast majority of us accept, our best attempts at fact.

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I want to return to something I hinted at earlier. A lot of today’s political extremism is being driven by two naive notions.

1) Any ideal goal that has not yet been fully actualized (such as MLK’S dream) has been discredited and ought to be discarded.

2) If a line between one extreme and another (such as fact and opinion) cannot be clearly and sharply drawn, there is no real difference between these extremes and that no attempt should be made to observe any difference at all.

Most people I know who run around using these two notions have never really questioned them. Someone taught it to them as fact, it made sense to them, and it allowed them to go by their feelings instead of having to think things through or to consider the validity of other people’s beliefs. Education should teach people to question, challenge and resist such naivities, not train children to believe them unquestioningly.

“The personal is political”

1) “The personal is political”is a political belief, not a fact.

2) If I believe you hold this belief, you will not be welcome in my personal life.

Martin Buber’s distinction between the social and the interhuman remains centrally important to me. Personal friendship is a function of transcending the social and entering interhuman relationship  A person who politicizes everything does the opposite. They force the rules of social interaction into situations where, if they were transcended, if it were safe to transcend them, encounters with unique personhood could reveal novel, creative and transcendent possibilities.

Politicizing the personal destroys the possibility of this ever happening. This is why ideologues are so aggressive about such encroachment of the political into all things.

Ideologies are closed conceptual systems, hostile to whatever stands outside their horizons. They interpret the anxiety of what is outside their thought as evidence of malicious intent and impending harm, which they are permitted to meet with actual malice and aggression. This can happen anywhere, but is especially likely wherever social rules are not enforced, and so ideologues will find arguments for why more and more of the interpersonal should be subject to political regulation.

So people who politicize the personal are generally very constrained and timid but also aggressive people who are just not very interesting or rewarding to talk with. Nothing will come of it but sterile arguments. But also, ideologues are not trustworthy. Their first priority is defending their ideological convictions, and such people are often willing to destroy other people’s lives to do so.

I don’t like feeling bored or paranoid, so I keep ideologues as far away from me as possible.

Ritual design and privacy

The New York Times published an article last week “The Office Is Adrift. Divinity Consultants Are Here to Save It.”

There have been times in my life when I might have been friendlier toward the ideas in this article, but I’ve grown not only wary, but hostile to this kind of blurring of lines separating the personal and the private. The following is a slightly edited email I wrote to a friend this morning, who also reacted negatively to the article, for her own reasons.

Here is what is bothering me most about this article: The last thing any of us needs right now is compulsory religious practice handed down from on high by any ruling authority — private, public or (increasingly) both.

Another thing that bothers me for more personal reasons is encapsulated in this line: ‘Some of the rituals I grew up with in Protestantism really have emotional utility.” To which I commented in my notes: “Unitarianism in a fucking nutshell.” I grew up in a compulsory, artificial religion made up by folks who saw religion as serving utilitarian social and emotional purposes, and who saw traditional religious practices as crude, but salvageable social tools that could be put to better use by more evolved, rational, modern intellectuals.

Another line also leaped out at me: “‘We’ve seen brands enter the political space,’ said Casper ter Kuile, a co-founder of Sacred Design Lab. Citing a Vice report, he added: ‘The next white space in advertising and brands is spirituality.’”

This entry of brands into politics translates directly into the entry of political ideology into the workplace, which I view as a direct threat to the private realm of individuality. Suddenly your employer has a legit business case for meddling with your personal worldview, your private judgments, your utopian hopes, your faith. Suddenly, outward behaviors — etiquette and professionalism — are not enough. You must adopt certain sociological theories, attitudes toward spirituality, feelings about other people, because these innermost secrets do subtly affect other people, not only in what you do (motivated reasoning, biased judgments, microaggressions), but even worse, in what you do not do (silence is violence!) and these little actions and nonactions add up to grand-scale oppression. Therefore, we are entitled to rummage around in your personal convictions looking for evidence of thought crimes, because we take seriously our obligation to take part in creating a more just society. Besides (according to our own political view) everything is unavoidably political — we are just making our politics more explicit and intentional, which means abandoning pretensions of “neutrality.”

