Outside the Asylum
As I mentioned last week, it's easy to occupy the mainstream. This is particularly true when it comes to communities of belief. Whether you're talking about religion, politics, or even some variety of fandom, a conventional view provides the benefits of occupying a well-mapped area, with GPS to help if you ever risk getting lost. You know where you are. You know what you're expected to do, and where you're expected to go. Most importantly, perhaps, you know where to find like-minded people.
For instance, when I was an Episcopalian, I knew what that meant. The structure of beliefs was laid out for me every Sunday, most succinctly in the Nicene Creed. I knew what I was supposed to believe, what I was supposed to do, which principles I was supposed to uphold, which rules I should follow. I knew where to go and how to find like-minded people. I even had a weekly and seasonal practice mapped out for me by the institution. And here's the crucial thing: I didn't need to think about any of it. (Many of us did, of course, but if we'd chosen not to, it would not have interfered with our Anglicanism at all).
When I became a pagan, I left that well-mapped territory, particularly since the more structured, institutional forms of paganism didn't appeal to me. Rather than navigating a well-mapped landscape with GPS-enabled device in hand, I was moving through unknown territory with a personal compass and some field notes made by previous explorers.
Usually, this is a rewarding if difficult way to live. When it comes to politics, the rewards of living thus have declined over the years as authoritarianism, and indeed totalitarianism, has increased. My essay last week was about how high the costs of being outside the mainstream can be--even when you're talking about a fairly mundane, moderate life, and not talking about the NSA, CIA, or JSOC knocking on your door. Indeed, there are few rewards for venturing outside the asylum, aside from the pleasure of refusing, as often as you can, to be manipulated--at least within the bounds of your own skull.
― William Shakespeare, Hamlet
One must look deeper than gratification--or at least, must consider a form of gratification more subtle than that provided by rewards--to discover why anyone would choose, under these historical circumstances, to go their own way. Under the current circumstances, being truthful, even to oneself, provides much more punishment than reward.
What I suspect we're looking at, when we consider those who walk outside the asylum, is a remnant of a community of belief. It's an ill-defined community, because these beliefs used to span the whole culture. When truth and its cousins (accuracy, logic, and evidence) were less costly to embrace, it was simply assumed, almost culture-wide, that of course the truth was preferable to lies, that fact was preferable to error, and that unfounded opinion was less compelling than a logical argument backed by evidence. There were pockets of resistance to these beliefs, mostly in places where loyalty and faith were considered more important than truth (certain religious communities and the military come to mind). These beliefs were also tactical annoyances to those who lie for pay. Considering who has been influential in steering the ship of state, and the culture generally, for the past 35 years, I guess it's not surprising that these beliefs no longer enjoy the popularity they once did. Neither is it surprising that they have been replaced with a politics, and a morality, whose primary currency is the character attack.
For those of you who don't know who has been steering the ship for the past 35 years, check out this article by the late, great Robert Parry:
But because rationalist beliefs used to exist culture-wide, the proponents of those beliefs were not understood as a community. In fact, the beliefs themselves were not understood as beliefs, but rather as just the way things were. When those beliefs were torn down, their endemic nature paradoxically made it more difficult to see the destruction that was happening. The destruction of rationalism in American culture was not as obvious or palpable as the anti-feminist backlash of the same years, for instance. Like air pollution, the destruction of something that permeates your environment can remain invisible for a long time. Like global warming, of which it is a contributing cause, the destruction of reason-based ethics and politics continued mostly unnoticed by the masses. Those who did notice were already being targeted for character assassination.
The end of rational politics includes habituating people's minds to several fallacies. These fallacies become fundamental to how people think, replacing the old principles of accuracy, logic, and reason. One of the least noticed of these fallacies that has become especially prominent is the concept of a laundry list of issues. There are many fallacies associated with this concept, but I'd like to start with the notion of the list itself.
I'd wager this notion came originally from polls, because polls are where such lists are most often displayed. You've all seen them; they look something like this:
Some specific war
The usual custom is to ask people to rate, or weight, these issues against one another. This gesture makes a number of assumptions, many of them bad, but I'd like to focus on one: the policies have no fundamental difference, one from the other, except the relative number of people who invest attention in them. In other words, abortion is equivalent to the economy is equivalent to the deficit is equivalent to health care; the only thing that differentiates them is how many people care.
This may seem sensible until you start putting items like nuclear war or global warming on the list (or, excuse me, climate change; no mainstream poll worth its salt would ever say the words global warming). Then the fallacy reveals itself. Global warming and nuclear war are not "issues" in the sense that abortion is an issue or the federal budget deficit is an issue. The assumption of the list is that we are all of us looking at a restaurant menu and deciding which dishes are best. That assumption falls apart when one or more of the items on the menu has the capacity to blow the restaurant to rubble or poison all the customers.
Should I order sushi or cyanide?
said no one ever.
Something that can bring down human civilization, wipe out 80% of the species on the planet, and kill 6 1/2 billion people cannot reasonably be placed on a list with the question of whether or not a woman in the U.S. should be able to terminate a pregnancy, whether minimum wage should be $5 or $15, or whether the government should further cut its spending on everything but the military. Making this point is dangerous; it usually leads to accusations of bigotry, privilege, and selfish indifference to suffering. The person making the point must be a selfish bigot who doesn't care if a woman dies in a botched back-alley abortion. They must be a terrible racist who doesn't care if black men get abused every day by the state and racist vigilantes. It's as if the woman denied a legal abortion won't starve when the biosphere collapses along with everyone else, or as if the black man being harassed won't die of radiation poisoning if a nuclear bomb drops on his city.
But you cannot treat a threat to the existence of human life on the planet as one in a list of issues. Global warming and nuclear war are the sorts of "issues" that end all issues. We won't have to worry anymore about the budget deficit, abortion, racism, or any of a hundred things when the planet has changed into a place that can only support 1/2 billion people or when most of us have died in a nuclear apocalypse.
These are the sorts of issues that entirely change your politics--if you let them.
Blessings on those of you who have stuck with me thus far. Tune in next week for how these issues changed my politics.