Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Cheryl Mendelson on the Politics of Crazy and Mean

In a powerful, probing analysis of why crazy and mean commonly go hand in hand in politics, Cheryl Mendelson points out that morality (or conscience) and rationality are inherently linked: let go of rationality, and one is also letting go of morality.  This is the case because making sound moral judgments requires us to look carefully at the facts, such as they're available to us, and to weigh these as we try to arrive at a conscientious moral judgment which balances moral norms along with all the sound information we can find that has bearing on the case about which we want to make a conscientious judgment.

And vice versa: without solid moral foundations, we're inclined to fudge the facts, to distort them, to read them to our own advantage.  As Mendelson notes, without a moral center, we tend to let id and self-interest overrule rationality.  It's easy, then, to fall back on superstition, to yield our autonomy as moral agents to some group (often one with a religious tag) which promises to do our moral thinking for us by commanding us to do this, that, or the other.

It's also tempting, when id and self-interest dominate our rationality and weaken our moral center, to look around for some hapless, subjugated other on whom to vent our rage about the fact that the world seems beyond our control.  In Mendelson's formulation, "offloading" feelings of rage or of our own worthlessness onto denigrated others gives us a comforting sense of our own superiority.  Irrationality, the cavalier denial of facts, easily gives way to cruelty.

And so where does this leave us politically, us Americans, as the 2012 elections approach?  Mendelson writes,

This tie between irrationality and moral wrong has become the central fact of contemporary American politics. Yet for 40 years the political faction in which this tie is most obvious has touted itself as the party of "morality." We have a burgeoning radical right that is both the unreasonable party and, despite its moral pretensions, the party of cruelty, greed and dishonesty. This isn't to say that conservatism is immoral and liberalism isn't. Both conservatism and liberalism are built on moral insights of one kind or another, and no one rational can fail to see that moral flaws like greed and dishonesty exist all along the political spectrum. The problem is that on the right, irrationality and opposition to moral values are not merely personal flaws. They are policy.

And then there's this:

To preserve its image as the party of virtue, the right defends a smug pseudomorality, detached from any real sense of guilt or obligation or compassion and aiming first at control and punishment of others rather than, as with true conscience, self-judgment and self-control. So rightists inveigh against homosexuality and gay marriage, deny any moral difference between live human tissue and real human lives, and sentimentalize that doing so protects families. This false moral fervor lets them deceive themselves and others about their own greed and crookedness. The worse they are in reality, the more rabidly they defends these fake, self-serving "convictions." In the end, they conclude that they are so good, and their enemies so evil, that they must be in power at all costs, even if this means undermining rational government and fair elections. And rather than lose a campaign debate about reality with some pointy-headed, high-IQ economist or geologist or climatologist, they choose instead simply to abandon truth and reality altogether. Instead, they opt to undermine the voters' understanding -- manipulating their rage, inflating their prejudices, and feeding them misinformation. 

One of the primary points I take from Mendelson's valuable analysis: it's possible for a group of citizens to imagine themselves as so right, so God-ordained in their crusade to subjugate others to their peculiar notions of right and wrong, that that group of citizens can willingly and gleefully drive an entire nation over a moral cliff.   All the while insisting that they're serving moral values as they fragment bonds of social solidarity and erode rationality throughout a whole nation.

Giving serious grief to the entire planet in the process, when the nation in whose driver's seat this group of citizens sits is a powerful, dominant one . . . . And when this happens (cf. Nazi Germany), it's entirely possible for the most powerful religious leaders of the nation in question not merely to stand by in the silence of tacit complicity.  

It's also possible for a nation's powerful religious leaders to bless those who are driving a nation off a moral cliff.

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