“It's time to get real, America.”

Science, medicine and engineering have become "reality-based". It's one thing to assert that the world is made of atoms, as Democritus guessed, but quite another to prove it and use it. Human civilization has met that challenge, but extending "reality" to cover religion and politics has proven elusive. The advent of printing and mass media seemed to hold hope for a Copernican Revolution in political matters, but mass media has some key flaws. It's one-way, it's not interactive, and it is far too susceptible to control, manipulation and distortion. This generation, however, has the unique privilege of access to better technology: the internet.

One of the most popular uses for internet (side from displaying pornography) is political discourse. Ever since the internet was thrown open to anything other than strictly military or scientific communications, there have been attempts to discuss politics. Unfortunately, the discussions allowed by early internet technology, such as flame wars on Usenet or in AOL chat rooms, had only a very narrow, sado-masochistic audience. With the development of of the World Wide Web, however, and tools for posting on it, a new form emerged: the web log or “blog”.

Anyone with access to a computer could present to the public a journal or diary. This required no bulletin board operator or moderator. Bloggers could assert authorship, write anonymously or in the voice of a fictional character. Comments and replies, the bane of bulletin boards, could be promoted, prohibited, or separated from the main journal. On the other hand, the underlying hypertext technology allowed bloggers to provide links to other authors or sources of information. These features created a potential (not always realized) for more interesting and thoughtful political discussion, or more entertaining comedy, than the earlier forms of internet communication. They also gave the blog advantages over more traditional mass media. Blogs are more timely than newspapers, and do not need to appeal to the wide audience required to support broadcast radio and television.

Authorship, linkage and audience focus allow for the formation of “communities” of blogs, clustered around narrower interests. A political blogger can identify himself as liberal or conservative, and link to others with similar views. While some blogs may purport to be nonpartisan, this is not a formula for popularity in this medium. Traditional journalism satisfies whatever demand exists for “objectivity”. Moreover, faith in the purported objectivity of mass media has been eroded by commercial broadcast networks, which are always biased in some degree towards their corporate owners and sponsors, and in some cases, display a flagrant right-wing bias, despite advertising themselves as “fair and balanced”.

Participants in the community of “left wing” political bloggers in the United States, sometimes called “the left blogosphere”, include journalists and pundits from traditional mass media, professors and experts of various kinds, as well as persons who claim no credentials whatsoever, other than their ability to manage an interesting blog, such as Markos Moulitsas, a/k/a “kos” of the Daily Kos, and Duncan Black, a/k/a “atrios” of Eschaton, just to name two.

Liberal v. reality-based

While most of the participants in the “left blogosphere” do not hesitate to identify themselves as “liberal” or “progressive”, these labels are increasingly meaningless. The “left” side of the political spectrum tends to change over times to reflect the most significant confrontations of the time: republican v. monarchist, socialist v. fascist, liberal v. conservative. These days, though, it seems “liberals” have become the real conservatives.

American “liberals” of previous generations advocated more “liberty”. The ACLU fought for freedom of speech in the face of government repression and propaganda, labor unions fought for freedom of association to engage in collective bargaining, the civil rights movement fought for freedom to participate in political and economic processes without race discrimination. None of these battles are over by any stretch of the imagination, but they seem to have moved on to a new phase. “Liberals” still seek to preserve, enhance and make substantive and real the liberties won by prior generations, but the political consensus and the law of the land seem to have arrived at compromises on “liberty” which very few people want to disturb.

The debate over “gay marriage” epitomizes this trend. Very few people advocate criminalizing sodomy, and those people have been overruled by the Supreme Court of the United States (which, despite right-wing rhetoric about “activist judges”, seldom takes positions far from a broad political consensus). At the time the Court declared sodomy laws unconstitutional, they were rarely enforced. Generally speaking, most Americans recognize that consenting adults should be free to engage in any kind of sexual activity they chose, absent some element of abuse or exploitation. They may consider some conduct distasteful or immoral, and they may be able to muster a majority in the legislature to express those judgments, but enthusiasm for police interference or “vice” laws is at a low ebb. When homosexuals seek to be recognized as citizens on par with heterosexuals, however, a large segment of the population rebels. Homosexuals are “free” in the sense that they are no longer criminals, but the substance of that freedom, the ability to exercise it without unjust social consequences, remains beyond their grasp. Thus, “liberals” are no longer fighting for “liberty” for homosexuals, but for dignity and respect. Similarly, racism and sexism are legally and socially unacceptable, but still exist, as any prolonged exposure to the right-wing sector of the blogosphere will reveal. Freedom of speech is a cherished traditional American value, as even so-called conservatives on the Supreme Court will affirm, but legislatures keep giving them opportunities to do so.

