Something of substance

I’ve been reading entries on both sides of the divide, and one of the biggest frustrations that I’ve been building up has been over the lack of substance in them. This entire election seems like it’s around emotions without anchors right now. So I’ve decided to put out a few of mine and express my frustration in the concrete, because frankly I can’t respond in any rational or reasonable way to the emotions and abstract opinions floating around. All I can do is get more worked up. I can only come to an understanding of other people through discussions that analyze concrete events and arguments as well as emotional and irrational investments (neither of which should be belittled or denied.)

So…

Cultural Relativism.

This is a concept that I’ve spent an entire semester trying to get my Intro to Anthropology students to undestand. Basically, it’s the working assumption (for anthropologists, but probably for others) that people as social groups believe as they do and behave as they do as a result of reasonable responses to the environmental, social and historical circumstances that they have faced. To quote our introductory textbook (by Alice Kehoe), “Cultural Relativism recognizes the effects of environmental challenges and historical events on societal values. It does NOT mean we must accept practices that violate human rights”. Basically, it means that if we are trying to be culturally relative we need to respect the opinions and beliefs of others as reasonable responses but we also need to understand that our own beliefs and opinions are reasonable responses.

For our (western, democratic) culture as a whole this often includes respecting the lives and liberties of our fellow human beings regardless of whether or not they respect ours or each others’. It means that genocide is wrong no matter how it is justified. It means that oppressive imperialistic regimes that repress the rights of their constituents and seek to promote their interests to the detriment of the world community are problematic no matter how popular they are (i.e., Cuba, Iraq, Afghanistan, China, United States).

In approaching this election and in trying to understand in a culturally relative way why many of my fellow Americans would vote for Bush, I have been met with a lot of repetition of the rhetoric that I’ve seen in the media, both the mainstream and the “alternative” sources like the Onion, Jon Stewart, etc.

What I’ve yet to have anyone explain to me is how they could, after reading the Duelfer report summary on the CIA’s investigation into the presence (or significant lack thereof) of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons of mass destruction support an administration that clearly acted precipitously to take us to an unjust war, breaking alliances and damaging coalitions that have taken decades to develop, when the U.N. sanctions were obviously working.

What I’ve yet to have anyone explain to me is how they could support this administration after reading evidence of the kind of corporate graft and corruption that has skated through this administration and come out smelling like roses…Like the proposed GE-Honeywell merger that would have created an entirely illegal monopoly with globally damaging implications economically and socially, and that was not stopped by our own government, but rather by European Union regulatory committees after it sailed through approvals here in the U.S.

What I’ve yet to have anyone explain is how they can accept without question the types of ideological manipulation and rhetoric that daily spews forth from the current administration. Rhetoric that anyone who does a bit of archival searching can clearly trace through its various permutations and contradictions.

What I’ve yet to have anyone explain is how they can support an administration that has fostered a political and social environment where laws specifically restricting young women’s (and only young WOMEN’S) rights to privacy can be proposed and passed with a considerable majority, not because she is a threat to national security, not because she has committed or is even contemplating committing any crime, but simply so that another law can be passed requiring parental notification if she tries to get an abortion. Since when has it been ethical to supress somebody’s personal rights of privacy in order to pass laws to police choices that are still legal to make…in order to police their morality? Not for a while, until this administration.

These are just a few of the many very particular questions that I have, that Bush supporters often respond to by either dismissing me as a liberal or a feminist (or both) without engaging any of my arguments, or by repeating that they are entitled to their own opinions. Well, yes…they are. And as a cultural relativist I will respect that they came to these opinions through reasonable means given their social and historical realities.

But that respect does not extend to human rights violations, or the people who support them, or the people who refuse to recognize that the current administration is profoundly guilty of them, and refuse to give credibility to the overwhelming amount of documentation supporting this in favor of their own investment in some highly biased (and again, documented as such) news sources. I will not sit quietly by, respecting other people’s opinions when other people’s human rights are being violated as a result of them. I will not be a quiet neighbor in Nazi Germany, or Guatemala, or Bosnia, or any of a multitude of other places that this occurs in the past and in the present. And I will not sit by hoping things get better on their own. Reality doesn’t work that way. We are reality, and through our actions (and inactions) we shape it.

