Against the Grain readers expressed varying views on the complexity of political and religious systems, saying that these multifaceted structures can not be condensed into a single philosophical understanding.
I couldn't agree more with your two essays about negative and positive liberty.
In my experience, many educated people are especially prone to the assumption that there is 'One Way', and if we understand it and apply it, everything bad will stop happening. I suppose I had exactly that drilled into my mind, both in my scientific and my more liberal education.
My experience teaches me that the opposite must be true. Actually practicing science has given me ample opportunity to learn the hard way that 'knowledge' is ephemeral, uncertain, and tentative. I am truly humbled at how rich and complex even the most 'simple' systems are. Physical science is far simpler than anything regarding human beings, because at least one can falsify ideas; nevertheless, it is quite easy to be misled into thinking that one understands what is going on. It is a very poor career choice for someone who cannot stand to be wrong.
Once one has the sobering realization that real understanding of even very simple things is won at great price, it can become almost impossible to believe in certainty where people are involved. Better to allow people to live, unimpeded as far as possible, and teach them to watch for signals to help them change course. It is scary to think that they might not, even in the face of disaster. Scarier to think that someone might take even that choice from them, though, and coerce them into some other disaster. It is better to be able to choose.
I call this belief (that there is a single system of ideas that explains it all) "Answerism," and it is a most dangerous ideology that infects religion, philosophy, and science alike.
Your recent column E Pluralism Unum was very interesting. I enjoy your insights and attempts to understand and explain our political process. However, I view your efforts as trying to see political behavior in some logical and explainable format of applied attitudes and beliefs as futile.
For me, I see our political process as a group of court jesters who simply try to make the masses happy. Some dance on the left foot, while others dance on the right foot. Based upon how the people react to the dance, tells our leaders which foot they should dance on. Thus, there is no logical explanation of politics. The American Public (for the most part) are unable to see that we no longer have leaders, but simply court jesters doing a dance for us, because all we want to see is the dance.
For instance, currently we are faced with rising gas prices. The public's response is to blame our (supposed) leaders and big oil. So what do our (supposed) leaders do? They pass a bill that will punish price gouging, and at the same time attempt to pass a foolish plan to give us all a rebate from big oil profits. But does it solve the problem short or long term? It does nothing but give us a dance. While at the same time the general American public continues to wail more for the dance as they pump endless amounts of fuel into 8 and 10 cylinder vehicles that get 10 to 14 miles to the gallon, and then drive to work alone.
Freedom and peace of mind comes by way of less politics and more accountability. When the American public chooses to become accountable for their actions and decisions, and holds leadership accountable only to manage necessary public infrastructure, then we can discuss theories such as your column mentioned as viable explanations of behavior and expectations. But until that time arrives, then the discussions and explanations become meaningless, because the public cannot grasp the fact that they are the ones who are truly in control.
I also in my early years picked rock and moved irrigation pipe. It does give one a great deal of time to reflect upon your core values. Possibly we could require our court jesters to participate, and maybe even learn something along the way.
I think that you confuse the idea of support for "negative freedom" the idea that people must believe there is more than "One Way." I submit that Christians believe that there is only "One Way." However, I suspect that Christians also provide the foundational support in the United States for "negative freedom."
You are correct about your statement that many "deeply religious people" believe that there is One Way. I personally am categorized by the secular world as a fundamentalist evangelical Christian. As such, I personally accept that there is only "One Way."
However, the Bible — and therefore God, in my view — clearly requires tolerance for the Other Ways. We are commanded to set an example and share God's Way. If something coercive or violent needs to be done, then God reserves any such action to Himself. For example, God forbids vengeance, stating that vengeance is His job not ours. Therefore, vengeful actions are an offense against God.
Yes, many Christians, in their zest, forget God's commands. But, it is the Christians' job to police our own. All in all, I think that we have done a pretty good job during the last couple of hundred years.
I contend that pluralism is possible in the US largely because Christians abide by God's command to tolerate rebellion agains God's Way. I think that Paul put it succinctly when he said that we must all "work out our own salvantion with fear and trembling." Consequently, Christian support for "negative freedom" ensures its continued existence as a core American value.
In closing, Christians believe in One Way, but they support the concept of negative freedom because that is part of Christianity's "One Way."
It has taken me a long time to fully accept that there are indeed people with whom I will disagree forever and that endless discussion will never find that 'common ground'. Fortunately, two of my very best friends and I disagree most decidedly on religion and politics. What is somewhat surprising is how little that matters to us. These friends are two people of uncommon integrity and decency. It seems that we get along so well because we don't get caught up in the idea of having to make the other over in our own image, and, we appreciate the other's strengths that we may find lacking in ourselves.
As to the contending liberties, I generally find myself first on one side and then on the other, with the greatest time spent on the positive liberties because at this moment in these United States, I find the negative liberties favor the wealthy and powerful too much. Should we continue to circumscribe the negative liberties, as the current administration seems bent on doing with its spying on U.S. citizens, I will reverse my position. Although it worries me at times about my consistency, I am able to live with more easily that staying on one side only.
It is my suspicion that in the ebb and flow of politics, we move too far in one direction, say negative liberty, and then need to move over toward positive liberty to maintain some teetering balance. I also suspect that which of the two sides we tend to favor is, to a significant degree, a function of our 'personalities'. Aside from the not too helpful explanation of 'personality' that it is a combination of nature and nurture, who knows whence comes our 'personality'. Some people just seem to forcefully gravitate to one position or the other as if it were a natural attraction... those whom you have labeled as 'knowing what is best for the rest of us'. Then there are those of us who favor one side a bit, but bounce between them as our perception of the situation evolves.
I believe that the greatest strength of the American experiment in democracy is this group in the middle, who can see merit in each position, who will move to correct excess in either direction. It is a tenuous balance that can tip too heavily in either direction with bad consequences.
Ultimately, one cannot avoid living on the edge, but most all of us seek, most of the time, ways to look away from uncertainties and comfort ourselves with 'Big Theories'. As I get older, I care less about 'Big Theories', and find Bart Simpson's selfishness at least has the virtue of being honest and straightforward.
There certainly are many days, and they are growing more frequent, when I take the 'it doesn't matter' attitude, knowing that my trying to make sense of it ain't spit in the wind.
My formulation: Every moth should be free to pick his own flame.
PS: Don't miss Lee Harris's essay on socialism over on Tech Central Station.
If you still want to send in an e-mail, you'll have to read a real column to find the address.