Friday, October 29, 2010

Lecture: "Post-Modern Politics: Finding Our Way in the Age of 'Truthiness,' Tea Parties, and a Post-Fact Society"

With the approaching 2010 mid-term elections I want to offer some reflections on the state of politics in our country. More specifically, I want to offer a framework for thinking about our current political discourse. And, I also want to probe the question of political discourse in churches.

What I want to do mostly is to weave together an argument that takes us very far afield from contemporary cultural and political discourse. I want to argue that much of our political discourse is thoroughly post-modern, and I want to explain what I mean when I say that. Politics, perhaps, has always been a strange creature, but perhaps, as of late, it has seemed unusually bizarre, perplexing, and befuddling. Of course, if you lean to the left of the political spectrum, you may use other words as well: troubling, scary, dismaying. Of course, if you lean to the right of the political spectrum, you may experience similar feelings. And, come to think of it, if you consider yourself a centrist or moderate you may experience a certain sense of fear, dismay, and disappointment as well. I can’t promise that my remarks will ease your sense of despair, but I do hope that my remarks will cause a bit less head-scratching.

When I say that politics has become post-modern, what exactly do I mean? I use the word mostly in one sense, and to explain that sense I want to provide a cursory history that will allow us to think about what post-modernism might mean. [I am indebted to Brian McClaren who first introduced me to the worldview I am about to explain.]

There is a bumper sticker that I sometimes see around town and in our parking lot. The bumper sticker has a slogan on it that says, “Religion ruled the dark ages.” No doubt, those who put this bumper sticker on their cars hope to imply something about the mixing of religion and politics. In a quite literal sense that bumper sticker is both absolutely right and horribly inexact. During that period of history, the world was not very segmented, quite unlike the world as most of us experience it today. Today, our idealized image of the world resembles a very finicky child’s dinner plate. The different parts of our world are separate and ordered; the gravy cannot touch the peas. Our world has systems of religion, politics, business, education and so on, but we like to imagine these as separate. Religion and politics should not mix. Politics and education should not mix. Religion and education should not mix. And so on. The gravy should not touch the peas.

Going back in time, in the dark ages it wasn’t so much that religion ruled as it was total mush. Put the meat and potatoes and peas and gravy in the blender and put them on puree. There was no such thing as government apart from religion or education apart from religion or law or medicine apart from religion. And there was no such thing as religion apart from all those other things. Part of the reason for this extreme blending had to do with low levels of education. An educated person needed to know Latin and pretty much only the priests knew Latin. Religious authorities did all sorts of things I will never be expected to do. They provided medical care. They provided legal counsel in matters of canon law if not civil law.

Following the dark ages would come the eras we would know as the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, and the Enlightenment. Throughout these eras that we learn about in our history and humanities programs we begin to see the pureed culture of the earlier eras separate into differentiated fields. Even so, the heroes of these eras resemble no one that we encounter in our day and age. Take Leonardo Da Vinci. I think his Wikipedia page makes my point the best. The first sentence of the entry reads, “Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci… was an Italian polymath: [a] painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer.”

Or, take Thomas Jefferson, a lawyer, politician, statesman, natural historian, inventor, political scientist, botanist, and architect. Jefferson also dabbled in religious history, ethnology, and educational theory and he was also an aspiring vintner or at least a passionate oenophile. In the Unitarian Universalist tradition we lift up a famous heretic like Michael Servetus, a martyr who was burned at the stake for denying the Trinity. Servetus was also a medical doctor who made breakthroughs in the understanding of the circulatory system. Steven Johnson’s beautiful book The Invention of Air tells the story of Joseph Priestley, a British Unitarian minister who was also a political philosopher and a chemist. Priestley first described the properties of the element that would later be called oxygen. In the opening chapters of The Invention of Air we find Priestley hanging out at British coffeehouses with Ben Franklin, another exemplary polymath.