What can be said of politics can also be said of religious faith: everything is unavoidably a matter of religious faith. What we hold sacred and make central to who we are shapes what we think, how we feel, how we interact, what we are motivated to do. Our collective values have everything to do with the quality of our work lives, and so they are a valid concern of any enlightened employer. And therefore rituals that affirm these values are a reasonable thing to require from employees.

But even if those rituals are not compulsory, they create performative belonging and not-belonging. Back when I was a youth, the UUs created a little ritual where the children would leave the adult service to go to R.E. (Religious Education) and they would playfully skip out to this jaunty and saccharine children’s ditty on the piano. I resented being pushed into this ritual performance of what these assholes thought childlikeness was. The kids would produce childlikeness, and the adults would laugh, and rejoice and contemplate how they would like to recover their own childlikeness. I’d wait for it to end, then angrily sneak out, with renewed alienation. Years later, among Orthodox Christians, I was the one who never crossed himself, who never asked priests for blessings, who at Easter never said “indeed he is risen!’ In response to “Christ is risen!”, though, on occasion my agnosticism moved me to answer “perhaps he has risen.”

These actions put me outside of these groups, to them and to myself. And that is one of the functions of rituals, to exteriorize faith in visible behaviors. It is a physical way of confirming shared conviction, which is why *religious* communities do them.

And this points to why only religious communities should do them. We enter a religious community and gather with them precisely because we share a common faith and are happy to see others who share that faith with us. Synagogues, churches, temples are spaces set aside for gathering to affirm, share and cultivate faith in various ways. And those present who do not share the faith will feel with utmost tangibility the issue of belonging or not belonging.

Rituals remove that shelter of reticence which softens and downplays inner difference in situations where people of diverse faith must collaborate and accomplish things together. Instead of rituals of inner faith we do rituals of etiquette, where we demonstrate outer respect, willingness to set aside, suppress or even conceal inner differences in order to take up common goals and to collaborate effectively and harmoniously as possible. It is true, this does mean we must disguise ourselves in certain situations, that we will sometimes feel phony or compromised, or that many of the most important aspects of ourselves must remain un-expressed in work settings.

But if we are alert and reflective and work actively and intentionally to develop more mature understandings of personhood and social existence, something weird happens to us. We grow to develop an intense loyalty to these “soulless”, “formal” institutions that observe boundaries between public, social and private realms and preserve each with thoughtful tradeoffs. The etiquette rituals become almost matters of inner faith — the acknowledgement that not baring our souls to each other all the time permits us to develop as unique persons.

This ties into some thinking I’ve been doing on Richard Rorty’s idea of the public and private realm. I think there’s a third realm between the two, that we should call the social realm, where we come together as members of groups and interact in rule-governed ways but outside the scope of law.

The controversy of our time is where the boundaries should be drawn between these three domains. Which changes ought to be political, and are matters of legislation and legal penalty? Which are social, and are matters of etiquette and interpersonal penalty? And which matters are private, and should be protected from politics and society?

Ideological xenophobia

Short version:

If xenophobia is fear of strangers, it pays for us to ask where in our lives other people seem strangest and most alien.

In the past, it was geographical and cultural otherness that unnerved us most and aroused our hostility.

But in this globalized age, we find people from other cultures — at least the cosmopolitan representatives of other cultures we tend to interact with — to be anything but strange.  To us, they seem like one of us. Cultural differences don’t bother us like they used to.

So where do we feel distance now? Where do we feel the most foreignness? Where do we most fear the unfamiliar?

I would argue the distance between worldviews is now the hardest to traverse.

And I would argue that the very forces that have made it easy to stand on the other side of the Earth make it difficult to understand a worldview antithetical to our own.

