THE BAN ON THINKING

I do philosophy. By philosophy, I mean thinking about the meaningfulness of the relationship of the things in this world. It is a very important thing to do, and we all do it to a greater or lesser extent. We all think about what it is that makes our lives meaningful. We all want to make the world a better place, and we all want to do the right thing. Granted we all have to provide for ourselves and our families, and we all want to enjoy our lives. Yet we are all very serious about wanting our lives to mean something. We pray. We read about various civic and political events. We consider politics, and we vote. In all of that, we are doing philosophy. We are thinking about the meaningfulness of our relation to the people and things of our world.

Lately, however, I have discerned a certain avoidance of, and even hostility to, that kind of thinking. Instead of honest discourse and give-and-take discussion, our conversations on the issues of the day have become shouting matches, or, likely much worse, complete silence. For instance, I was talking to a neighbor of mine who had made it clear that his view of things was decidedly right-wing. Another, like-minded neighbor, came along, and the first man said to the second, “Don’t talk politics with him. He is a liberal.” I probably laughed at the comment, but I cringe now thinking about it. That is, in fact, the case. We simply do not discuss the issues of the day with those we meet. We take our positions, however we arrive at them, and then we build walls around them to prevent any challenge.

This disease of the avoidance of thought seems to have become standard practice among our politicians. Recently, presumed presidential candidate Scott Walker took a trip to Israel. We have no information about that trip other than that he was there for a few days and apparently got a guided tour of Jerusalem. He returned from that trip and announced that, apparently as the result of his guided tour, he had developed an opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian problem. He was actually questioned about the problem, and he actually spoke about the problem, and someone actually wrote down what he was saying and published it in a newspaper. Where he got these opinions, I have no idea. However, I have been to Israel, and I have talked with many people at length about the problems facing Israel and the Palestinians. I think I am beginning to understand that complex and centuries-old struggle. The only one thing I am absolutely sure of is that a tour of Jerusalem is not sufficient to qualify me as an expert on the subject.

That, however, seems to be the state of things today. If you are a public official, you do not think about the subject at hand. In fact, you avoid thinking at all costs. Instead, you check with your party boss or your campaign director. You identify the party message. Then you sing that message at the top of your voice, and, if you speak at all about opposing views, you ridicule.

We are in trouble, big trouble. Our physical and political infrastructure is crumbling, and we are creating ever widening gaps in the various sectors of our country. Bigotry — racial, religious, political, financial — is becoming the order of the day. I put it all to a refusal to think, to a ban on thinking, to the mindless building of barricades against any sector of the country opposed to our own. We need to think. Most of all, we need to listen, really listen, and try to understand opposing views. If we do not think, if we do not listen, we will face the alternative. The opposite of thinking is not ignorance. The opposite of thinking is violence. We all deserve better than that.

THE ONE THING WORSE THAN IGNORANCE

     I recently had a conversation with a very bright and very observant man.  Let’s call him Brad.  Brad is, I suspect, of a considerably more conservative bent than I.  What that likely means is that Brad is more likely than I to believe that, where a task needs doing on behalf of the community, a private enterprise would probably do a better job of it than a bureaucracy.  So, as regards the implementation of  a national health program, Brad would likely favor having that program administered by a system of private enterprise rather than by a federal or state bureaucracy.

     Here, however, is the amazing thing.  Brad and I had a conversation about the subject.  We did not shout at each other.  We did not curse each other out.  We did not belittle each other or in any way mischaracterize each other’s views.  In other words, we had a real, honest-to-god conversation.  He spoke and I listened.  When he had finished, I asked questions and made observations.  We identified common goals, and we reasoned together about the viability of various means to achieve those common goals.  Brad is, besides being very bright and observant, also brutally honest.  It would be the grossest of understatements to say that he does not tolerate fools well.  He has, in addition, developed strong opinions, and he has developed those opinions based, not upon prejudice or political or religious fervor, but on solid information and sound reasoning.  Yet he and I had a conversation, and in that conversation we exchanged ideas.