I don’t mean to belabor this point, but I am trying to describe a very different world than our own, one in which a star scientist could be a star painter and a star political philosopher. Gregor Mendel was an Augustinian monk and a pioneer in the field of genetics. Allow me to share just one more opening line from Wikipedia that I love, because it describes a blending of categories that may seem striking to us. It is from the Wikipedia entry on Erasmus and reads, “Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam was a Dutch Renaissance humanist and a Catholic priest and theologian.” (From the Greek humanism of the classical age to the Renaissance humanism of Da Vinci and Erasmus through the Enlightenment humanism of Jefferson, there was no issue with being both a humanist and a theist. Those categories had not yet been separated in our minds.)

With the industrial revolution the world sped up. The industrial world became immensely segmented and specialized. Henry Ford’s assembly line serves as an archetypal symbol for the efficiency of specialization. Each assembly line worker knew how to attach his own single piece; nobody knew how to make an entire car. In his book Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, surgeon and author Atul Gawande describes a trip to observe surgeons working in India and encounters the reality of the super-specialized modernity in which he operates. He writes,
I had gone [to India] thinking that, as an American-trained surgeon, I might have a thing or two I could teach them. But the abilities of an average Indian surgeon outstripped those of any Western surgeon I know. “What is your preferred technique for removing bladder stones?” one surgeon in the city of Nagpur asked me. “My technique is to call a urologist,” I said.
Gawande’s most recent book is entitled The Checklist Manifesto. The book is about the impossible complexity of the world in which we live and the need to create intentional ways of sorting that complexity. Two chapter titles from his book stand out. One chapter title is “The Problem of Extreme Complexity.” The other is, “The End of the Master Builder.” Those chapter titles describe the essence of modernity.

And, all of this has been a very long prologue to a point I want to make that will frame my remarks. The world that we inhabit is post-modern rather than modern. What exactly does that mean? It means that we live in a world in which our peas mix with our gravy and the radical segmentation and separation that defined modernism is crumbling.

The irony here is that people whose behaviors are actually the most post-modern don’t have any idea what the term “post-modern” means and wouldn’t be caught dead using the term. The term is used mostly by trendy intellectuals and bohemian philosophers who are, in fact, still ensconced in the most trustworthy bastions of modernism, the ivory towers of academia and highly specialized fields of knowledge.

Let us not confuse post-modern with hyper-modernism. Hyper-modernism is an extreme form of modernism that becomes a kind of futurism. Consider a modernist view of the future such as was imagined in the cartoon The Jetsons. In this cartoon the culture of the 1950s remains although technology has advanced. Changes in technology always lead to changes in culture. If you watch an episode of The Jetsons today, what is most striking is not that people travel around in rocket cars. No, what is most astonishing is that in the future a middle-class person is able to commute to a manufacturing job at Spacely’s Sprockets!

So, what do I mean when I talk about post-modern politics? I mean a world in which the political collapses into a puree of business, religion, and entertainment. We see this messiness all around us. We see it in a Supreme Court that does not know how to distinguish between corporations and human beings, or at least deliberately chooses not to. We see it in the bizarre melding of journalism and entertainment. We see it in the fact that the two biggest rallies in Washington D.C. this year will each be political events hosted by television personalities, Glenn Beck on the conservative front and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on the liberal front.

I could say more about what I see as the reasons for the decline of modernism and the ascendancy of a messy and imprecise post-modernism, but what I want to do is move on towards a description of certain facets of the world in which we live.

I recently read a book by Farhad Manjoo entitled True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society. Manjoo published this book in 2008, before Obama had secured the Democratic nomination for President. It is a thoroughly brilliant analysis of contemporary society and, although it was only written only a few years ago, it is incredibly prescient. Everything he wrote then is exponentially more relevant now. In True Enough, Manjoo begins by describing a paradox. We live in a world that is flat as Thomas Friedman would say. It is a world in which globalism and the power of the internet have made the large world much smaller. On one hand, our American culture is quite homogenous. Ninety percent of the American population, including every single person in this room, can shop at a Wal-Mart. A cul-de-sac or a strip mall in suburban Kansas City looks exactly like one in Dallas or Atlanta or Orange County, Manjoo observes.

