Monday, March 19, 2012

Sacred vs Satan: the Manichean view of politics in U.S.

By Jonathan Haidt, New York Times, March 17, 2012
Jonathan Haidt is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and a visiting professor of business ethics at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business. Parts of this essay were excerpted from “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” which was just released
If you follow the sacredness, you can understand some of the weirdness of the last few months in politics. In January, the Obama administration announced that religiously affiliated hospitals and other institutions must offer health plans that provide free contraception to their members. It’s one thing for the government to insist that people have a right to buy a product that their employer abhors. But it’s a rather direct act of sacrilege (for many Christians) for the government to force religious institutions to pay for that product. The outraged reaction galvanized the Christian right and gave a lift to Rick Santorum’s campaign.

Around this time, bills were making their way through state legislatures requiring that women undergo a medically unnecessary ultrasound before they can have an abortion. It’s one thing for a state government to make abortions harder to get (as with a waiting period). But it’s a rather direct act of sacrilege (for nearly all liberals as well as libertarians) for a state to force a doctor to insert a probe into a woman’s vagina. The outraged reaction galvanized the secular left and gave a lift to President Obama.
This is why we’ve seen the sudden re-emergence of the older culture war — the one between the religious right and the secular left that raged for so many years before the financial crisis and the rise of the Tea Party. When sacred objects are threatened, we can expect a ferocious tribal response. The right perceives a “war on Christianity” and gears up for a holy war. The left perceives a “war on women” and gears up for, well, a holy war.
The timing could hardly be worse. America faces multiple threats and challenges, many of which will require each side to accept a “grand bargain” that imposes, at the very least, painful compromises on core economic values. But when your opponent is the devil, bargaining and compromise are themselves forms of sacrilege.
Thanks to Professor Haidt for his highlighting of the sacred, and the tribal in political persuasions.
There is another problem from this vantage, to the reality of American politics, if this view is correct.
And that is that Manicheanism, whereby there are two options, and only two options, one of which is the devil and the other of which is "holy" is certainly no way to "run a railroad" as the saying goes.
Talk about dumbing down the multiple issues and their multiple nuanced possibilities, in terms of how legislation might be written! When the whole "gestalt" comes down to a human definition of what is holy, and what is thereby evil, we have little more than another religious war, by another name.
The capitalist advertising dogma of never demonizing your business opponent has given way to a far more sinister depiction of the problem, for the purpose of generating a form of propaganda that would make the former Soviet Communists smile in derision, compared to the sacralazing of democracy committed by the Americans.
This Haist analysis does certainly hold some insight for those struggling to comprehend the many strange bedfellows, but finding and assassinating some mythical "devil" or "Satan", in the form of either a specific person, or an idea, or a piece of legislation, or a trend based on an incomplete presentation of data will not result in healthy choices, simply because of its reduction to the absurd.
Pre-pubescent adolescents do this every day, in their bullying, and in their demonizing of at least one of their teachers, and/or their principals, and certainly their law enforcement officers.
If democracy as practiced by the country that sees itself as the  "beacon on the hill" that achieved that status by making government the "devil" is the model of the most enlightened form of government in the world, surely we can expect multiple problems implementing such a scheme in countries where the culture has not been completely sold out to capitalism.
Are we not watching a religious war, under the guise of a democratic election?
Is the U.S. not in danger of becoming so intelectually and morally rigid and frozen as to be in danger of falling victim to a form of political "theology" in which fundamentalisms reign?
And when fundamentalism reigns, what is left of the complexities, when they have been relegated to the trash heap? A once sophisticated body politic is being reduced to its cartoon the same people whose education attempted to paint a very different picture of the need for insight, intellect, compromise and healthy judgement.
Is it the insulting of the electorate that we can blame on this reductionism, by those ambitious enough to throw open their private lives to the microscope of a rapacious media, starved for the most scurrilous details that paint these political candidates as charicatures of human beings...all in the name of the pursuit of power?
If this is leadership, and we expect the next president to emerge from this cauldron of boiling epithets, and then turn the leadership of the western world over to the victor, then how can we expect that leadership to be helpful and nuanced and balanced?

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