Pat Gunn (dachte) wrote,
Pat Gunn

Spotting the High-Water Mark

For a long time, I've had the opinion that America is in decline; this doesn't bother me much because I don't see myself as being specifically American so much as post-nationalist. I could move somewhere else, and even if I don't there's no reason my ego demands that where I live be the centre of everything. I wonder about the high-water mark for America; are we actually making progress as a society? In some ways I believe we are. We're slowly becoming more inclusive, learning to shove aside those with an excessively narrow notion of what a worthwhile life looks like. This is not an easy task, nor is it one where our success is going to be even across the whole nation. Even there we have some worrying setbacks; a combative two-party system's polarisation tugs against any social change, while dismantling of inadequately-defended societal institutions will create generational effects.

Progress is a pretty vague term, and not one I like. It may make sense just as a vague term for people who believe that a better society is something we have to build rather than something we lost once and need to restore; that's a very foundational idea in how people talk about politics. Someone who might say "the founding fathers botched a lot of things and got some things right, and we've been on a slow, painful path of self-improvement since" is likely to see politics differently from someone who thinks "we once had a fantastic government, but a series of inadequate responses to natinoal crises caused us to lose our greatness". Taken to extremes, we have people who tie the "fallen from greatness" idea into various themes in religion/myth. Still, deciding we're for progress doesn't say a lot about what progress means; everyone who likes the term would like to claim it as representing exclusively their ideals.

Politicians like Santorum: it irks me that they're able to get traction after doing things like attacking public schooling and defending the crusades. Shameless jingoistic pride may make sense from people who need a mythical past to be proud of in order to like who they are, but I think it's terribly unhealthy.

A few other thoughts:

  • I'm not happy about Peter King's hearings about radicalisation of Muslims in America. This is not because I don't think it's something we should talk about (a failure to talk about that in Europe, at least before Pim Fortuyn, has led to major problems), but because I don't think this is the right way to do it. Doing it well might be very difficult given the current hysteria over the topic in large parts of American society (which is, as far as I can tell, significantly astroturfing based on a loose understanding of the facts). If we need to talk about multiculturalism in America (and maybe we do), how can we do so? My notion of our society is that it should officially tolerate and be reasonably comfortable with faiths that can
  • coexist in our melting pot
  • abide by our laws
  • have their members take part in the political process by appealing to secular reason rather than relying on religious ideas
  • fit, roughly speaking, into the range of values that exist in our society
  • manage to survive without particular state support
and that some-but-not-all forms of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and other faiths are capable of those things. We do not need to "pave the path" for them, giving them special support from the state or guaranteeing their ability to do whatever their beliefs suggest (so there's no need to allow them use of otherwise-prohibited substances, for example).

On Sharia in particular, I think there's a point in that some forms of Islam that doctrinally demand that Sharia become the overarching law of the land. This is not all there is to sharia though, nor do all Muslims either subscribe substantially to Sharia nor have the same notion of it. Sharia as a private "way of living" is effectively a set of personal restraints or an ethical code, and like vegetarianism, I would not expect to see it significantly banned. There are matters between, such as Sharia courts as arbitration courts, where I believe a reasonable discussion might be had. These matters must be handled with both serious efforts to appreciate their complexity and sensitivity not to scapegoat communities that might reasonably exist in the United States; the largely conservative-led anti-Sharia efforts are incapable of providing the right forum.

I am concerned that the opportunity to see Qaddafi fall in Libya may have been list because of too much heel-dragging from the international community. Instead of providing military suppot or even cover to the rebel groups, the international community has only offered demands that Qaddafi step down and frozen some assets; only very recently has the Arab League agreed to ask the UN Security Council for a no-fly zone over the country (unlikely to happen because China will openly do business with the worst regimes on the planet). I understand Obama's unwillingness to undertake military action without international support, but in this case I feel it's shortsighted and will have dire consequences, for the meager benefit of making the US look like a more cautious international power.

Scott Adams (Dilbert) recently made a terribly stupid post on feminism, to delete it shortly afterwards. Is there a fragment of a point among the offensive comparisons and apples-to-oranges comparisons? Perhaps, but it's not significant enough to worry about; the sexes are more-or-less natural categories of humanity, fundamental in the way races are not. We can expect there to be gender issues and questions as to what justice means between the sexes long into the future, while racial issues may become moot someday. Likewise, there are some actual differences between males and females, some statistical, some stronger than that, and how we align society to handle areas where men and women are likely or definitely different is tricky. We should be prepared to accept that either our specific ideas of equity will not be met, or that things might not be quite fair on some deeper level; while we might make reasonable efforts to address these matters, we should also accept that, like with other policy and societal issues, neither the state nor our fellow people will likely get things perfectly right. This doesn't mean one sex should "suck it up" as a special duty. Toleration of smaller imperfections should not be seen as a "strategy" for men to get the ladies — it's instead part of what it means to be a civilised human. Without the surpression of instincts for sex and aggression (in either gender), society cannot hold together. These repressions are positive because they make civilisation possible (see Freud: Civilisation and its Discontents); without them we're not *just* at a competitive disadvantage, we lose our potential to thrive. These are not male versus female instincts; civilisation is a duty for both sexes and requires repression of each. Any commitment, plan, restraint is a struggle against the ego that, except in rare situations of primal conflict, makes us better off. I don't think we should resent these repressions or denigrate them as a concession for longer-term simple success; they're deeper than that.


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