Consequently, our sharpest sense of otherness and greatest temptation to start othering people who differ from us is now aimed at worldview.

Let’s call this fear and hostility to people with other worldviews ideological xenophobia.

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Long version:

Merriam-Webster defines xenophobia as “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign.”

Normally, strange and foreign applies to different geographies and cultures. These strangers were not like us, because they were from remote places with unfamiliar manners.

But today, in a global economy, where in urban centers cosmopolitanism prevails, where geographical distance is closed with telepresence and affordable high-speed travel, perhaps otherness is no longer geographical. We are used to cutting through superficial cultural differences, different speech patterns, different appearances, so that they no longer seem strange to us — as long as we are assured that they share a similar worldview.

It is a peculiarity of our time that it is actually easier for a person to cross oceans and stand on the other side of the Earth from our own native land than it is for us to learn to think from a perspective opposite of our own. It is now philosophical distance that is hardest to traverse, that creates the most unnerving communication barriers, and which makes people feel strange and threatening.

In this age, we must be vigilant toward new forms of xenophobia — the fear of people who are strange to us because they do not share our worldview.

This vigilance means listening out for the kinds of things traditional xenophobes said about people from other countries, but applied to other beliefs. “I just don’t trust people like that.” “Their beliefs are primitive.” “They are irrational.” “I can’t put my finger on what it is, exactly, but that person just seems weird.” “They threaten my beliefs and ideals.” “They need to either adopt our ways, or shut up, or go away, or face being forcibly pushed out.”

Fighting ideological xenophobia, of course, does entail automatically adopting, or celebrating or even tolerating every difference we find in everyone who ideologically differs from us. It only means not automatically rejecting it or condemning it differs from how we see things. Just as we learned that we had to push aside the discomfort of unfamiliarity and suspicion of other cultures so we could  understand them properly from the inside, the same is the case with other worldviews. If we take their strangeness or apparent threateningness at face value we will never understand them or be able to connect with them.

Traditional and ideological xenophobia share a single origin. It is the result insularity — of knowing only one way to live, think and feel, of being told one’s own way is the best and only good way, and being taught that other ways are worse and less correct. We’ve been on our guard against xenophobia in the forms that have plagued humanity in the past, but we have failed to catch the fact that one particular style of fighting xenophobia can become narrow, brittle and superficial, and can produce its own strange form of xenophobia, which sees as xenophobic any ideological Other who wishes to overcome xenophobia in other ways — deeper ways.

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I think I might start defining ideologies as “xenophobic worldviews”. I’m using xenophobic, in the deeper (fear of stranger) sense of the word, of course.

Feeling, interpretation and reality

I showed this clip of Henry Thomas’s audition for E.T. to Susan yesterday. She says she hadn’t stopped thinking about it since, because it has raised important questions for her: Isn’t it strange and even disturbing that someone can have that much emotion about something that is purely imaginary? This raises further questions: How much of what we feel is directly caused by reality? How much comes from how we interpret reality? How much of it is a response to our own imaginations?

For Susan, this clip is a dramatic case study for exploring some basic questions important to both educators and religious people connected with cultivating ways of thinking, perceiving and acting in the world.

When she shared her reflections with me, my mind took it in a social-political direction: What does it mean to understand another person’s experiences? What elements in accounts of experiences can be reasonably debated? What norms ought to govern conversations about other people’s experiences and what they imply about truth and morality?

