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What’s in a name?

September 26, 2012


Let’s get the following disclaimer out of the way immediately: Today’s blog will not be directly about religion or beer, but rather politics. It will, however, speak to ideology and word meaning… two items that I believe contribute significantly to the political and religious divide in this country, yet often go unnoticed and unacknowledged during discussion/debate. Again, these issues will be addressed within the context of American politics, but you could certainly apply these lessons to religion as well. (Incidentally, I would assume these problems persist anywhere in the world where humans argue about stuff, but my lens is through the ’12 presidential election.)

Last week I engaged in two very different political debates that served as the impetus for this post. I think both are incredibly illustrative of my larger point that ideology and poor definition of terms lead to unnecessary conflict, and so I will use this blog to summarize each debate and offer my thoughts. Note that in Debate #1 I was defending conservatives and in Debate #2 I was criticizing them… so, I got to experience this issue from both viewpoints.

Debate #1

Audience: Complete strangers on a scientific (evolutionary biology), mostly liberal-leaning atheist website.

Topic: Paraphrasing myself: “I strongly dislike Mitt Romney and his platform and I loathe much of what the Republican Party has become –particularly the Tea Party and religious right– so much so that I will be voting for Obama for the second time, but yet I’m still a Republican.”

Synopsis: After offering up the comment you see above beneath the now infamous “47% percent of Americans are lazy” video, I was met with honest inquiry from several Democrats as to why I’m still a Republican. After expressing my reasons at an admittedly very superficial level (i.e that I’m fiscally conservative, believe in low taxes and limited government involvement, think that many social programs need reform, etc.) I was met with an intense barrage of partisan vitriol. I’m paraphrasing for simplicity here, but comments like the following we’re thrown around judiciously:

“Name me one social program that doesn’t work and provide specific details about how exactly you would fix it, or else I will be forced to conclude you’re wrong and uninformed.”

“Of course there are some social programs that work great and some that work poorly or not at all…thanks Capt. Obvious!”

(When you consider that this comment and the one above were posted by the same person, notice how utterly useless the first comment becomes? The poster has just acknowledged that some social programs don’t work, which was the only general point I was attempting to make.)

“Thinking you can influence other Republicans by voting for moderate candidates in primaries and through debate is stupid… You should just switch parties because you’re really just a conservative Democrat and that will have more influence over Republicans.”


And my personal favorite…

“The correct quote is ‘Only the Sith think in absolutes,’ not ‘extremes’ you dummy!”

On that last one you’ve gotta give the guy some geek points for knowing his Star Wars, right? In any case, I offered up what I think were solid retorts for each criticism and I kept reminding my antagonists that:

A. I wasn’t interested in, nor had time for, a detailed policy debate on things like “the merits of social program X” and that I would happily concede to any analysis offered until I felt I was knowledgeable enough to debate program X, and

B. We are on the same team when it comes to our support of Obama, so convincing me of how wrong Mitt Romney is for America when I already agree and said as much in my initial comment is a complete waste of time.

Yet despite all that, on and on they went, arguing with me, misinterpreting my views, lobbing ad hominem attacks, and making unfounded inferences simply because I had self-labeled myself “Republican.” That word alone had told them just about everything they needed to know about me, as if somehow there are only two types of people in the world: democrats and republicans. Of course, as I’ve said now many times on this blog dear reader, the real world is a whole lot more complex than this (hence my “Sith only think in extremes” misquote from above). Show me one republican, and you’ll have shown me one republican. We’re not all alike and perhaps our biggest mistake is that we continue to label ourselves with these narrow terms that mean next to nothing when you get down to brass tacks.

In hindsight, I should have resisted engaging in this debate. Or, if I insisted on commenting, I should have edited my prose to say: “Socially liberal, fiscally conservative independent thinker who’s not tied to any political party in terms of voting pattern but happens to technically be a republican on his voter registration card from back when he registered to vote over a decade ago thinks Romney is stupid and is planning to vote for Obama.” But that doesn’t really roll off the tongue now, does it?

I hope you can see how word definition –namely “Republican,” a word that I would not have assumed to be so polarizing– and ideology, or more accurately blind faith in the Democrats, let to a debate that convinced no one and only led to frustration.

Debate #2

Audience: My good friends from college…Eight (seven plus me) 30-something college-educated and relatively well-off white males of various political persuasions.

Topic: Instigated by one of my good friends, again I paraphrase for simplicity: “Everyone go see ‘2016: Obama’s America’ by Dinesh D’Souza and if you don’t agree with him that Obama is pushing a socialist agenda after watching it your (sic) stupid!”

