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My Problem With Religion, 7

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As I write these blog entries, there is a situation occuring in the United States that I think may be unprecedented in our history.  I have no idea how this is being reported abroad, although I do get a couple of European news channels and check a few web sites every day.  As far as I can tell, very little is being said about it, and what is being said is perfunctory: when Democrats take to the field to defend and promote President Obama’s health care reforms, they’re met with a lot of opposition.

Well, it’s not opposition they’re being met with, although that’s there, too.  What they’re getting is large groups of outrightly angry people, and those people are not angry at insurance companies or the private health care system now operating in the US. 

It would be dificult to exagerate the fury–and I do mean fury-of what probably is about a fifth of the US  electorate against the very idea of government funded health insurance.  

And that’s in spite of the fact that the US  already has government funded health insurance, and a lot of it.  Medicare (for people over 65) and Medicaid (for the poor) and the various CHIPs programs (for children across a broad range of the middle class) now pay almost 40% of the health care bill in the United States. 

But the real kicker, the thing that completely flummoxes me, is the direction in which these criticisms have been going.  Several chain e-mails and a couple of web site newsletters have spread the contention that the new health care legislation would institute “death panels,” for instance, that would “pull the plug on Grandma” (that’s President Obama’s phrase) because she was using up too much resources and, you know, she’s old, she’s going to die anyway.

In other words, something like a fifth of US voters think that Obama’s drive to provide universal health insurance to everybody in the country is a disguised maneuver to kill them.

But don’t get all superior to the ignorant fundamentalists–which is how they’re being portrayed by at least some of the Democratic Party–because I’ve just spent eight years listening to a big hunking pile of liberals and people on the left tell me that democracy is dead in America, Bush and Cheney are rigging the elections, the whole thing about 9/11 is just a ruse to declare martial law and suspend the Constitution, making W. President for Life.

There was no evidence whatsover that Bush and Cheney were getting ready to suspend the Constitution, and there’s no evidence whatsoever that the new health care reform bill includes “death panels,” or anything like them. 

What there is evidence of is a country that is not only increasingly without a shared narrative uniting all (or most) of its citizens, but a country in which two competing narratives are sucking in more and more of the electorate.

And the two competing narratives are not compatible, because they are essentially the same narrative wth different cast lists.   There is the Real  America, the Good America, over here.  There is the Bad America, the anti-America, over there.  We uphold the good and the right and the true.  They’re allied with the devil.  They want to kill us.

If you don’t want to confine yourself to  American politics, you can take this same paradigm global, because it will work with much of the media in Europe, and the peculiar form of “anti-Americanism” that is actually anti-some kind of fantasy with no basis in reality.

But then, aren’t the twin hysterias of left and right within America also fantasies with no basis in reality?  In Europe, I’ve been told that only the rich get health care in America (actually, everybody does, irrespective of ability to pay), that old people are left to starve (social security went into effect in FDR’s administration), that the movie Sicko was banned from screens across the Midwest (it went everywhere, and is now freely available on cable movie channels), and that the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were a secret set-up by the Bush administration to allow them to invade Iraq (look, logic aside here, even Cheney could have done better than that).

Right wing America tells me that “left-liberals” are going to shred the Constitution, take away free speech and freedom of religion, and impose secularism on the nation.  Left wing America tells me that “fundamentalists” are going to shred the Constitution, take away free speech and freedom of religion, and impose Biblical literalism on the nation.

Neither side seems to be capable of thinking that the two different points of view could possibly live together under the dispensation the Founders envisioned–lots of people who didn’t agree on lots of things willing to put those aside every once in a while to get the roads laid and the bridges built and the mail delivered.

It may seem like I’ve veered off the topic of these posts, but I haven’t really.  We’re either going to find a shared narrative, or die. 

And there are certainly lots of different ways that we can find such a narrative.  One is to have one imposed by force, which is what the American left and right are really worried about.   There is certainly historical precedent for attempts to impose such narratives by force.  The history of Islam is virtually nothing else. 

Another way is to require a public acceptance of an official central narrative without delving too far into how thoroughly the people doing the accepting actually believe.  You wouldn’t think that this would actually work, but the Romans managed it for centuries, with the proviso that public acceptance constituted at least a declaration of loyalty to the government of Rome.

That particular option, however, requires that none of the constituent parts of your nation hold beliefs that preclude their aquiescence to that public acceptance.  “We don’t give a damn what you believe,” the Romans said to the Jews, “honoring the Roman Gods just means you promise not to rebel against Rome.”  “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” the Jews thundered back, “God himself said that.”

Oh, well.

The most successful way to solve this problem, however, is for a new narrative to arise to take the place of the old one.

It’s hard to say what will be successful in a narrative before it arises.  The story of some guy who lives poor, dies poorer and is executed as a common criminal probably did not strike the Romans as a serious threat to the Roman narrative, but it was. 

We can say some things about successful narratives, however.

First is that they have to be narratives–they have to be stories.  Lectures and logical proofs will not do it.

Second is that they can’t violate common knowledge unless common knowledge can be definitively proven to be false.  And even then, it’s better if they don’t present prospective believers with periodic knowledge shocks.  Think about reading a lovely novel that y ou’re really into when the author suddenly tells you that Paris is the capital of Italy.   It pulls you right out of the story and makes it that much harder for you to get lost in it.

Third–and possibly most important–it must speak to real, immediate, pressing human concerns.

Robert thought that the environmentalists were a good candidate for establishing a new narrative. . I don’t, because most of what they concentrate on is abstract to most people.  Global warming, evil corporations, the cultural constrction of gender–to the guy sitting in a diner at six o’clock in the morning, worrying about the results of his wife’s breast biopsy, it’s all going to seem a little remote.