The paradox is that even though the world has become so flat, we have become increasingly polarized in our thinking. Even though all this information is available at the click of a mouse or a remote control, we self-select our media and encapsulate ourselves in very rigid media ghettoes. Farhad Manjoo writes about both the psychology behind our behaviors and the collective impact of our behaviors on our culture.

Allow me to go into book report mode here and share some of the findings in True Enough. Manjoo shared one study in which a group consisting of self-identified conservatives and liberals were shown headlines pulled from a variety of news sources and asked to say if they would have an interest in reading the story based on the headline. Another group with conservatives and liberals were shown headlines and each headline had a news logo next to it, a logo for CNN or NPR or Fox News. The study showed that both liberals and conservatives self select the news they receive. Both have the highest levels of self selection in stories related to politics and war and the least amount of self selection with sports and human interest stories. The study also found that while both conservatives and liberals self select, conservatives do it more than liberals.

Another study that Manjoo refers to is a fascinating study done in the early 1950s. In 1951 Princeton played a football game against Dartmouth. Princeton was a top ranked team featuring a star player who had appeared on the cover of Time Magazine and would go on and win the Heisman Trophy. The superior Princeton team vanquished their foes but its star player was injured and had to spend the rest of the game on the sideline. It was an extremely physical game in which players on both sides were lost to injury. Had the Dartmouth team set out to intentionally hurt the star player for Princeton? Had Princeton retaliated? Was the play dirty or just intense? Well, it turns out that it depends on who you asked. Psychologists showed identical game films to groups of both Dartmouth and Princeton students and fans and the students and fans were asked to referee the game and count how many penalties they would have assessed on each team. As you might imagine, if you compared the list of penalties you would have guessed that the groups of students had watched different games.

A third study, in line with the research done on the Princeton-Dartmouth football game, shows that people have a perception bias not only in favor of their positions, but against fairness. Each side felt the referees were calling the game in favor of the other team. Studies done on people who watch political debates show, unsurprisingly, that people tend to think the candidate they support outperformed the other candidate in the debate. But, people on both sides feel that the coverage of the debate is slanted against their preferred candidate. Liberals rail against a conservative media bias and conservatives rail against a liberal media bias.

To simplify his argument just a bit, Manjoo says that this helps to explain the extremism and polarization we see on cable news and hear on talk radio. We tend to seek out things that confirm our own biases and we tend to perceive efforts at fairness as evidence of bias. So why even bother with a pretense of fairness? In his essay collection Consider the Lobster, the brilliant late author David Foster Wallace profiled a conservative talk radio host named John Ziegler. According to Wallace, Ziegler’s job is not to be “responsible, or nuanced, or to think about whether his on-air comments are productive or dangerous, or cogent, or even defensible… he is an entertainer… [with] exactly one on-air job, and that is to be stimulating.” [This quote is taken from a footnote in True Enough.]

What Manjoo builds up to is a claim that in our contemporary polarized society we don’t only disagree about strategies and approaches for dealing with reality. We disagree about the fundamental nature of reality. Manjoo’s study delves into various examples of areas where we don’t all agree about basic facts. He mentions 9/11 conspiracy theorists as well as sub-cultures that reject the understanding that HIV causes AIDS. He spends a significant time talking about the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth who elected to launch a campaign against Kerry in 2004 based not on criticizing his war protest efforts after returning from Vietnam but on claiming that Kerry had not served honorably or been wounded in Vietnam.

Such a post-fact society is nowhere better on display than with the disagreement about reality during the build-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent trajectory of the war. Some Americans believed — and continue to believe — that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, was working to acquire nuclear weapons, or was in cahoots with al-Qaida. Had Manjoo written his book a couple of years later, he surely would have used examples of Barack Obama’s birth certificate and those who claim Obama is a Muslim.