Synopsis: Letting the irony of the “your stupid” error slide, several of my friends and I attempted to engage in a thoughtful debate about whether or not there was any merit whatsoever to propaganda pieces like D’Souza’s on the conservative side and Michael Moore’s films (e.g. ‘”Fahrenheit 9/11″) on the liberal side. Invariably, this led to rabbit holes where specific things like tax plans and foreign policy were also discussed. From my admittedly pro-Obama viewpoint (which, if you already read about debate #1 you probably gathered), one side of the debate was offering up facts and evidence (the pro-Obama side), and the other side of the debate was offering only opinion and regurgitating Fox News ideology. Now of course this is my recollection of the events only and if you were to ask one of the Romney supporters in the group, their recollection might be different. In any case, it became clear to all of us, about 20 or so emails in, that this debate wasn’t likely to change any minds and would result in nothing but ill will and frustration.

Without commenting about any of the specific policy issues above, let me offer up four hopefully self-evident ideas at we’d all be far better off if we accepted. I wish I didn’t have to state these things, because they should be so obvious… but clearly they aren’t, so here goes nothing. (Besides, I’ve already been given the rank of Captain in the Army of Obvious, remember?):

1. No one political party has a monopoly on good ideas. Anybody who disagrees or agrees with any candidate on EVERYTHING needs to be discredited and ignored immediately, because he or she has demonstrated an incredible amount of intellectual laziness. This is the epitome of blind ideology and faith.

2. The far majority of those who run for political office, especially those who run for President (including Romney and Obama), are well intentioned and want the best for America. You may believe a candidate is wrong about almost everything (remember, 100% wrong is bad), but you should at least be able to acknowledge that the candidate is well intentioned. (In my opinion, even Dick Nixon, however misguided and crazy, was well intentioned…But if you’d prefer to stop short of this assessment, I’m not sure I could fault your logic. In any case, hopefully we can agree that Nixon is at least an anomaly and an outlier). Otherwise, if not well intentioned, why would someone be running? To me, there seems to be far easier and statistically likelier ways to make money and obtain power than running for President of the United States. Let’s agree that both Obama and Romney are patriots who are willing to sacrifice any hope of a normal life should they get elected. As a consequence of accepting this very basic and hopefully self-evident principle, you should find it difficult to believe crazy things like Bush/Cheney sent us to war or did not prevent 9/11 solely for oil profits, or that Obama is hoping to move the U.S. toward communism.

3. Facts matter… A LOT! How you interpret facts and what solutions you believe will work best are of course open to debate, but if we disagree on basic facts then we’re doomed. Here is one fact that, for some reason, much of the GOP fails to acknowledge: Tax rates are at a 30-year low under President Obama. That’s right, they are lower than under Reagan, the GOP-Messiah. Now granted, Obama has expressed an interest in raising taxes on the top 1-2% incomes, but even this would only bring taxes back to the level they were under Clinton. Since I promised to avoid specific policy discussions, I’ll stop here. But if you’re interested in reading more about Romney’s tax policy, to the extent he’s shared details, and what its likely to do to the middle class (not the top 1-2%) click here to be redirected to a nice concise Washington Post article. Hopefully it suffices to say that if you ignore certain facts, like this one about our tax rate, and you compound this lack of knowledge with disbelief of principle #2 above, then arriving at strange conclusions like “Obama is a socialist,” or even “Obama isn’t an American citizen” become much easier.

4. Most big problems in the U.S. (or any country for that matter) like the size of the deficit, the strength of the economy, how to move the country up the world rankings on things like math scores and health care quality (from 23rd and 37th, respectively) are decades- and sometimes generations-long in the making. Certainly there are things that can be done in the short-term to course-correct, but to expect to see any significant movement in the statistics in a few short years shows a complete lack of mathematical literacy. Perhaps this not so surprising when you consider we’re 37th in math. Both political parties are to blame for playing these short-term numbers games, but they play them because the population responds. In my opinion, the saying “numbers don’t lie” may be the most untruthful saying that’s ever existed. Make no mistake: numbers lie, they lie regularly and they lie very convincingly if you don’t know what to look out for.

As I hope you can see, blind faith, whether it be in a religion or a political ideology, along with a laziness of terminology and an ignorance and/or apathy to the four truths described above will lead to nothing but trouble. Unfortunately, I have a difficult time feeling optimistic about our chances as a society if we continue down this path. We seem to be making some progress when it comes to belief in religion and other superstitious nonsense, but politically we seem to be heading in the opposite direction, becoming more entrenched and rigid in our beliefs. Perhaps political affiliation is, in part, replacing religious affiliation to satisfy our deep-rooted tribalistic tendencies. It would be better if we poured all of that tribalism into sports, or something more harmless. (I guess that means the Yankees vs. Red Sox rivalry is good for America!)

On the bright side, every single rational person that exists makes a difference, so for the good of the country and for the good of humanity, let’s each do our part. Hopefully the rest of society will follow… someday.

On that uplifting note, I’m going to end today’s blog. Given the bleak outlook of things, I’d recommend something a bit stronger than usual when pondering tonight’s topic. Perhaps a nice high ABV english barleywine, especially considering the chill that seems to be in the air this evening. Or, if you want to go even stronger, perhaps a nice two-finger pour of good old KY bourbon. KY isn’t a swing state, is it?

Until next time, cheers and happy doubting!



From → Weekly Blog

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