Monday, November 01, 2004
jon stewart glossed these points, as zakaria notes -- but the problem is much more profound than talking heads, who are but a manifestation of a deeper pathology.
any human society is a balance struck between social cohesion and individual freedom. people in our society, since the beginning of the modern era, have become increasingly ideological as we moved away from medieval collectivism and individualism has become the unchallenged bedrock of our viewpoint. adherence to the collective order of our civilization (social cohesion) has been disfavored for the pursuits of ideas (individualism). the new, once considered dangerous, is now prized.
that progression in priority -- from cohesion to individual, from tradition to idea -- has been the story of modernity. but it is a story that has run its course, the pendulum of the balance having swung to the apex of uninhibited individuality. ideas unrepressed have branched and multiplied well beyond any one person's understanding to the point where contradiction is common. this is the definition of decadence; the progression that had defined our civilization has led to self-contradiction and an impasse.
this is most easily seen in the current political vernacular as socialism vs libertarianism -- two opposing political conceptions sprung from the same notion of emancipation from personal responsibility, but following different lines of thought to loggerheads which cannot be resolved. modernity is now filled with such standoffs between what are closely-related ideologies, often absurd in their ultimate implications.
despite our philosophies of individualism, we cannot escape our biology. people are still herding animals that seek justification in group identity. ideas that particularly capture a facet of the current state of mind inevitably draw a crowd. furthermore, conflict is inherently interesting to people; most choose sides easily.
when ideologies are opposed but genealogically similar, the differences that do exist -- however small -- are maximized by all involved. the period following the french revolution illustrates this, with political groups like the jacobins and the girondists bitterly fighting for popularity despite so much common ground. this has taken the form in american politics, as zakaria notes, of democrats vs republicans -- whose philosophies are nearly interchangeable, especially in practice. each reforms their view quickly and frequently to include as many as possible, leading directly to a competition over a diminishingly small undecided few. this has set the sides against each other evenly.
when sides are evenly set, and any small loss is a disaster, zeal become important. in american politics, adherents are growing more zealous and partisan by the year -- despite the increasing overlap in their professions.
so it has happened that the opposing political parties have become defined more by their opposition than the differential in their ideas. the question is one of resolution, then: if this is transient, what is to come of it? the terror, as came of the jacobins?
I think that there are differences between the camps and that they are not genealogically so similar. Please consider the debate on health care. In one camp, Bushites, you have support for the current regimen which is totally out of control. This camp would exacerbate the disparity between rich and poor in their ability to buy health care (read insurance) and increase the already sinful profits of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries. The other camp, Kerryites, there is at least a committment for providing health care for all. As a pediatrician, I support having a uniform program, analagous to Medicare, for children. There are a million reasons for this that I could go into but for the sake of the discussion will not. All I am trying to say is that, from my angle, I think the idealologies are different.
Of course, there is the old adage about why the fights in the Halls of Acadame are so brutal. The reason is that the stakes are so small. Does the reverse hold true? If it is a brutal fight does this make the stakes small?
I report, you decide.
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