Thus, the so-called “liberals” seem to be fighting a rear-guard action to preserve existing freedoms, rather than demanding “progress” of any sort. Serious liberals, liberals who want to win elections and political battles, are not calling for any “new” liberties.

In fact, the people calling for sweeping changes in the legal regime of the United States are not the liberals, but the so-called “conservatives”. The right-wingers propose amendments to the Constitution banning abortion, flag-burning or “gay marriage”, or to allow government-enforced mandatory prayer in schools. The right-wingers want to withdraw from the United Nations and abrogate the Geneva Convention. The right-wingers want to grant dictatorial powers to the President to abrogate the Bill of Rights and wage war, and the right-wingers want to roll back laws protecting the environment, and the welfare and safety of the people. To call these people “conservatives” creates a lot of cognitive dissonance in my mind.

In the United States, progress v. tradition is no longer the paradigm for the left/right political divide. The new paradigm is real v. ideal.

The Reagan Legacy

The right wing’s transformation from conservatives into neo-conservatives, that is, Machiavellian opportunists who exploit the idealism of the American people, occurred under the leadership of Ronald Reagan.

The way I remember it, Reagan didn't actually do anything which had not already started under Jimmy Carter. For example, the weapons buildup, which conservatives claim is the strategy that "won" the Cold War, and persistent negotiation to reduce the number of nuclear weapons held by both sides, is something that started under Carter or his predecessors. The conservatives remember Carter as a peanut farmer, but I remember him as an Annapolis graduate and submariner who promoted a bigger nuclear Navy. A similar argument can be made about the neo-conservative fetish of "deregulation": Carter deregulated airlines in 1978, and trucking, railroads, interest rates and oil in 1980. If deregulation were the magic bullet that neo-cons claim it is, it should have killed the economic "stagflation" which coincided with the end of Carter's term, and he would have been re-elected.

In fact, Reagan's administration dithered about economic dogmas while the Federal Reserve Board plunged the country into the worst recession (1981-1982) since the Great Depression. Initially, the Reagan administration opposed the Fed’s policies. Reagan's advisors argued that tax cuts and deregulation would magically save the economy. In fact, Congress doubled the national debt, and wiped out an entire financial industry with an ill-conceived and woefully mismanaged deregulation plan: the now-extinct local "savings and loan" association. Conservatives still ignore or excuse these blunders by pointing to an economic expansion in the later part of Reagan’s presidency, but this only occurred because the Fed quietly reversed its harsh inflation-killing policies.

In the meantime, long term problems deepened and got handed over to the future, that is, to us. Worse, the Reagan administration trained an entire generation of bureaucrats in a culture of secrecy, deception, arrogance and contempt for the rule of law.

The difference, of course, was the way Reagan talked. Belligerent rhetoric in international diplomacy, "voodoo economics" on the domestic side, reassured people that the President was doing something about our problems. For conservatives, the lesson learned simple: "reality" doesn't matter, appearances are what counts.

Real v. ideal

Ideally speaking, it sure would be nice if we could use the United States’ military superiority to root out terrorists and install democratic regimes in authoritarian countries like Iraq, but I don’t think the expectation is realistic. Likewise, it would be nice to believe that corporations are formed solely for the purpose of economic efficiency, and we can trust their managers and owners to do what’s best for society in the long run, rather than harm society to serve selfish short-term goals, but that is not the reality. Similarly, I wish I could trust the government not to abuse its powers, trust politicians not to abuse their privileges, trust right-wing Christian nationalists to respect the faiths of other people, and trust the rich not to seize oligarchic power and crush the rest of us to suit their whims ... but I don’t. It would sure make things easier if unswerving faith in a simple dogma, such as Biblical literalism, or rugged individualism in the style of Ayn Rand or libertarians, could resolve all our moral, ethical and social problems, but it doesn’t. This is the distinction between “real” and “ideal”.

