Monday, December 26, 2011

Environmental Vow 18: Radical Politics and Activism

Radical Politics and Activism

I suggested previously that there was a second motivating factor besides religious faith, namely patriotism.  As I pointed out, however, the calamities of the 20th century pretty much debased that coin in the minds of most thoughtful people.  It is possible to stretch the definition of “patriotism” to embrace more than just “king and country”, though.   What if people build their lives around support for some set of noble ideals, such as “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”?

 Over the last three hundred years or so millions have built their lives around this sort of thing.  Indeed, there are a great many people today who are involved in this form of politics that is specifically focused on environmental issues, namely small and large “g” greens.  Surely something like a form of “eco-patriotism” offers some sort of locus for changing people's behaviour in order to deal with the coming eco-catastrophe.  Unfortunately, I would argue that any sort of patriotism, not matter what its foundation, has found its coin just as debased as that of the old “king and country” type.  Moreover, any attempt to deal with this legacy have made it particularly vulnerable to the “do your own thing” poison that has damaged so many other elements of our society.

The first issue that people have to wrestle with is the impact that Marxism and Fascism have had on the popular imagination and how they still profoundly affect the thoughts of people who aspire to a radical form of environmental politics.  Radical politics was the primary guiding force for a great deal of social transformation during the 20th century. People find it hard to believe right now, but up until the Second World War, there were very active Communist parties throughout the Western world----even in the United States and Canada.  There were also various flavours of Nationalist, Fascist, Socialist parties with vast followings that had huge impact on the day-to-day life of many people.  Since the demise of the Fascist powers and the collapse of the Soviet Union, all this activity seems to be passe, if not down right incomprehensible.

The problem is that these grand experiments in using politics to reconfigure society all ended very badly.  Fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan, and Communism in Russia all culminated in dictatorships that either left their nations as occupied piles of rubble despised by the rest of the world, or couldn't even guarantee that their citizens would be able to find any soap when they went shopping.   All of them created police states and committed crimes against humanity.   These terrible past examples have created a “brand” so poisoned that anyone involved in any sort of radical or activist politics immediately risks being labeled a “Communist” or “Nazi”.

At first glance, this would strike most greens as being profoundly unfair.#  I would suggest, however, that there is a grain of truth to these accusations.  The point is that once one steps outside of “social convention” in politics, the unconscious popular sentiment is that we risk opening a Pandora’s box or stepping onto the slippery slope.  This is because what holds society together is the fact that the overwhelming majority of citizens hold onto pretty much the same worldview and honour a set of conventions about what issues are and are not “on the table”, and, what does or does not represent a “reasonable” demand for change.  Once one leaps over these unspoken boundaries to suggest, for example, things like an end to economic growth, the radical redistribution of wealth, or, mandatory birth control, this fragile consensus risks being shredded.

       Policy planks like these three, if they seriously have any hope of being implemented, would radicalize opposition to the point of violence between different factions of society.  At this point, political differences cease to be settled through stylized political activity (i.e. voting) and instead get worked out with guns.  That is politics the way the Nazis and Bolsheviks did it.  So while it is unfair to call the pacifist Green candidate a “Nazi” or “Communist”, the “kook” heckler does actually have something of a legitimate point.   If political goals become radical for large numbers of people, the citizenry will become polarized, and if taken far enough,  it is inevitable that the means of politics will become violent.

The popular imagination understands this on some sort of inarticulate level, which is why most people have a horror of radical solutions.   Instead, most ordinary folks want to see change that comes in incremental or evolutionary steps instead of being through radical or revolutionary programs.  This inclination flows from two springs.  First, there is the idea that “revolutions devour their own children”.  That is to say, that once society gets turned upside down the social forces that sweep away the old order sooner or later get turned on the revolutionaries themselves.  The examples of the terror of the French revolution and the purge of the old revolutionaries from the Soviet Union and China come to mind.  Secondly, there is a feeling that when the revolutions devour their children, the people who end up on top seem to be the same sorts of people who were in power before.  The cliche for this process comes from the 1960’s rock band the Who, who coined the phrase “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”.   Absolutist monarchs in France, Russia and China all ended up being replaced by absolutist dictators, namely Napoleon, Stalin and Mao.  Ordinary folks might have some sympathy of the ideals espoused by radical activists, but they generally have grave suspicions about what would happen if these particular people ever got any real power.

A lot of people who are attracted to one type of green politics or another will find my position hard to accept.  But I think, however, that if they really work at trying to understand what politics really is, they will find the above assertions make a great deal of sense because one situation follows from the other almost like a geometric deduction.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Fear, or, Entitlement?

I try not to follow politics all that much, but there's been a lot of weird stuff happening in politics land lately, and it can't help but get me thinking.  For one thing, there's been a lot of strange stuff coming down the pipeline about gay bullying at schools.  There's been a rash of teenage suicides by gay teens at Ontario schools, so a lot of authority figures have been making "It gets better" videos for YouTube.  Here's one from the Premier of Ontario.