Some actual real-life examples:

  • Someone has a religious experience and undergoes a conversion. They see, hear and feel things that they know are real which suggest new truths to them that they consider indubitable and universal. How ought they relate their new truths to someone like myself, who has not experienced what they have? How should I respond to their truth claims, and the assertion that the claims are relevant to and in fact binding to me?
  • Someone is situated differently in society than I am, and has been from birth. They have been treated differently, learned (and absorbed) different beliefs about themselves, must behave differently to get along, and consequently have developed a very different worldview than mine — one that (according to this worldview) makes me unable to understand how they think and feel, implicates me as responsible for the state of society that has produced and continues to produce their situation. And further, the convergence of the essential unknowability of this alien worldview, my complicity in their suffering and my obligation to sacrifice to remedy this state of affairs produces a defensive reaction from people with my worldview. How should I address these claims? How do I respond to the claim that (according to this worldview) there is really only one acceptable response?
  • After a lengthy, arduous and painful struggle with a set of questions, I have a philosophical epiphany and undergo a conversion experience. Only personal struggle with the line of thought I followed will induce the conversion, and until the conversion is undergone, the conversion is impossible to understand at all. I feel isolated in this new worldview (it is like spiritual solitary confinement), and desperately need others in my life to understand it, but to do so requires inordinate amounts of time, energy and suffering. In this situation, what is reasonable to ask from loved ones, especially when they are unable to understand my distress?

 

My friend who shared this video with me got barraged  out of the blue with thoughts yesterday, as these questions coalesced in my head. We had debated the understandability of marginal perspectives, and the morality of listening versus arguing, and trusting versus challenging, and for me this video became a great reference point for the conversation. Here’s the spew, slightly cleaned up:

I can’t believe they were taking E.T. away from Henry Thomas!

Those emotions he was having were real.

And that means the thing he was having emotions about is also real, otherwise we are telling him that his emotions are not real and valid, right?

The only way I can know the truth about the reality he is having emotions about is to talk with him and let him explain it to me. Because i am not the one having those emotions, I have to listen to him about it and believe what he tells me. It is not my place to argue against experiences I don’t know.

Right?

That’s the logic of Progressivism.

There is a confusion between:

  1. the subjective experience (including the emotions),
  2. the interpretation that produces the subjective experience of the emotions, and
  3. the reality that is interpreted and becomes object of the subjective experience.

Progressivism blends these three things into a single unknowability that requires us to listen to the one and to believe what they tell us about a reality they are experiencing, about which they and have special and exclusive knowledge.

Not that there is not special and exclusive knowledge involved in the account. I cannot really know or dispute #1. There I must take someone’s word for it.

But I can, through active listening, come to understand #2. With effort and feedback, I can pick up their way of interpreting their experiences and apply it to make sense of phenomena (this is known as intellectual empathy), even if I cannot have exactly the same subjective experience they have. Further, I can compare this way of interpreting phenomena with alternative interpretations of the same phenomenon, and note the different implications and see where different emotions might occur. While interpretations are not really debatable, they are open to a gentle  form of challenge that far too few people know about: dialogue. I call it gentle because it requires voluntary mutual effort to achieve. (There’s another grisly alternative to interpretive change, which I will only mention but not discuss. Brainwashing can replace one interpretation with another.)

And #3 is entirely public and open to dispute, apart from all emotions. Claims about reality are about things we have in common. The fact that they are perceived, interpreted, experienced and produce knowledge through subjective experience (#1) does not make the reality itself subjective. The reality remains transcendent and open to a plurality of interpretations and subjective responses. It is here where debate is appropriate.

Only if we take it for granted that feelings and objects of feelings are inseparable can we conclude with progressivists that it is impossible to understand the experiences of other people. Only the feelings they have about those experiences are unknowable in principle.

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Many Progressivist who are parents harm their children irreparably though this same confusion. When their children throw tantrums, they fail to pick apart the validity of their emotions from their mode of interpretation and its fidelity to fact. Because the emotions must be honored, so does the childish worldview and the current understanding or misunderstanding of the state of affairs. This prevents children from growing up and learning to separate these three ontological layers, which is a condition of civilized adulthood. Or to put it in old-fashioned language, they spoil their children and make them into confused narcissistic permanent adolescents.