Star Wars, now.  Or Harry Potter.  Or Middle Earth.

That’s something else again.

Written by janeh

August 12th, 2009 at 7:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'My Problem With Religion, 7'

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  1. I’ve seen very little on the US health care debate. There was a minor kerfuffle about one of the Canadians claiming in US ads that she would have died without US care (turns out to have almost certainly not been the case), and more recently a CBC story about Obama’s response to critics – I think that’s where I saw the term ‘death panels’. There was something on BBC saying ‘So are the “grassroots” genuinely angry, or are the protests simply manufactured “astroturf”? That depends largely on your politics – or whether you watch the liberal MSNBC or conservative Fox News.’ So I’m not getting the impression of a sizeable reaction against Obama on this, but then, I’m not getting a lot of news about it.

    As for the other things, I’m tempted to go back to the old liberal ideas of equality of all under the law and tolerance for differences, bolstered by the various national myths. But that’s the past. If the basic processes return, they’ll probably do so in another guise.

    I can’t see finding that guise in Star Wars or Harry Potter or even Middle Earth, though. Oh, you have the good versus evil thing, but it’s a long way from that to an ingrained conviction that you have to be polite to your neighbour and treat him decently even if he is .


    12 Aug 09 at 8:32 am

  2. I agree: there are two competing narratives: two world views, two value systems, two images of the country and its interests, two belief systems, two notions of how the world is and how the US fits into it. I was going to say that this seems like a strange development, since the US has generally been more centrist than many European countries. But that might be more the post-war period, when we all shared one narrative about the US, our values, our place in the world, but argued about the details (more or less government, etc.).

    Here in Russia I haven’t seen any mainstream coverage of the debate/rowdy meetings, but in general, the US is Enemy #1 (literally the state orders to the TV stations), so I’m sure it will be presented with great schandenfreude as yet another sign that the country is a mess and about the break up into six separate states (predicted for 2010). Here too you go into a different dimension with the US. It is common knowledge that: Bush organized 9/11 to give himself a pretext to invade the Middle East; the US has been pumping oil in Iraq and pocketing the money and oil; the US “elites” arranged the economic crisis to bring down the world and conquer it; the 12 Federal Reserve Banks are going to organize a coup, destroy the dollar, bring down the world and conquer it; Obama was either “allowed” to be President so that a black man would be blamed for its economic/social destruction (and then somebody unnamed takes over and conquers the world) or is just a figurehead not allowed access to secret documents; the entire world and especially the Europeans acquiesce to everything we say and do because they are terrified of our power; we organized the war in Georgia to test Russian defenses before we launch our attack on them; US and NATO soldiers fought on the side of Georgia and Israeli generals gave the orders; Americans are godless and irreligious; Protestantism is a (small) sect and not Christian; Americans have no culture, music, etc. but have “stolen” it all from everyone else; the US is the leader of a world-wide battle to destroy Orthodoxy; all aid groups working in Russia are trying to either kill off the population or foment revolution; we use the death sentence constantly; if you have a heart attack on the street no one will touch you unless you produce an insurance card; and we are the most stupid people in the world (but, paradoxically, all-powerful).

    Oh, the swine flu? That’s us, too. We tested it on Mexico to see how lethal it was. Now we’re fine-tuning it to use in the fall. The idea is, well, we’re going to kill most everyone off and then take over the world.

    Sorry for the digression, but there’s also this kind of competing narrative.

    I think we need some aliens to land; that would be a new narrative. But seriously… I don’t know how to re-unite. I think the next 5-20 years are going to be all about this — fighting among ourselves to create a new American identity.


    12 Aug 09 at 10:09 am

  3. “But don’t get all superior to the ignorant fundamentalists–which is how they’re being portrayed by at least some of the Democratic Party–because I’ve just spent eight years listening to a big hunking pile of liberals and people on the left tell me that democracy is dead in America, Bush and Cheney are rigging the elections, the whole thing about 9/11 is just a ruse to declare martial law and suspend the Constitution, making W. President for Life.”

    I was working in the Boston area in 1967. A very intelligent, highly educated man asked me “Do you think Johnson will allow the next presidental election?”

    As far as I can tell from this distance, the US has been going downhill since then. It seems to be getting worse and worse.

    Vut, frankly, I’ve given up reading about the US. The Australian press is hopeless and the NY Times online is too depressing.


    12 Aug 09 at 4:05 pm

  4. I think I got simplified to the point of error. When I described the Movement as a nascent religion, I mentioned several elements in addition to environmentalism, some of which–for instance multi-culturalism and opposition to the death penalty–have nothing to do with environmentalism. Another– opposition to nuclear power–would seem to be directly contradicted by a belief in global warming. There’s no logical reason to be both anti-nuclear power and pro-bilingual education, but there’s a huge overlap of beliefs.
    In Chemistry we used to have a “supersaturated solution.” It looked like a regular liquid, but a VERY slight change would cause the dissolved solution to precipitate out.
    I think that’s what we’ve got here–about a dozen shared beliefs waiting for the narrative which will link them, logically or not, into a single belief system. It’s happened before, and the rise to power at that stage can be startlingly fast.

    On split narratives: recent polling suggests that about the same percentage of conservatives believe Obama was born outside the United States as liberals believe Bush either knew in advance or planned 9-11–or African Americans believe AIDS is a government plot against them–about 30-40% in all three cases. That’s not a stable situation, and as engineers will tell you stressed systemsm tend to reach stability quite suddenly.


    12 Aug 09 at 4:58 pm

  5. “as engineers will tell you stressed systemsm tend to reach stability quite suddenly.”

    Yes, as in the sense that an overloaded brige collapses. :(

    Robert’s comment about 30-40% is quite frightening.


    12 Aug 09 at 5:36 pm

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