The left-blogosphere presents the dichotomy as “reality-based” v. “faith-based”. We owe the term “reality-based community” to an anonymous White House staffer, who made the distinction like this:

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Ron Suskind, New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004

The anonymous staffer quoted by Mr. Suskind called his or her side “history’s actors”, but the left blogosphere hung the term “faith-based” around their necks, much like the proverbial millstone (as Jesus said regarding those who cause others to sin: “it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck”).

The term “faith-based”, of course, comes from Bush administration programs called "faith-based initiatives", that is, using tax dollars to support social programs administered by religious organizations. In reality, these so-called “faith-based” initiatives merely funnel cash to the favorite charities of Republican political supporters. The charities themselves, and the people who work for them, may indeed be “faith-based”, but the government’s funding is not. These initiatives are no different from special tax breaks for their corporate sponsors, or “earmark” funds set aside for projects in the districts of loyal Republican congressmen. The religious “framing” merely conceals good old-fashioned graft, with the same sort of cynicism and Orwellian propaganda that calls gutting environmental regulations a Clear Skies Initiative.

I prefer to contrast “real” with “ideal”. The term “faith-based” falsely attributes a religious grounding for Republicans and their policies. “Fake-based” seems more apt, but equating “faith” and “fake” needlessly alienates religious people on the left, such as myself. Yes, I know the bloody history of Christian theocracy. I also know that a Christ-inspired personal spirituality has always been a driving force behind progressive political movements in the United States, whenever a call for social justice and liberty was required. The solution to this conundrum is well known to us: a wall of separation between Church and State, as expressed in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. “Faith”, in the sense of personal spirituality or the teachings of Jesus Christ, is not what divides “right” from “left” in America. Using the word this way just raises a lot of dust, allowing the deception to continue. I believe that the majority of our opponents on the right are not religious zealots. They are misguided idealists, misguided, that is, by the crooks and liars who currently lead the Republican party. Crooks and liars come and go, but American idealism is here to stay, and we shouldn’t deceive ourselves about that.

Take, for example, the ongoing slaughter and destruction in the country of Iraq. If our motivation for going there was to promote Christianity or hasten the coming Apocalypse, we wouldn’t be there. The real reason was to gain strategic control of oil resources, but that is not what the American people were told. The American people were duped to accept an idealized distinction between the advanced, civilized West and retrogressive, anarchic Islam. Americans naively believed we would be received in Iraq like we were received in Germany and Japan after World War II. Eventually, grateful for our economic magnanimity, and increasingly aware of the benefits of American-style democracy and capitalism, they would come to realize that we bombed the shit out of them for their own good. Go back and read what otherwise thoughtful and intelligent people posted on this website and you will see what I mean.

Real faith v. dogma

Secularists probably won’t understand this, but every ostensibly “religious” or “moral” dispute in American politics really boils down to idealism v. realism, not faith v. reason. I think it’s abundantly clear to everyone (but themselves) that Christian theocrats are not authentic Christians. So why insult people with real religious faith by using that word to describe theocrats? But aside from the pragmatic political considerations, the insult misses the distinction between real religious faith and what neo-conservatives are really up to: the opportunistic exploitation of American idealism for craven political ends.

Real religious faith doesn’t translate effectively in the the public arena. You cannot build a political platform on the core teachings of Jesus Christ: love and forgiveness. Merely implying that a politician favors forgiving violent criminals is enough to substantially erode political support, as Michael Dukakis and all Democrats learned from the Willie Horton affair.

On the other hand, fake religion, inauthentic religious dogma, utterly divorced from the difficult personal obligation to love, forgive, show mercy and charity towards others, and entirely disconnected from the personal spirituality which transforms a person and makes that loving behavior possible, that translates into politics quite easily. Dogma and religious symbol can be used to build a “tribal identity” and demarcate the lines between “us” and “them”. The religious origin of the dogma encourages the delusion that the division lies between “good” and “evil”, rather than some accident of geography or language. While such divisions among humanity are directly contrary to the core values of all major religions, this problem can somehow always be rationalized away.

For example, I’m sure that many of the people who favor laws banning “gay marriage” know homosexuals, have homosexual family members, or are homosexual themselves. I’d also be willing to bet that many of them, if not most, would draw upon authentic Christian faith to to treat homosexuals they encounter in their personal lives in the loving way commanded by Jesus. Somehow, however, they can compartmentalize their personal obligation to love separately from the political obligation to hate.

