Friday, March 26, 2010

Three Isms (3/3)

Finally, saint-and-aintism involves the reflexive mental process of separating friend and foe, black and white, good and evil. Practitioners of this ism relegate other political views that diverge from theirs even in the slightest to the nether region where ignorant and evil people, you and me that is, gnash their teeth. Contrariwise, partisans hold up their leader, except in rare moments, as virtually without flaws, or at least they transform these flaws—moral transgressions or lack of judgment—somehow into virtues, like a medieval vicar officiating transubstantiation during Mass. To be sure, saint-and-aintism intensifies during election season. Similarly, systems engineer Barbara Oakley describes in her book Evil Genes the Machiavellian personality: “each party’s followers can’t help but reassure themselves that their candidate and party couldn’t possibly be Machiavellian, aside, perhaps, from a cursory jot and tiddle. Or perhaps they suspect ‘their guy’ has some Machiavellian traits, but they believe the end justifies the means.” We expect editorialists and campaign managers to offer only one view as the gospel. It can be particularly aggravating, however, when you’re trying to have a conversation with someone and they kick into high saint-and-aint gear.

Seeing the world in such Manichaean terms is not the preserve of religious fundamentalists whose conception of Heilsgeschichte populates the earth with the Elect and the Reprobate awaiting a Judgment Day. I suppose we’re talking essentially about an “us and them” mentality. This secular winnowing of the wheat and the chaff takes on religious tones and evinces the same kind of puritanical intolerance of the Other one readily finds in the annals of theological dogma. A case in point would be our American heritage, which in the hands of painters and poets throughout the last two centuries became saturated in theological imagery. We have our martyrs and saints, St. Abraham and St. George, and their respective shrines. We have our infallible Bible, the U.S. Constitution, which like the former needs some exegetical tweaking and “clarification” once in a while to fit current cultural contexts. We have our reprobates in this unfolding epic of redemption: Pennsylvania Congressman John Dickinson who did not see the light, King George III who massacred the innocents, and Judas-like Benedict Arnold who betrayed manifest destiny, to name a few. In this context I also think of the columnist Christopher Hitchens, who, in his iconoclastic and provocative book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, attempts to identify with the disconsolate reader, whose traditional faith he has sought to undermine, by relating his own disillusionment with Marxism. Dialectical materialism had no use for God or a spiritual realm, but “it most certainly had its martyrs and saints and doctrinaires and (after a while) its mutually excommunicating rival papacies…its schisms and inquisitions and heresy hunts.”

I submit to you that every individual, consciously or not, processes information into two categories: the reprobate who are either misguided or evil, on the one hand, and the enlightened ones who share, vindicate or heroically affirm the saint-and-ainter’s own viewpoint, on the other. This mental calculus is oftentimes more semi-conscious than fully cognizant. To keep the metaphor, the right hand often doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. The problem with this sort of thinking is that, generally speaking, if we see no redeeming qualities in a person, viewpoint, or ideology, it’s a telltale sign that we are allowing passions and partisanship to becloud our thinking. Reversely, refusal to concede blemishes in our spokesperson or candidate because we fear such a concession would be a crack in our armor or because we are temporarily caught up in fanatical devotion is an unenlightened (but not unnatural) position to take.

It doesn’t take long to identify a saint-and-ainter. They usually have a compulsion to let their views be known more than most people. They’re the type with the bumper stickers—a passive-aggressive form of proselytization. Though they’ll say otherwise, of course, the truth is that they cannot handle living in a pluralistic society wherein diverse opinions are supposed to coexist. They are accustomed to being in the company of almost-exclusively like-minded friends and acquaintances, and they have little experience in discussing or interacting socially with those who share divergent, led alone, contrary political or religious views. Take for instance the old guy at the locker room the other day whom I overheard blurt out, “Finally we’re gonna get rid of those Clinton sleazebags!”

An easy way to ferret out saint-and-ainters is to ask them, in the most courteous tone you can muster, to state some positive attributes about a particular person or viewpoint they have a proclivity to bash and denounce. The tiger will reveal its stripes before too long. How committed are they—indeed are we—to calling a spade a spade and not, as the political commentator Walter Laqueur wryly has it, an agricultural implement?

Unless we’re talking about a Hitler or Jesus, the world is too complex for simple saint-and-aint categories. The good commingles with the bad, and so it’s intellectually disingenuous to be selective and partisan under the guise of liberality. We pay lip service to such complexities, pluralities and ambiguities, and in our heart of heart promote our dogmas. If you want to engage in a meaningful, respectful dialogue with someone who does not share your perspective, you must exert effort to reverse the curse of xenophobia and intolerance that, optimists notwithstanding, nature has bequeathed us. For those of you who have fought this fight within and are thus more sensitive to saint-and-aintism, you know how maddening it can be when interlocutors deny they see the world as black and white and then proceed to demonstrate their “sheep and goats” worldview in their next utterance.

The Pentecostal preacher, with an unctuous smile, spittle escaping the corner of his enormous mouth, wearing a countenance intermittently kindly and stern, employs a homespun play on words as he belts out the alter call: “There are saints and there are ain’ts.” He pauses for effect, fixing his gaze on first-time visitors among the congregation. “Which do you want to be tonight, my friends?” It’s been said that the world is a simple place from the pulpit, but we know from the foregoing paragraphs that this subjective division between the philistines and the cognoscenti foisted upon the unsuspecting soul by those hawking their partisan tripe, is not restricted to church folk. Gird yourself against the ubiquitous saint-and-ainters in whatever guise they appear.

In the end, my contention is that politics is essentially a visceral, and not an intellectual, endeavor of our species. True, we construct intellectual arguments to make our case—for this candidate, that idea, these policies—but in the end we make our decisions based on our individual sense of morality and our partisan loyalties, ever tribal and primeval in origin, whether we’re fully conscious of doing so. Maybe our “caveman” demons still dominate our will and emotions. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once wrote that history can teach us important lessons but unfortunately “passion and party blind our eyes.” Rarely do intellectual arguments convince someone to change political sides or reverse their Weltanschauung. Instead, we re-trench, determined that we’ll have a better answer next time. Consequently politics can become so partisan, mean-spirited, intolerant, and hateful in even putatively civil societies such as our own.

I am also suggesting that everyone, somewhere along the line, is an Apostle of a particular outlook, cause, policy, habit, or what have you. And there’s a wide range here. One might be pushing for the “rational” approach to international diplomacy or perhaps the “proper” amount of milk one should add to one’s Captain Crunch cereal. If I can distort Alexander Pope’s words: to proselytize is human. We baptize our proclivities, our idiosyncrasies, opinions that come easy to us, as self-evident truths or general principles applicable to those who to wish live wisely—their understanding of wisely, mind you. So, while we all engage in one of the three isms from time to time, the doom-and-gloomer, axe-to-grinder, and saint-and-ainter do so on a regular basis either because they lack self-cognizance or they feel compelled to have you agree with their view. In either case they wish to conscript you into their cause. We know to take their pronouncements and lamentations with the proverbial grain of salt.