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Opinion: American Fundamentalism

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The recent debates over fiscal cliffs and firearms reveal a deeper problem that afflicts social life in the United States: the problem of political fundamentalism. Issues like these split people into separate camps and then fan the flames of fanatical fervor within each camp.

When people hear that Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “I know of no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America,” they dismiss it with a chuckle. But in a land that’s supposed to celebrate individuality, there’s a disturbing uniformity of belief; but even worse, there’s an extreme amount of fundamentalism.

Nearly everybody is eager to adopt an identity wholesale. They hurry to identify as a Democrat, a Republican, a liberal, a conservative, a libertarian, a socialist, an anarchist, pro-capitalism, pro-communism, a nihilist, an objectivist and so on. All these identities harbor doctrines that provide ready-made positions on almost any issue: If you’re a Democrat you know what to believe about funding public schools; if you’re a libertarian you know what to believe about tariffs. There is a lumped relief in toeing the party line and having pre-packaged answers to complex issues that should require patient attention and careful reflection.

Oddly, when people search for their political identity they look outward rather than inward; they browse the shelves of pre-established identities in search of something to identify with. Instead of shaping their own identity, they adopt a preformed identity and its attendant beliefs.

In politics, the cocksure conviction that stems from a devout loyalty to a single worldview creates a gridlock of unbending monomania. Such fundamentalism cripples our ability to discuss and decide how we should share the planet. Ideological divides remain unbridgeable because fundamentalism assumes infallibility, or a godlike access to ironclad truths, and a godlike immunity to error.

As the eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” In Russell’s view, wiser people acknowledge the fickle contingency of our beliefs, and are sensitive to the fact that throughout human history we’ve been consistently incorrect about pretty much everything (except for some basic mathematical and scientific axioms that have little bearing on social affairs). Our beliefs, our ideas, our theories and our social categories are continually upset by real life.

Specific circumstances almost always make a mockery of general principles, which is one reason why beliefs shouldn’t be sanctified. But people often worry that ditching belief would set them adrift in an amoral wasteland. But abandoning belief wouldn’t smash a person’s moral compass; it would only destroy Magnetic North and thus enable a person to embrace a variety of political sentiments that need not synch perfectly, point in an identical direction or remain static over time.

But as things stand, people act like lawyers who defend their beliefs to the hilt rather than acting like juries who are open to persuasion based upon fresh facts, good arguments, the particulars of a situation and their own faculty of judgment. The point of public debate is to see where it leads and then draw conclusions. Instead, people typically enter a debate like an ambassador of a doctrine with the conclusion already decided and stubbornly stand their ground rather than exploring new territory.

There’s a kind of a contradiction in the fact that the United States of America is allegedly the ‘land of the free’ but also a land of profound fundamentalism. One would expect free individuals to practice free-thinking and be leery of allowing their beliefs to be struck by a mental sclerosis. At the very least, this requires a thoroughgoing skepticism of all beliefs, especially your own, and at most, the ability to simultaneously find legitimacy in all beliefs without allowing any of those beliefs to consume you.

If history teaches one thing more than others, it’s that people should’ve doubted leaders and regarded philosophies as mere curios: Many graves have been dug as a result of people’s unswerving obedience to some ism.

We should recall Arthur Bloch’s claim that “A conclusion is the place where you get tired of thinking.” This same temperament underlies Emma Goldman’s take on belief when she said, “What I believe is a process rather than a finality. Finalities are for gods and governments, not for the human intellect.” This quote couples nicely with another from the great Romantic poet John Keats, who wrote, “The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up one’s mind about nothing – to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.”

But in a world of polarized politics where people pour themselves into stamped-out molds and cling to doctrinal beliefs with missionary zeal, the individual is swallowed whole and groupthink reigns supreme. People of all political stripes mistake the yoke of belief for a badge of liberty, and enthusiastically invite a single idea to sit upon the throne of their thoughts and lord over their political contemplations.

The only land that could call itself the ‘land of the free’ would be populated by people who pledge allegiance to nothing.

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  1. Frank Bumb

    February 12, 2013 at 11:44 PM

    I like the quotes, honestly I do but in between the quotes from eminent thinkers Abram’s has a premise that, if you doubt for even one second, the entire argument of this column comes tumbling down:

    “Oddly, when people search for their political identity they look outward rather than inward; they browse the shelves of pre-established identities in search of something to identify with. Instead of shaping their own identity, they adopt a preformed identity and its attendant beliefs.”

    Abram presumes that Americans pick their identifier and then take those policy positions proscribed to that identification lock, stock and smoking barrel.

    If, however, people choose which policies they want to support and THEN label themselves for the sake of convenience in conversation, debate, et. al the entirety of this column is basically moot.

    Or hell, even if people pick an identification of political terminology but then say they don’t agree with X position of that label. For example, “I’m a socialist that believes media should be exempt from public control,” or “I’m a Republican that disagrees with the GOP’s platform on abortion and gay marriage,” etc. etc. then this argument likewise comes tumbling down.

    Well, to be fair, I should correct myself when saying the ENTIRETY of the article comes tumbling down. Abram’s point on skepticism of beliefs and continual self-evaluation are well founded. But he does not allow for the possibility that a person can continually self-evaluate and keep coming back to the same policy positions (and thus identification OF those positions) after such evaluation. And if you do indeed go through that process, why would you not be firm in your beliefs when the debate over a policy issue (gun control, abortion, the use of force in domestic and foreign scenarios, etc.)? You shouldn’t because Abram argues that if you are continually firm in beliefs you have somehow landed in the realm of the fundamentalist and should be ashamed, ashamed I say!

    Put another way, to toss in my own quote from Aristotle, “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.”


  2. Isaac Abram

    February 13, 2013 at 12:12 PM

    Thanks for your reply. I agree with the general gist of your comments. Here’s a paragraph that I deleted from the original version of my column that (I think) addresses your concerns:

    “Jeremy Bentham, who was a magnanimous reformer and philosopher of the 18th and 19th centuries, referred to the idea of ‘natural rights’ as “nonsense on stilts,” and yet fought vigorously for women’s rights, gay rights, children’s rights, animal rights, the right to divorce, and so on. For Bentham, this wasn’t a case of hypocrisy, it was a recognition that political opinions should be viewed as a tactic or a tool rather than a core identity. This notion is related to what the postcolonial philosopher Gayatri Spivak called “strategic essentialism,” which invites us to temporarily plunge into an identity and march under the banner of a cause for the sake of the political consequences that would ensue from a successful campaign, but without fanatically ascribing to a fixed idea.”

    That said, I think my article accommodates your criticism. It seems to me entirely possible that one could, as you wrote, “continually self-evaluate and keep coming back to the same policy positions.” I wasn’t referring to policy positions; I was referring to entire worldviews or identities, such as liberal, conservative, socialist, libertarian, and so on, that dictate policy positions ‘a priori’ of a specific circumstance.

    Thanks again for you comments.


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