I have no intention of leaving America. I think the ideological entity that is America has a great potential to be a powerful force for good because of the strong investment that we have in the idea that America SHOULD be a force for good — where we get tripped up is, what is good? and good for whom?. Because of this I also think that America has the great potential to be an oppressive and imperialistic force that would create situations I could only term as evil, including power imbalances, concentration of resources into the hands of the few in power, impoverishment and marginalization of everyone else, and a variety of other things that historically go hand-in-hand with an imperialistic nation-state.

So, I have no intention of giving up on America, or on giving up trying to fight the current regime’s definitions of good and evil. And I refuse to be quiet about it.

Edit in reply to my many responders: I understand what you all are saying, but unless I miss my guess you are all Kerry supporters (or at least not-Bush supporters). I’m trying very hard right now not to “Other” the people in this country who supported Bush, nor to accept the idea of a polarization of political thought when there is most definitely a multiplicity disguised as a dichotomy (or that we’re trying to narrativize into a dichotomy-that-is-really-a-unity, as ancientwisdom would probably put it). I don’t think every Bush supporter has the same answer to these questions, and while the answers of the many Kerry supporters seem to have verisimilitude to me, if I accepted them then it would be armchair anthropology. I want to know the answers to these questions from people who supported Bush, rather than assume. I guess my social circles, or at least my LJ circles, are just too limited).

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9 thoughts on “Something of substance

  1. I’m pretty much just trying to not stew in my own incoherent rage right now, however I did want to address something you said here:

    “What I’ve yet to have anyone explain is how they can accept without question the types of ideological manipulation and rhetoric that daily spews forth from the current administration.”

    With no snark at all, I probably could explain this to you. I feel like I have a pretty decent grasp on the narritive of the American Right.

    That said, if you (or anyone else readin’ this) want to maybe get tea or something, I’d be up for it. The only thing worse than impotently stewing is stewing in your own juices alone. I’m going nuts in here šŸ™‚

  2. I’m still processing this, but wanted to point this out to you:

    In answer to the series of statements like this:

    What I’ve yet to have anyone explain to me is how they could, after reading the Duelfer report summary on the CIA’s investigation into the presence (or significant lack thereof) of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons of mass destruction support an administration that clearly acted precipitously to take us to an unjust war, breaking alliances and damaging coalitions that have taken decades to develop, when the U.N. sanctions were obviously working.

    …they (or many, anyway) didn’t read the report summary. Many didn’t independently research anything relayed on their chosen news outlets (Fox, for my parents and many other conservative folk–but even CNN can be skimmed and taken at face value without more reading). I know a disturbing amount of people who walk into a voting booth and vote a straight Republican ticket. I also know a lot of folks who don’t–but still won’t sit down and read the 9/11 Commission Report because they can get the information they think they need from the media.

    There are also many people out there who simply do not care what happens to their neighbor as long as their interests are served and they are not inconvenienced.

    • There are also many people out there who simply do not care what happens to their neighbor as long as their interests are served and they are not inconvenienced.

      I think it’s more than that. I think that American citizens blindly hope that the media can be trusted to give them the information they need because they should be doing exactly that. They should be providing us with unbaised information designed to educate us on the situations in the world, so that we can make informed decisions based on our personal morality and principles.

      I know that they’re not. I know that the media is, in general, just another tool used to mold the opinions of others towards whomever they support. But I do think that there is justification in the assumption that they should be giving us what is required – that there should be a kind of social contract between the masses and the media. Is there? Not even close. But I think that ignorance is just as much the enemy, if not more so, than apathy in this case.

  3. What I’ve yet to have anyone explain is . . . .

    The paragraphs you started with this phrase sum up pretty well what’s putting me into incoherent frustration. I Just. Don’t. Get. It. I don’t get how people can ignore these facts, or see them and not care.

    They don’t think critically, is what it comes down to. Or at least that’s my best guess. Far too many Americans happily swallow whatever the TV or the newspaper tells them, and just blindly dismiss whatever they see elsewhere that doesn’t fit. And I don’t know how to fix that, because as far as I can tell it points back to some things I’ve read about how the American school system was in fact designed to turn people into passive consumer-sheep (I wish I could find my source again, but I read something — which I did at least try to think critically about — on how one of the key figures in developing American public education said OUTRIGHT that he wanted it to produce obedient little lemmings of the state. Though not in those words.)

    It’s that, more than any specific idiocies or evils of the Bush administration, that makes me want to cry.