     I say that is amazing, and I say that because the present political, and religious, atmosphere is such as to not simply avoid, but to absolutely forbid rational discourse.  What has replaced the rational exchange of ideas is the irrational, and even anti-rational, railings against positions that are straw men, dishonest mischaracterizations of the thoughts and proposals of those whom we oppose.  The left says the right wants to impoverish the middle class and deny them health care and education.  The right says the left wants to socialize wealth and hand over the management of our lives to the government.  The left are Communists.  The right are Fascists.  Blah, blah, blah.  And the problems get worse, and nothing gets done, and we all suffer the more for it.

     So let’s start over.  We do, or should have, the same goals, all of us Americans.  To be an American is to accept as unquestionably true that all humans are created equal, and each human is endowed by his or her Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  This we hold true, and if you do not, you are not an American.  Now, here comes the big ending, the major conclusion:  ALL THE REST IS A MEANS TO THESE ENDS.  The only thing left to discuss, once we admit these as our ends, is the best means to achieve that equality, that life, that liberty, that pursuit of happiness.  And the discussion of the best means to an end is, by its very nature, a RATIONAL discussion. 

     We are in need of a program of universal health care.  Point out to me the best means to achieve it.  Let us reason about it.  Let us not say it must be thrown out because a liberal put it in place rather than a conservative.  It makes no sense to endorse the Romney health plan in Massachusetts and oppose the Obama health plan for the nation; at least it makes no sense on the simple basis that it was Romney who did the one and Obama who did the other.

     We are creating a global problem in the environment, and we need to to identify and pursue the means to solve it.  If we do not, we will leave our children a planet that is verging on uninhabitable.  We need to discuss this honestly.

     The list goes on and on.  Jobs, highways, crime, drugs, etc.  Refusing to reason is actually a refusal to solve any problem, and in the end it is in fact a refusal to pursue those ends that define us as Americans.  Left and right alike are killing us.  Let us reason together.

Oh the Humanity

     On a recent PBS newshour, there was an interview of a representative of the conservative Heritage Foundation and a representative of an organization providing food to the poor.  The moderator was asking about a recent cut in food stamps.  The Heritage foundation rep confidently declared that it was really no big deal because it represented only a fraction of one percent of the assistance available to the poor.  The food bank rep stared in disbelief.  Poor families, she replied, would, because of this cut, be unable to feed their children for the better part of a week.  Millions of children, she said, would go hungry because of this cut.

     This exchange perfectly illustrates the disconnect in the arguments between right and left in the United States.  They are two trains passing in the night, neither one asking the same question, neither one answering the other’s concerns.  The food bank rep was addressing the question how we can, as we must, make sure that every American has enough food to eat.  The Heritage Foundation rep was asking the question how we resolve the issue of the government’s massive debt.

     It is very easy for me as a liberal to mock the Heritage Foundtion rep as a heartless beast (he was a big fat white male, which makes it even easier).  How, I might say, could one be so heartless to try to solve our debt on the backs of starving children while insisting on letting the rich continue to get richer?  It is just as easy, however, for a Heritage fan to mock the seeming humane generosity of the left by arguing that we cannot continue to spend money we don’t have because if we do then we will all end up starving.

     These are examples of what I call arational speech, that is, speech grounded not in reason but in rhetoric, propoganda.  We keep talking past each other, and our response to the speech of the other side, rather than reason, becomes argument from force.  That way lies the insanity of violence.  If you don’t believe it, look up the two-part history of the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile that was recently run on Turner Classic Movies. 

     The one thing that both sides seem to agree on is that we are headed for disaster.  The right says that disaster will lie in national bankruptcy.  The left says that disaster will lie in the destruction of the middles class and the impoverishment of the least advantaged among us.  Both are correct, but each for the wrong reason.  The real disaster lies in creating a rift between two factions in the United States that, as a matter of policy, refuse to address each other’s concerns in a rational fashion.  Why do they refuse?  Pick your own reason.  It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that, without rational discourse, the factions will have no other recourse than violence.  And we are far closer to that than anyone might think.