Private totalitarianism

Two of the more novel features of my “ambiliberal” political diagram:

  1. According to this framework, left versus right is a matter of egalitarianism versus hierarchy. Those hierarchies can take any number of different forms depending on the principle of rank. Traditionally, right-wing movements have followed traditional form, such as aristocracy, theocracy or plutocracy. But according to this framework, we should also be alert to newer forms of rank, including technocracy, the rule of experts, which is easily confused with leftism — especially when expertly administered fairness is its primary legitimacy claim .
  2. The nation state is only one kind of concentration of power. Any sufficiently cohesive group, for instance a class, can also rule through other means besides law. For instance economic and cultural levers can be used to control a population as effectively as laws and courts — even outside of constitutionally protected areas. In fact, the reach of coordinated private power can legally violate the Bill of Rights. This affords a private hegemon far more extensive and invasive reach, less oversight and fewer limitations.

If you consider these two possibilities together, it seems not only possible but likely that the next kind of totalitarianism we see could be a private totalitarianism.

 

Man, I really hate Fundamentalism

Religion (when it is real religion) helps form an active, mutual relationship between a person and the infinite reality in whom each person participates as a unique, divine spark.

Fundamentalism (which is misunderstood as extreme religion, but which is failure of religion) severs relationship with infinite reality and replaces in with beliefs. The entirety of Fundamentalism’s metaphysics — “god”, types of people, categories, moral judgment — takes place inside the skull of the “believer”. Its heaven is imagined and the god who riles over this imagined kingdom is the believer. I call this misapotheosis: stupid confusion of oneself with God and confusion of Creation with the paltry product of one’s own creative imagination.

Fundamentalism places all emphasis of the factual content of its belief, so it sees no connection between itself and other denominations of Fundamentalism. What could be more opposite, Christianism and Progressivism? But each approaches belief the same way and approaches non-believers the same way. The faith is identical, and the differing content is a superficial difference.

Recovering “Christian” Fundamentalists are especially vulnerable to Progressivism. Fundamentalists rarely are able to recover real religious life. They wander through life god-gutted and empty, able only to stop the Fundamentalist habits, but unable to re-conceive religious life in order to live it. Then something like Progressivist Fundamentalism comes along and the sheer familiarity of it is seductive. Fundamentalism kicks back into motion with new omniscient fervor.

New drug, old habit.

I will say it again: the distance between Fundamentalisms is paper-thin. The distance between Fundamentalism (and its always-oppressive political agendas) and authentic religion (and its liberal agenda — yes liberal religion is the purest form!) is vast.

Meditation on the ten-thousand everythings

….it was said that one god, Hermes Trismegistus, had dictated a variously estimited number of books (42, according to Clement of Alexandria; 20,000, according to Iamblichus; 36,525, according to the priests of Thoth, who is also Hermes), on whose pages all things were written. [Anomalogue: From what I’ve read, Hermes Trismegistus was not a god; the god Hermes is a different being.] Fragments of that illusory library, compiled or forged since the third century, form the so-called Hermetica. In one part of the Asclepius, which was also attributed to Trismegistus, the twelfth-century French theologian, Alain de Lille — Alanus de Insulis — discovered this formula which future generations would not forget: “God is an intelligible sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” — Borges, “Pascal’s Sphere”

The universe is made entirely of absolutely unique particles, each constituting the very center of the universe. Only from the vantage point of one of these myriad centers can any of the other myriad particles be understood as identical to any of the others.

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“The ten-thousand things” of the Tao Te Ching are also ten-thousand everythings.

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Myriad is a quantitative quality; it means uncountably many. Ten-thousand was traditionally used to represent myriad, but computers have rendered ten-thousand too puny, so now we say zillions or gazillions.

We should not confuse myriad with infinity. Infinity challenges reality at the definitional — de-finition — level, the category level, which alone makes quantity possible. Only a particular viewpoint can render unique things identical.

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Some spiritual people view Liberalism, the coalition of the unique, as shallow and dry, but this has more to do with the prejudices of conventional spirituality than with the depth or richness of Liberalism itself.