    • Was it:

      “Nintey-Nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accidentbut the result of substantial education, which, scientificaly defines, is the subsumption of the individual.” – The Philosophy of Education (1908)

      Or something like that? John Taylor Gatto’s “Some Lessons from the Underground History of American Education” is filled with great quotes like that and a nice brief history of how the education system as we know it was designed by the robber barons to create a servent class.

      That said… you know… if I was just a slightly different person than the one I am today… I’d find the narrative of the American Right very seductive. It is (or more accurately it gives the illusion that is is) empowering. It gives your average american citizen a place in the world, and not only that, but that place is on the side of Good and is a place that they will have to be constantly vigilent to protect or else the very real forces of Evil will take it away from them.

      If you can understand the concept of actual, real Good and Evil then you can understand why it’s seductive. Why don’t they care Bush might have lied? Because Bush isn’t lying to them, Bush is lying to get the support of peple like you and Alyc and moonandserpent. People who can’t see the world as it is and have to paint everything with the grey brushes of cultural and moral relitivisim. That’s why he sometimes he has to confuse the issue a bit, because you’ve all been brainwashed by a libreral media and education system to believe there is no such thing as Good and Evil.

      But eventually, as America’s victories pile up, and as the country becomes safer, maybe a bunch of you will see that he’s doing the right thing, he’s constructing a new and moral society out of one where we’re constantly told there is no right or wrong, one where we’re not safe to raise god-fearing children in our own image. We’re not the monsters the liberal media would paint us as. We want safety, we want safety for our children and we want safety for children who aren’t as lucky as us. We want to be able to practice the religion this country was founded upon without having to explain to our kids why (when the Bible condems it) her teachers say it’s all right for Becky to have two dads.

      These things all seem confusing to you, or you wonder how we could want to impinge on the rights of others. But you don’t understand, because you don’t believe in Good and Evil, right and wrong. Why should we stand by and let the government turn Marriage into an abomination? Why should we elect a president who is on the record as calling the War on Terror a Metaphor, when it is very real?

      Douses self with cold water. Gah.

      THe American Right is not stupid, nor are they as sheep-ish as people want to portray them to be. Oh, certianly a large portion of of the populace is sheepish, but that can probably best be represented by the 2/3rds of the country that couldn’t get off their ass to vote. The hardcore neocons know the narritive of the american right is, just that, a narritive… but it’s a narritive that allows the country to grow stronger and maintain a unified moral society free from the spectre of overwhelming individualistic though. Most people who went to the polls for Bush just happen to have answered “Good” when their leaders asked them if they were “Good” or “Evil”. Wheras these concepts are an abstract to people in our circles, they are obviously not an abstract to half of the 1/3rd of our population that cares enough to vote.

      • And that’s what scares me the most, I guess. How do you talk people out of a simple view like that, when your way is so much harder? How do you make progress against that?

      • Keep It Simple

        “How do you talk people out of a simple view like that”

        I am working on the philosophy of planting seeds from their own philosophy.

        Eg. I can’t resolve “thou shalt not kill” with the death penalty
        Eg. I cannot resolve Christ’s love for the prostitute with intolerance
        Eg. I can’t resolve Christ’s story of the Good Samaritan with anti-Muslumism – Christ didn’t ask him to change to being a Christian … he stayed a Samaritan.

        I plant seeds of doubt using their own tools.

        By the way, if they bring up anything but the Gospels I remind them that the Gospels are the only part that is Christ speaking and teaching. Christ came to denounce the Old Testament; Paul contradicted Christ many times.

  4. Relativity

    “It does NOT mean we must accept practices that violate human rights”.”

    The above sentence is why rural American is red … red with blood, no doubt. In their minds they are not accepting practices that violate human rights. In their minds, Saddam and his government were violating human rights and they are eager to go forth and sequentially attack each government that does not use their bible which is the (in their minds) bible of human rights. Take it further, their fundamental “christian” religions (which is not what you were raised with) definitions of human rights.

    You see …. you and they have different definitions of human rights. Being gay, needing an abortion, or being a Muslum country is a violation of what they believe human rights to be.

    You should have seen the old lady across the street jumping with amazing glee that someone got the death penalty. She is a fundamental “christian” … but “thou shalt not kill” doesn’t apply …

    In their minds they can demand prayer in school and the protestant 10 commandments on public buildings even as they don’t keep the commandments themselves….

    ahhhhh… rationalization, justification and excuses….. the pillars of fundamentalism.

    wanders off grumbling about hypocrisy, bigotry and the mismatch of Christ’s life and teachings to that of the average rural bible thumping American.

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