In popular culture, there is a catchphrase that describes this disagreement about essential truth. Allow me to quote Farhad Manjoo one more time,
On October 17, 2005, on the premier of his late-night show, the comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness”… For Colbert, who plays a blowhard TV pundit a la the Fox network’s Bill O’Reilly, “truthiness” conveyed a neat précis of a strained worldview: Stephen Colbert believed America to be split between two camps whose philosophies could never reconcile—those who “think with their head” and those who “know with their heart.” Colbert himself was a proud knower, and “truthiness” he explained, was the quality of a thing feeling true without any evidence suggesting it actually was.
It is against this background that I think I would like to talk about this thing called the Tea Party. But, before doing this, I have to ask myself what I am actually permitted to say about the Tea Party. I wondered, what do IRS regulations about political speech say about the phenomenon of the Tea Party? This is more than a digression into legalese. This discussion, as we will see, actually supports my overall premise.

As a church we are a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. As such we receive certain exemptions from taxes and contributions to us are tax-deductible. In exchange for being a tax-exempt organization, there are certain limitations imposed on us that we are required to follow to preserve our 501(c)3 status. One of those limitations has to do with the type and the frequency of political speech in which we as a church are allowed to engage. To a certain extent, the IRS regulations we are expected to follow are clear and unambiguous with the exception of when the regulations contain vagaries and are subject to interpretation.

Some of the regulations are clear. For example, I am expressly prohibited from endorsing a candidate for public office. I am not allowed to tell you to go out and vote for Sam Brownback or Jerry Moran or Kevin Yoder. And, I am not allowed to tell you to go out and vote for Tom Holland or Lisa Johnston or Stephene Moore. Further, I am not allowed to tell you to go vote for a specific political party. I am not allowed to say that it is your duty as a Unitarian Universalist to vote Democrat or vote Republican. Many churches do political advocacy in ways that are more indirect. With a deniability that is barely plausible the church tells its members that only a real Christian is fit for public office or to vote for pro-life candidates. And, there really isn’t any doubt as to whom they are talking about.

Churches have other regulations they must follow. We aren’t allowed to give money from the church coffers to candidates or to political parties. We aren’t allowed to provide in kind donations to candidates or political parties. For example, if a candidate down the street came and asked if she could use our church for a campaign strategizing session, we could provide that space but we would need to charge our standard rental rates.

However, there are many areas where the church is allowed to participate politically. We are allowed to participate on issue advocacy up to a certain level. While the level is not clearly established in IRS regulations, most people accept that the level is about 5% of the church’s total activities inclusive of programs, volunteer hours, and money. Our annual budget is $432,000. Five percent of that is $21,600. We would be perfectly within our rights and within the IRS regulations to hire a lobbyist for $21,600 and send her to Topeka to lobby for UU values. I can send out an all-church email and tell you to call Obama and demand immigration reform. I can urge you to call your senators and request that the senators support a piece of legislation. If more than five percent of my total communications to you are calls for political action, then I might risk getting in trouble.

In fact, several of our congregations in California have banded together and formed an organization called the UU Legislative Ministry. They employ an executive director, a small staff, and do political action. Unitarian Universalists in other states have followed that model. However, many churches have tended to employ this right to lobby rather cynically. Or, perhaps it is more correct to say that political operatives have used ballot questions to inflame voters and generate greater turnout having a ripple effect on the rest of the ballot.

For example, on November 2 voters in Oklahoma will vote on a bizarre ballot question that would prevent the courts from considering Sharia law and international law in legal decisions. I am told that conservative ministers are whooping it up telling their flocks that they need to go to the polls and fight the influence of Islam in our courts.

So, what about the Tea Party? What exactly is the Tea Party? I mean, I know what it is. It is a well-financed but loosely organized political movement. Is it a political party? No. Is it a branch of a political party? Sort of, and in other ways it isn’t.

The Tea Party is very mushy in the post-modern sense of the word. And mushy things don’t mix well with IRS regulations that demand that things be distinct from other things. The IRS regulations are modern. Churches are entities. Political candidates are entities. Political parties are entities. For that matter, the separation of church and state is a distinctly modern concept. You need to be able to separate the two into distinct categories which, in a post-modern world, is increasingly hard to do because that world is all about the blurring of categories.