The deepest things are cloaked by myopia. Only looking deeply can reveal depth.

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Horseshoe Overton Window

Normally the Overton Window defines a range of discourse between left and right that is considered acceptable. When things get so extreme, however, that we start experiencing the Horseshoe effect, the Overton Window functions differently. Suddenly the Overton Window defines completely disconnected extreme forms of discourse, and the radical disconnect becomes normal whichever socially acceptable extreme you embrace. Liberalism moves outside of the frame, and is viewed on both sides as stupid cooperation with the other extreme. On the contrary: the extremes are in stupid cooperation with one another, serving as justification of extremism

 

Enworldments

I move around in a world of enworldments.

When I meet a person, their enworldment is what I am trying to intuit. When an artifact — object, environment, artwork, anything — attracts my attention, it is because it implies an enworldment with a person at its center.

At times I’ve wanted to call a particular enworldment an instance of “everything”. Applying the pragmatic maxim, roughly “the meaning of a belief is everything that follows from believing it”, an enworldment is the particular totality implied when a particular person says “everything”. Some people might prefer some related words: worldview, lifeworld, totality, philosophy, or, simply, world. I like enworldment because, for me, it implies an attempted embracing and gathering toward a creating/discovering instaurating center.

Some enworldments include within it an awareness and concern for the existence of fellow enworldments. An enworldment of this kind can be called pluralist.

Some pluralist enworldments hold pluralism itself as a supreme value, and wish to respect, cultivate and protect a plurality of pluralistic enworldments, as the very locus of value in the world. This kind of pluralism can be called liberalism.

Some liberal enworldments believe that even the most liberal, most pluralist enworldments contain partial incompatibilities and conflicts, and that entering these conflicts with fellow liberals is not only unavoidable, but valuable. This kind of liberalism can be called agonistic.

However, liberalism of even the most agonistic kind cannot be indiscriminately open to every enworldment. It cannot enter into and grasp from within every enworldment that presents itself, because some enworldments are explicitly opposed on principle to liberalism. Some others claim to be liberal, but function illiberally. While it is not necessary or even good  to reject an illiberal enworldment wholesale, it is necessary to isolate and reject illiberal elements within it. Unfortunately, challenging its illiberal elements threatens the enworldment as a whole, and will provoke its defense systems, which are themselves aggressively illiberal. Countermeasures progress from avoidance, to emotional, to social, to material and finally bodily tactics for protecting the illiberal ideology from what it correctly views as an existential threat.

But it is important to remember that the line between liberal and illiberal is not sharply or clearly drawn, and each liberal must use his own judgment to determine which enworldments to respect or even accept as collaborative partners, which to ignore, which to actively oppose as adversaries, and which to go to war with as true mortal enemies of liberalism. These boundaries are some of the most contentious controversies among agonistic adversaries. The cost of drawing them too hastily and too intolerantly is succumbing to illiberalism.  It is tempting to refuse to draw any lines at all, or automatically draw them as broadly as possible, and, in effect, to default to a tolerant acceptance of all views as valid, but this is a mistake. The risk cannot be avoided.

Liberal enworldments can flourish together; illiberal ones will dominate and suppress all others, liberal and illiberal, alike, often in the name of peace — a peace of utter dominance.

Coalition of the unique

God lives in the uniqueness buried in the center of every soul.

God is precisely what is not identical — yet, this very uniqueness is what we most have in common.

The connection between our unique centers gives life value.

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This center-to-center intimacy alone nourishes us. Without it, we starve. Like starving people, we lose our appetites, and eventually nourishment itself becomes life-threatening. If all we are is identity and our relationships are with instances of identity, we can never feel fulfillment, only an engorged emptiment.

The Buddhists describe hungry ghosts as having have tiny throats and huge hollow bellies they cannot fill. Hungry ghosts are identical.

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Liberalism is the coalition of the unique.

We are the ones who value the unique, and want to protect and cultivate uniqueness in ourselves and in every other person.