This is actually more than just a platitude.  The Premier is passing new rules that force all Ontario schools to agree to support "gay straight alliance" groups if students want to start them up.  This has many religious people up in arms, because they say that it infringes on their rights.

Liberals have been tap-dancing around this issue, but the overwhelming fact of the matter is that this really does infringe on people's religious rights.  If you look at a lot of religious groups, they do teach that we should hate gays and lesbians.  Indeed, there are individual quotes in the Bible that suggest we should kill them.

 "If a man lies with a male as with a women, both of them shall be put to death for their abominable deed; they have forfeited their lives."  (Leviticus 20:13 NAB)

Of course, it also says in the same place that we should kill anyone who hits or curses their father, commits adultery, atheists, people who believe in other religions, etc.  But the main thing is that the current, oral tradition of very large religious congregations teaches that we should ostracize, bully and abuse homosexuals and lesbians.

Is it any wonder that naive children act on these teachings of the church?

The question is, therefore, whether or not politicians should be going after church teachings and outlawing the ones that are causing real suffering to children?

This is not a straight forward question.  Enlightened politicians, like the Premier, have an obligation to avoid letting the baser elements of society whip the public into a frenzy of hate.   It isn't enough to be right, it's important to do the most you can to avoid harm.   This means that when a politico is faced by an evil, manipulative scumbag that just might be able to mobilize the public if they throw around enough lies, falsehoods and innuendos,

they should be willing to consider bending a little in order to avoid a greater catastrophe.

The problem is, however, that if we pander too much to the religious bigots in order to deflate their attempts to mobilize the public, we run the risk of letting said bigots win half a loaf through just threatening to go for the whole one.   And that in turn, raises the issue of whether the forces of darkness can eventually take over by forcing one compromise after another compromise out of the other side.

There are a lot issues raised by this 'cultural warfare', but two come to my mind which I think are both very important and very rarely raised.

The first one is the way liberals almost invariably let the bigots wrap themselves in the mantle of "morality".  I personally don't think that it is moral to preach hatred and intolerance towards people because of their sexual orientation.  I don't think hatred of any form is moral.  I also think that it is very important to understand people who are different, even if we do not approve.  I also believe that if people who are intolerant did try to understand the people that they don't approve of, they might find that their intolerance is totally unjustified.  It may not be true that "to know all is to forgive all", but I do believe that "to know all is to forgive a great more than you would have before".

Not only do I think that intolerance is immoral, I also think that will-full ignorance is too.  Indeed, I think that there is a great deal of will-full ignorance in our society.  People who refuse to really look into important issues---such as global warming---and instead simply believe what is tremendously convenient to their worldview are being will-fully ignorant.

I understand that traditional religion doesn't consider hatred, intolerance or will-full ignorance as being immoral.  But I think that if people of good will pushed ordinary folks on the issue, we'd find a great many citizens do think of them that way.  The problem is, that most liberals are so committed to the language of moral relativism that they refuse to use this, the strongest weapon in their arsenal.

The second issue that comes to mind in this debate is the way bigoted people seem to be manifesting some sort of outrage against their loss of a certain type of privilege.   The problem is that if you were a white, middle-class, heterosexual, Christian, male, you used to be "on top of the heap".   This meant that you were the last laid off, the first hired, people laughed at your jokes even if they weren't funny, and you could force other people to adhere to a code of behaviour that you believed in even if it made no sense to them.  Now things are a lot more egalitarian.  And you know what?  A lot of people don't particularly want there to be prayer in school because they are either atheist or non-Christians.  People like Perry (or the Republican primary voters he is trying to suck up to in the above advertisement) don't like losing this privilege.  Most of them are too insensitive to understand that there are people out their that don't want prayer in schools or discrimination against gays, others just don't care because they are right and those other people are wrong.

I think we need to understand how tremendously awful the world must seem to these people.    Younger people often forget this stuff, but at the advanced age of 52, I can remember when blacks were still getting routinely lynched in the American South for being "uppity", the police in Toronto were still arresting gays for being "found ins" at bath houses, my sister was flat out told that she couldn't enroll in a horticultural schools "because they don't allow women to take any of the courses", abortion was illegal,  etc.  For the older, tea-party types that are so important to the Republican and Conservative parties, it must seem like the world has been taken over by Martians.

Understanding where these people are coming from is not the same thing as accepting their behaviour, though.  We simply cannot allow these people to damage our society the way that they have been doing. What needs to be done, therefore, is the creation of a public discussion that changes the "terms of discussion" so they no longer get to wrap themselves in the mantle of "morality".   People need to stand up to these folks and use their own language.

The above Youtube parody is a step in the right direction.  Unfortunately, it can easily be dismissed as being "sacrilegious" by anyone who refuses to listen to what the actor is really saying.  I do think, though, that people like Rick Perry and his supporters need to be "carpet bombed" by people who tell them that they don't think that picking one specific quote from the Old Testament then using it to preach hatred and discrimination really fits in with the over-all message of Christ as expressed in the New Testament.