It seems to me that figures like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck and John Stewart and Stephen Colbert don’t fit into neat categories either. They are sort of politicians and sort of political operatives and sort of journalists and sort of entertainers and sort of comedians. Calling them “cultural phenomena” seems like almost the most apt descriptor and, also, a completely insufficient and wanting descriptor.

So, there is an election that is twelve days away and I want to touch on one aspect of our national zeitgeist which is the extreme anti-government fervor that is so alive in American politics at the moment.

This anti-government fervor is popular right now and it being funded by big business. It should be noted that Wichita-based David Koch, who with his brother co-owns the second largest privately held company in the United States and who is perhaps the biggest backer of anti-government political movements, once ran for Vice-President of the United States on the Libertarian Party ticket. His campaign called for the abolition of Social Security, federal regulatory agencies, the F.B.I., the C.I.A., and public schools.

So, where does this radical anti-government agenda get us? Perhaps we saw a precursor to this dystopian vision recently in an unincorporated area outside a small town in Tennessee. Maybe you are familiar with the story in which fire fighters refused to respond to this man’s 911 calls because he had not paid a $75 fire coverage fee.

Matt Taibbi is a liberal reporter who has published several exposés of people with virulent anti-government rhetoric who actually receive money from the government. Several of his best examples are candidates for office running on anti-government platforms. But, one of his better examples is not a candidate as far as I can tell. It is that man, you may have heard of him, who has parked a trailer out in his field in Kansas and has painted a message on the trailer that declares, “Are you a producer or a parasite? Democrats - party of the parasites.” And, you guessed it, among other government benefits he receives, is a federal farm subsidy for the land on which the trailer sits.

It seems to me that we can have discussions about how the government ought to allocate money, even the levels of taxation. Discussions about whether the government ought to exist reveal a kind of hopeless split that Manjoo describes.

On this particular issue, here is what I propose. I’m not about to start this campaign, but if I had some huge role in shaping public perception I think I would launch a “truth about taxes” campaign. What if we just created little stickers that said, “Subsidized with tax dollars” and went and put those stickers, and yard signs, and billboards on every thing we see and eat that is, in fact, subsidized with tax dollars? And, I mean everything: Tanks and aircraft carriers. Stadiums. Roads. That farmer’s field. Hospitals. Schools. Mailboxes. Of course, really telling the truth about taxes would require that I stick these stickers all over my own life. The diplomas in my office—subsidized with tax dollars. The food I eat – USDA approved, and therefore subsidized with tax dollars. The pills I take – FDA approved, and therefore subsidized with tax dollars.

If the post-modern world is really about mushiness and the collapsing of categories, then it would seem as if we could label that mush with a big sticker that says, “Subsidized with tax dollars.” I would suggest that our best efforts would be spent not trying to reinforce and prop up the categories and distinctions that are crumbling. Rather, our best efforts are likely to be spent attempting to define the reality of the interconnected, interdependent blend.

The politics we see right now is based so much on fear and anger. And, I probably didn’t need to get all wrapped up in post-modern theory. However, what accounts for the fear and anger being directed one way and not another? Why the outrage directed towards Muslims and not towards US military policy? Why the outrage directed towards politicians and not towards corporations? Why the outrage against Obama’s deficit spending and not Bush’s deficit spending, towards the stimulus and not towards the deregulation of prior administrations? Why the outrage against the Health Care Bill and not against inadequate health care to begin with? Why outrage that targets people of color, immigrants, and gays instead of the inequities of socio-economic stratification? It is true that an enormous amount of money is being spent vilifying some. But, I do wonder if it is fair to insist that some of this anger is arbitrary, though it certainly must not feel arbitrary to those who find themselves as society’s perennial scapegoats. Understanding the reality of a post-fact society does not solve the challenges we face. It should, however, shape our responses and our strategies.

[This lecture was delivered on October 21, 2010.]

Andrew Bacevich, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War
Atul Gawande, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes of Performance
Farhad Manjoo, True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post Fact Society
Matt Taibbi, “Matt Taibbi on the Tea Party” Rolling Stone, October 15, 2010
Unitarian Universalist Association, “The Real Rules”
David Foster Wallace, “The Host” in Consider the Lobster