It seems to me, then, that confronting this idealization has to be the overriding primary goal of all progressive politics in the United States in this early part of 21st Century. We need to see a lot more of it, like this exchange between Jon Stewart, the host of a political comedy program on the Comedy Central cable network, and William Bennett, noted neo-conservative pundit and former “Drug Czar” in the administration of George H. W. Bush:

Bennett: Look, it's a debate about whether you think marriage is between a man and a woman.

Stewart:I disagree, I think it's a debate about whether you think gay people are part of the human condition or just a random fetish.

The Daily Show, June 6, 2006

Reality v. lies

Whatever we call the other side, the left blogosphere has gleefully adopted “reality-based community” as their nom de guerre, and it fits. Left wing political blogs, notably the Daily Kos, promote real grass-roots politics. They call their activities “netroots” (with their annoying penchant for neologisms) and contrast that with corporate-sponsored political organizing which masquerades as citizen activism, which they call “astroturf”.

Every day, the leftist blogs churn forth facts, in response to right wing “spin”, hype, and outright lies and fabrications. Hypertext makes facts easy to present (however hard it may be to dig them up in the first place). The blogs champion science against religious zealots and against corporate polluters.

Neo-conservative policies have left us with unsustainable wars, and recklessly exacerbated fiscal, energy and environmental problems. The cause of these many policy failures is the abandonment of reason (deliberation and compromise) in favor of lies and raw assertions of power. Neo-cons now believe that reasonable debate is the last resort of the defeated, because they know the history of their movement. The history of conservatism is one of defeat followed by reaction: Edmund Burke reacting to the French Revolution, the Ku Klux Klan reacting the abolition of slavery, anti-Communist hysteria reacting to the internationalism. After the New Deal, when most Americans accepted that unrestrained capitalism was inimical to a just and productive society, only then did we start to hear “reasoned” debates about the role of the state in regulating the economy. Before that, socialists and union organizers were criminals: to be beaten, and shot or jailed. After American society reached a consensus that racial apartheid is wrong, only then did white supremacists abandon mob rule and enter their current phase of rhetoric: debate about affirmative action. After most Americans had accepted that consenting adults should be free to engage in whatever sex and sexuality they choose, and after the courts struck down oppressive laws against adultery, cohabitation, contraception, miscegenation, and most recently sodomy: only then did conservatives start talking about "abstinence" as a personal choice, rather than a legal imperative to be enforced by the government with police power.

Not all neo-cons are ignorant of history. Some are well aware that conservatives have been steamrolled under the advance of liberty, science and social progress for the past 500 years. Intellectuals among them, like Leo Strauss, were capable of reaching back into political philosophy to find the principle of the noble lie: the notion that people must be deceived to create a just city-state and serve the Good. This type of thinking runs from Plato to Machiavelli in completely explicit terms: books were hard to come by and most people couldn’t read. After that, the advent of publishing and mass literacy called for a more circumspect approach.

This is the tiny kernel of truth which underlies all conspiracy theory: rulers must conceal their true motives. Where conspiracy theorists miss the mark is imagining that conspirators have some secret, unified plan to seize power. In reality, the alleged conspirators already have privileges of various kinds (some complementary, some contradictory) and the only thing that unites them is that they want to keep those powers and privileges. Still, the conspiracy theorists have one thing right: it’s wise to be skeptical.

This essay probably isn’t the place to rehabilitate Plato from the many attempts of the irony-impaired to convert his philosophy to dogmas, but I will advocate this exercise for the “reality-based” community: reading and discussing the dialogues in which he presents “the Socratic method”. He called his method “dialectic”, but since that term has been appropriated by Hegel and Marx for their own purposes, it’s probably better for us to call it the “Socratic Method”. The method is simply this: expressing opinions, applying established techniques to sort out good from bad, right from wrong, and then tethering the right opinions to a solid foundation of accumulated knowledge. All modern science is but a narrow subset of this method: hypothesis, observation and experimentation, followed by analysis and system-building.

Socratic method is not limited to what we moderns call “science”: strictly controlled empirical observation as a testing method. History, myth, logic, art and rhetoric, as well as comedy --perhaps especially comedy-- can all be used. Clearly, when discussing people and politics, you need to take the broader approach.