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Liberalism is politics of protecting each and everyone one of us from politics and its imposition of  unwanted, unchosen identities.

We might have to join together temporarily to oppose the imposition of identities upon us, but in the process we must take care not to lose our uniqueness.

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

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The ideal liberal wants to overcome identifications as soon as possible, and to invite out the strange and surprising being hidden inside the stranger. This is not done through “good listening” where we sit in receptive silence while the other talks. It is done through a collaborative act of conversation, through which uniqueness meets uniqueness, and creates uniqueness.

My best voice

I believe I’m finding my best voice for this time. I have to say something, and I have to say it the right way.

A sample of this new voice, which I sent a friend of mine, explains why I need to speak up.

Who-respect vs what-respect

Respect is a universal need.

Everyone wants and needs respect.

We need self-respect, and we need respect from others. Many of us are too proudly individualistic to admit it that we need respect from others, but we absolutely need to be respected. Let’s stop pretending otherwise. It’s bad for everyone.

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Some people have learned to view everything and everyone in terms of power, and this is unfortunate.

Seeing the world through the lens of power invites comparisons, confrontations, competitiveness, defensiveness. A powerful person threatens the power of another.

Respect is different. A respected, respectful person is no threat to anyone. A respectful person gives respect, wins respect and makes respect increase everywhere respect is exchanged.

People with healthy self-respect who are deeply respected by people around them are rarely ruthless power-seekers. But power-seekers often do disrespectful things to gain an advantage or defend a vulnerability, and are more often resented or feared rather than respected.

We are better off understanding each other as respect-seeking beings.

Seeing the world through the lens of respect-seeking makes us more respectful and more respectable.

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The best kind of respect is who-respect: the respect for who we are as a person.

If we feel that we cannot be respected for who we are, we will seek what-respect: a respect for what category of person we think we are.

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What-respect, however, cannot substitute for who-respect.

What-respect can alleviate social starvation, but not much more than that.

When our self-respect is mostly what-respect, and whatever respect we get from others is mostly what-respect, we cannot be satisfied with ourselves, with anyone we know or with the world. A diet of too much what-respect and too little who-respect leaves a soul irritable, anxious and resentful.

What-respect is empty calories for the soul.

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The only thing worse than what-respect is what-disrespect, a withholding of all respect on the basis of what someone is said to be.

Sadly, what-disrespect functions like an appetite suppressant. If you are starving for respect and lose all hope that you will ever get it — or worse, if you have never experienced who-respect and are blind even to its possibility — disrespecting others can dull the pain and replace it with a hot rush of ecstasy. There is no nourishment in it, but at least you aren’t the only one starving, and it doesn’t feel nearly as bad.

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Respect means caring what another person is seeing when they look back at you. Etymologically, it means back-look. When I look at you, I don’t only care what I see, I also care what you see looking back.

Respect is an empathic disposition to try to understand not only how you feel, or what you think, but also for why you think and feel what you do. It does not mean I have to uncritically accept everything you say. Respect is exchanged, and that means we must expect to have our thoughts and feelings respected. For some people an argument is one of the best opportunities to show respect.

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When we meet someone for the first time, we start a delicate respect process.

No matter how much we regret the fact, a new person arrives packaged in whats. Some people try desperately to shut out these whats and whatever implications they carry for us. Many of us think this is the point where we battle our racism. We try to force ourselves to think all the right things and produce all the right gestures and we get all tight and tangled and calculated like an over-scripted politician. This is forced what-respect, and it interferes with the real goal: letting this new person be who they are. That won’t happen when you are too terrified to let them know who you are, because what you are trying to be is a good what. Just give up on the what, and ask questions until you can calm down enough to be who you are.

Even the kindest what-respect obstructs who-respect.

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For heaven’s sake, don’t attempt to mirror the contempt you imagine this what you are attempting to think and do all the right things for. Seeking affirmation by producing what-disrespect is no way to exchange who-respect with another person.

