Among the news flashes this morning, I read a report that the Heartland Institute, a Libertarian-leaning think tank in Chicago, is funding the development of a K-12 “science” curriculum that will tout the non-existent “controversy” over global warming. The Heartland Institute, according to this article, is funded by biggies like AT&T and Microsoft.
Meanwhile, Jon Carroll’s column in today’s San Francisco Chronicle discusses the End Agenda 21 movement. Agenda 21 is a United Nations white paper (that is, it’s not even a policy statement, it’s just a set of recommendations) on ways to promote sustainable growth. That is to say, attempting to curb the more disastrous of human enterprises so that our great-grandchildren may perhaps have something to eat besides sand and toxic waste. There are apparently people in the United States who feel that Agenda 21 is a vile encroachment on their individual freedoms.
What’s going on here? How can so many people be so disastrously and willfully wrong-headed? How can they be so evil?
I can see several contributing causes. Wrap them all up in a ball together, and the prospects are truly frightening.
First, freedomolatry. A significant slice of the Republican electorate worships individual freedom. They don’t simply value it — they worship it. Now, I value freedom too. I also value health, justice, tolerance and respect for individual differences, a safe community, the ability to assess facts in an intelligent manner, and a stable economy in which even the least capable and most troubled among us are housed, fed, and provided with health care.
In the real world, a balance must often be struck. I may need to give up some measure of individual freedom in order to live in a safe or pollution-free community, for example. To a freedom worshiper, however, none of those other values is of any importance. Individual freedom is the only thing that matters, and any public policy measure that would diminish freedom is to be heatedly opposed.
The conspicuous exceptions being, of course, women’s reproductive freedom and the freedom of homosexual couples to marry. When these topics are broached, suddenly freedom is off the table. Suddenly the worship of “traditional values” takes over. I’m not entirely sure what traditions are being invoked here; the Bible explicitly endorses polygamy, concubinage, slavery, and forcing a woman to marry her rapist. Evidently God approves of these practices, a fact that gives the devotees of “traditional values” not even a moment’s pause.
But let’s not get into Biblical interpretation right now. The embrace of traditional values stems from the bizarre and mistaken notion that complex real-world problems can have simple, one-size-fits-all solutions. This is the second factor that contributes to the madness that has infected (or sprung from) conservatism.
The worship of freedom is, of course, a good example of how this craving plays out. “If we all embrace freedom,” the thinking goes, “all of those other problems will magically vanish!” A quick survey of recent trends in conservative thinking can give us other examples: Is immigration from Latin America changing the face of your community? Build an electrified fence along the border! Is the global economy teetering on the verge of collapse? Return to the gold standard!
And of course, everybody should be required to adhere to the tenets of Christianity as currently articulated by fundamentalists (of both the Protestant and Catholic persuasions). Christianity itself is a one-size-fits-all solution to complex and often difficult moral and emotional problems. Don’t think for yourself — just do what your bishop or minister tells you to, and life will be wonderful again. All of the problems in the world are caused by people who ignore what your bishop or minister is telling them.
The third factor contributing to the madness is an unrelenting barrage of corporate propaganda. A government-run health care option would deprive giant insurance companies of huge amounts of revenue, so it’s portrayed in the propaganda as an encroachment on freedom.
The campaign to deny global warming gives us another fine example: The winners, when the electorate is bamboozled into ignoring reality, are the top managers of giant corporations, whose profits might be inconveniently squeezed were they required to operate in a more environmentally responsible manner. To avoid the calamity of reduced profits, they craft devious messages that play on people’s worship of freedom and their craving for simple answers to complex problems. The simple answer being, in this case, “Nobody knows whether global warming is real, because the scientists disagree with one another — so we don’t need to do anything.”
This thumbnail summary hints at the fourth factor: a stubborn refusal to admit one’s own ignorance. A significant slice of the Republican electorate seems genuinely to be convinced that their ignorance is irrelevant. Their opinion, they insist, is as valid as anyone else’s, irrespective of how little knowledge they may have, or how suspect the sources of their supposed knowledge may be.
Admitting that we don’t know — or worse, that we may have been wrong — can be extremely uncomfortable. Rather than give in to the discomfort, millions of people embrace the worship of freedom, cling to supposedly incorruptible “traditional values,” or blindly accept whatever lies are flung in their faces by corporate-owned mass media.
Beyond that, the embrace of ignorance arises when innate human worth (in which, indeed, we are all equal) is interpreted to mean that your opinions, views, and beliefs are just as valid as anyone else’s.
Not all opinions are created equal. Not all beliefs are created equal. To the extent that your beliefs and your ignorance cause suffering, your beliefs are evil. If you cling to your ignorance and refuse to learn, then you are evil.
How are we to combat these forces? I wish I knew.