Socratic method is still in use in teaching professionals, like lawyers and doctors, to have nimble minds in a clinical setting. First year law students are given cases to read, and then in class induced to express their opinions. Medical students go on rounds and are induced to express their opinions about patient’s symptoms. Teachers show the student that some opinions are “wrong” and others are “right”, without simply telling them the “right answer”. Students at this point often become frustrated and demand to be told the right opinions, as they were spoon-fed them in undergraduate school, but of course if this were done, students would never learn how to formulate right opinions for themselves.

Young conservatives complain about “liberal bias” in their professors, but I always suspect they’ve received a healthy dose of the Socratic Method, and had their cherished conservative dogma refuted publicly. The amusing part is that they may well be right, ultimately: if their professors could free their minds, they might become “liberals” in the ancient sense. The “liberal arts” were those arts deemed necessary for the education of a “liberos” (a free man), as opposed to say, the art of making money, which was needed only by the lower classes. Education in the sense of liberation doesn’t always make you a leftist in the modern sense, but it does have a strong tendency to push you in that direction. Thoughtful examination of modern “reality” tends to leave you with a thirst for liberty and justice.

Reality as substance

The root of the word “reality” is the Latin word “res” (thing or matter). “Res” is still used by lawyers today to refer to a case or subject matter, as in the phrase res judicata (a thing adjudicated, or a case which has been decided). In memorandums, we use “re” to introduce the subject of the memo.

In philosophy, a distinction is made between accident and substance: the aspects of a thing which change through time and circumstances, and those aspects which remain the same. The aspects which remain the same are the “thingness” of a thing: the underlying reality. If you kick a ball, the ball changes location continuously, but the ball remains the same. A particular location is a merely an accidental or circumstantial quality of a ball. Socrates sitting and Socrates standing are both still Socrates. The thingness of a thing (or when referring to people, the “identity” of a person) is the underlying “subject”, essence or substance. To distinguish enduring substance from mere circumstance you have to see a thing or person in action. Of politicians and parties, we say their true character is revealed by their record, not their rhetoric.

As I write this, there were two news items regarding Barack Obama. One was that Senator Obama had given a speech about treating evangelical Christians with respect. This angered many leftists, because it implied that if Democrats have to “reach out” to religious people, Democrats are not religious. The other news was that a proposed amendment to the Constitution, to prohibit flag desecration, was narrowly defeated in the Senate, by one vote. Which is more indicative of Senator Obama's true character, that he instructs Democrats on religion, or that he voted against this amendment?

Of course, in politics it is hard to separate deeds from words. I have every confidence, however, that the Senator is being realistic. Treating fellow citizens with respect and inclusiveness is the right thing to do. It’s the business of the other side to divide America into Red and Blue camps. Their community thrives on building a tribal identity, which requires deliberately excluding others, judging them, demonizing them.

Calling something "real" points to the "thingness" of a thing, the underlying substance which allows us to identify it as "the same thing", despite changes or alterations. Reality is therefore closely linked to the more general idea of existence or Being, but in the more specific sense of the concrete and particular existence of "things", especially human perceptions of "things" which change through time. "Reality" is thus a critical concept in history, law, and politics. If we are to be a "reality-based" community, that means our politics must be grounded in things: real, actual, genuine things, not fakes, fiction or artifice. If the "things" we talk about happen to be people, we must talk about real people, and not imaginary or fictitious people. Senator Obama merely pointed out that calling all people who oppose abortion "right wing ideologues" is to indulge in a fiction.

Being "reality-based" also means paying attention to the underlying presumptions and connotations in our use of words. Language did not evolve overnight, and it is not an arbitrary set of symbols, to which we can assign whatever meaning we choose. For example, if you make an argument justifying a war, it's still a war. If the argument is a good one, the war is a "just war". A just war, however, is still war, it does not become "peace". War always connotes doing something to people: either killing them or, in the case of metaphorical warfare, changing them. The success or failure of our warlike endeavor has to be judged by its effect on the people, and wars must come to an end. This is why civilization has tolerated war for so long, despite the waste, destruction and suffering which wars bring. A "war" which never ends is not war, and "facts on the ground", as the saying goes, won't let you call it "promoting democracy".