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The politics of humility
I would like to suggest that the fundamental driving problem in American politics is that America no longer values humility.


Conservatives are looking for the solution to this problem in religion, which after all views pride as a sin, and therefore values humility as a virtue. But in an America that does not value humility, the "pride is a sin" version of religion is hard to sell.  Everyone knows that social skills, charisma, and a touch of arrogance, rather than humility, are what you need to get ahead.  Therefore, American conservatives mix religion with a "wealth is virtue" ethos which waters down the value of religion.  Liberals are (rightly) disgusted by this, but perhaps conservatives see this as a compromise that has to be made in order to get people to like religion at all.

Liberals, on the other hand, are proud of being smart enough to recognize that "intelligent design" is nonsense.  They make up fables about the "flying spaghetti monster" to prove how stupid conservatives are.  Liberals want to solve the humility problem by redistributing income so that everyone is actually equal.  Trouble is, income inequality has been increasing from 1970 to the present.  It has been getting worse and worse.  So people perceive liberals as being hypocrites,  Liberals talk big, but don't do enough.  When they do try to do enough, they are labeled "socialists."  Perhaps people hear liberals saying "We want to transfer money to the poor," and interpret this as paternalistic and insulting.  Liberals are "talking down to" the poor.  If you are getting welfare until your income is equal with that of a doctor, but you lose your dignity in the process, then you are really no better off than when you started.  This is especially true when liberals make a huge deal about evolution, and how stupid conservatives are for not believing it.  When people complain about the "liberal elite", this is what they are concerned about.

I suggest this is what drives the tea party's intransigence over the deficit issues, i.e. there is something they value more than America's financial success.  When liberals tell them that "smarter people than you, like Paul Krugman, know that you are wrong," this obviously infuriates them even more.  This is a dangerous state of affairs.  If people don't believe in evolution, but they are wrong, then there is not really any harm done -- at least not in comparison with the other big science issue, namely global warming.  If people disbelieve in global warming just because liberal elites are too superior, then there will be real consequences to the whole world.

What is causing this humility deficit?  I don't know.  Part of it may be that we have been unsuccessful at making different social groups get along.  There is distrust between whites and blacks, between theists and atheists, between rich and poor.  When America splinters, charisma becomes valued over humility, because charisma is what's needed to reach out to people who don't trust you.  This leads to a decrease in social capital.  (I have heard of a book called "Bowling Alone" about this, but have not read it.  From glancing at an online summary, I am guessing he believes that the welfare state is not a solution to the problem, and will not make people trust one another even if it remedies income inequality.  He does believe that religion could be a solution, as long as it's tolerant of other religions.)

What do you think?
When someone called 'Sanguine' writes about humility he deserves a better answer than I'm about to give.  I promise more at a later date.  For now, this one sentence grabs me and won't let go:  '...we have been unsuccessful at making different [people] get along.'

Just a slip of the keyboard, I know, but in my world, that "making people do incredibly complicated, nuanced stuff" model has rarely turned out well.

I need to think more, then write.  But you've put Bon Iver and his anthem to failed love in my head and I'd like to return the favor.

And I told you to be patient
And I told you to be fine
And I told you to be balanced
And I told you to be kind
And in the morning I'll be with you
But it will be a different kind
'Cuz I'll be holding all the tickets
And you'll be owning all the fines


Who will love you?
Who will fight?
Who will fall far behind?




In response to Iľja Rakoš
Yes -- you've made me realize that my language contains the same condescension I am arguing against.  "We" have been unsuccessful at making different social groups get along.  Who is this "we"?  "We" the liberal elites who are charged with keeping social order?  The illuminati?  The masons?  The secret masters of the universe?  People will get along when they feel it is time to do so, and not because someone else wants them to do it, or provides them with some supposedly airtight rational argument that they should get along.  (Even my eagerness to censor my own language is characteristically liberal.  Now I am going in circles.  To quote Monty Python's unfortunate Knight: "I said "it"!  I said "it" again!  I said "it" again!"  Perhaps explaining why people find this scene to be so funny.)

I like this post: How religions become fundamentalist.  It is more articulate about the way in which "logocentrism" justifies contempt for religion.  For instance:
"Creation science became a hot-button item for the fundamentalist movement only after William Jennings Bryan’s defeat in court by Clarence Darrow was ridiculed by the journalist and essayist H. L Mencken, who wrote in an obituary for Bryan that he “lived too long, and descended too deeply into the mud, to be taken seriously hereafter by fully literate men, even of the kind who write school-books.” In the face of such humiliating condescension, groups tend to close ranks around tenets and practices that define them as different from the outside world."

Still, my stereotype is that people in, say, Finland or Austria which have better social safety nets, are more comfortable getting along with each other than in the U.S. (Of the two, Austria also has a reasonable amount of religious participation.)  They are "made to get along" in the sense that some laws have imposed a progressive tax code which reduces income inequality.  Then again, Austria apparently has its own far-right politics inspired by fears about the European Union (which brings a homogenous society in contact with a heterogeneous Europe) and about immigration.  So I still think inequality, in a broad sense, may be a driving factor, and not all types of inequality can be legislated away.  "We" (whoever "we" might be) have given voting rights to women and blacks, desegregated schools, and (for a short time in the 1940's or so) raised the top bracket income tax to 90%.  But somehow the progressive movement splintered and ran out of steam, perhaps starting from the time it gave up on religion.

I don't know all that much about European politics -- maybe someone who knows more will have ideas.
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Latest Post: September 18, 2011 at 2:59 PM
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