And if this other person you are trying to know does seem to require you to what-disrespect yourself as a condition for approval, you are in a difficult situation. It is likely they are addicted to what-respect and what-disrespect and might know nothing else.

A moral genius might know how to summon up enough self-respecting humanity to overcome the dynamic. More of us will fuck it all up by giving them the self-denigration or self-abasement we think they want, or attempt to defend our own honor by confronting and insulting them, or if we are wise we get out of that situation and avoid further contact with them.

Nobody should ever demand anyone to compromise their self-respect.

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There is lots more to say, but this hits the main points.

I’ve been looking for a better way to represent why I care so much about liberalism, and why I believe it must not continue to be confused with selfish individualism.

When I cast liberalism as about producing optimal conditions for who-respect I feel that I am getting very close to why it matters to me.

We can argue over what those conditions are. But before I will even have that argument with anyone, I first have to know they share my commitment to liberalism.

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I don’t think I have said this even close to perfectly.

I am asking my best-spoken and most socially smart friends to rewrite whatever parts they think they can improve. If this turns out well, I might have to make a book.

Ezra Klein’s evolution

I’m not sure what happened to Ezra Klein between his infamous 2018 spat with Sam Harris and the publication of his book this year, but it seems to be a move in the right direction.

During his debate with Harris — especially toward the end as mutual frustration heated it up — he continually accused Harris of a form of false consciousness. Harris kept insisting that his political ideals were essentially left-liberal, not protecting the interests of the categories to which Klein assigned him, namely white, male, cis, heterosexual.

“All politics,” Klein asserted, “are identity politics.”

Which is true, but only if you will permit those identities to be dynamic and creatively shaped by the process of politics itself, not pre-existing, fixed and determinist, controlling the political process in ways only those in the know can fathom.

And the latter was the position Klein took in the debate. For those who subscribe to Klein’s identitarian worldview, it looked like Klein was simply repeating, with admirable patience, and just the right amount of combativeness, what social psychology has taught us about how politics really works, versus how it appears to work.

But for those who take the former position — that participants in politics form group identities that they themselves collaboratively instaurate — what Klein was doing was infuriatingly hubristic and unreflective. Klein was essentially saying that he knew what Harris’s real identity was, because he, Klein, possessed expertise on which identities are real and effective and which are delusions that conceal the political actor’s true motivations. This expertise authorized Klein to take an asymmetrical position in the debate and tell Harris objectively why Harris was making the arguments he was making, where Harris was speaking from such naivety that every claim Harris made could be diagnosed rather than addressed substantially.

In other words, Klein was imputing motives to his opponent. And he was doing so, on the basis of belief that his expertise afforded him privileged access to objectivity. These two moves are anathema to liberal-democratic dialogue. It is a technocratic form of illiberalism, and it exemplifies what has turned half of our nation against all claims to expertise.

This display of technocratic, classist arrogance ended my admiration for Klein. I couldn’t even hear his voice without bristling.

However, since Klein has started promoting Why We’re Polarized, I’ve been hearing him not only include political identity in his schema of legit identities, but considering them to be among the most important.

This makes me wonder if he would debate Harris differently today, especially if Harris were to do what he should have at the time: insist that his primary identity is liberal-democratic. And that his liberal-democratic identity is being attacked when members of other political groups scoff at his ideals and dismiss them as a vehicle for his true racist, sexist, etc. identity interests. It is a double-attack, because it is denying the very existence of his identity in a manner that violates the principles of liberal-democracy.

I think I would feel better about Ezra Klein if he would explicitly acknowledge that he has changed his position to allow identity based on political ideals, and admit that this is a departure from the position he took when he debated Harris.

And I would re-enlist as a fan if he would add to this that when he did these things he was doing so, not as an objective egalitarian, but as an impassioned member of a very powerful political identity, whose power was acting on him unconsciously and made him feel entitled to dictate what is true and good to a member of a socially inferior political identity.