Friday, April 29, 2005

The rise of the semi-demagogues (anti-religion -v- anti-secular)

"Those who think they can and those who think they can't are both right."
--Henry Ford

Currently in the convetional Western news: Iran continues to express defiance towards U.S. suggestions of reprisals for continuing to develop nuclear technology; Vietnam is remembering "the fall of Saigon" thity years ago; reaction to a prime time press conference last night by President Bush (USA) on social security reform.

Currently it is dark outside with a partly cloudy night sky. Two police officers are parked across the street and are using portable search lights to look for something. The radio is playing the bumper music of a talk show on an AM radio station...


More and more idealogues in the public sphere of the United States are inspiring the rise of (or in some cases transforming themselves) into semi-demagogues. Of course, it is not the case that passionate idealogues always endorse the semi-demagogues they inspire. So how does a semi-demigogue differ from an outright full-fledged demagogue? The semi-demagogues are more subtle than outright demagogues because they mask their contempt for the opposition with claims of logical or factual superiority. Their attacks come in the form of incredulity and indignance at the intellectual or moral shortcomings of their opponents. They may believe they are guided by modest reason or deep faith, and couch their arguments in the cloak of the language of polite and honest discourse, yet the form of their discourse reveals a single-minded apologetics for a foregone conclusion.

The semi-demagogues' seemingly rational arguments are constructed to support the a priori preferred point of view rather than to generate and test points of view with equal chances of being adopted pending the outcome of logic and evidence. They genuinely believe they are "doing the right thing" and that theirs is the obvious conclusion of a sincere person with an adequate view of reality. Others disagree because they are deceptive, deluded, uneducated, or stupid. They are more problematic than outright demagogues because they are more subtle and can offer a seemingly respectable model for feelings of superiority and arrogant dismissal toward those of differing views.

However, the semi-demagogue cannot operate effectively for long periods out of a single narrowly defined issue. That is the domain of ideologues and full-fledged demagogues. Instead a semi-demagogue has a few or several related issues that he can switch back and forth between as need or interest dictates. Commonly there is a single enemy, i.e. party, philosophy, movement, idea, etc. which is presented by the semi-demagogue as generating problems or conflict in the aforementioned set of related issues or topics. The arguments supporting the notion that this "enemy" is the common root of several pressing problems, as mentioned, take the form of seemingly reasonable and well-considered opinions. They have at least the token appearance of respectability.

A common pattern insues. Opponents or skeptics of a particular ideology come to identify a particular point of view with the highly visible impassioned idealogues (who get plenty of press). These idealogues are demonized by opposing semi-demagogues. This leads to a retreat from common ground to rally around an impassioned idealogue of a rival view. As each side becomes more reactive, intolerant, and distrustful of the other, silent biases become outspoken prejudices. Each side claims the intellectual and moral high ground while coming to more openly ridicule opposing perspectives. More moderate and temperate people become alarmed at the rise of such sentiments, but generally they notice it first in the camps with which they were already prediposed to disagree. They may join with or support the passionate idealogues espousing their own views, and as they become more worried about the increasing volitility and advancement of "the other side" they may then migrate to the semi-demagogues. Once the polarization has progressed sufficiently, full-fledged demagogues emerge and violence (social, political, physical) ensues as the conflict comes to a head.

Now, this pattern does not always follow through to the final stages. And, again, not all forms of violence are directly comparable (for example intellectual censorship versus murder). Sometimes these conflicts simply simmer in the background. They may stall at any point for a variety of reasons, from the emergence of more prominent moderate voices to people losing interest in one set of issues in favor of another. Or there may simply not be enough reactive types to generate the necessary fervor to fuel the polarization. Yet it is worth noting that academic, social, and or political intolerance and prejudice often grows slowly and it is imperative to keep an eye out for the rise of semi-demagogues and to note the kind of influence they manage to acquire.

No, this is not a chicken-little routine. Not every highly polarized ideological battle is the end of the world. True, at worst, it can lead to war and civil upheaval, but in less dramtic fashion it can also impede social, academic, or other advances by consuming resources such as political will, social activism, and money.

I'm sure many people at this point think I am talking solely about the rise of right-wing semi-demagogues in the United States who helped to elect and re-elect George W. Bush as President and his allies in Congress. It is true that at time some conservative semi-demagogues exaggerated or fabricated "enemies" to rally their base and fuel political polarization. But the hardest part of dismantling the entrenched ramparts of "knee-jerk" oppositionalism is to recognize the semi-demagogues and biases in our own camps. I think that generally those who identify themselves as secular, pro-evolution, and politically progressive have been too individualistic to promote and maintain large numbers of their own semi-demagogues, though they have no end of passionate idealogues.

However, given events such as 9/11, the political success of conservative demagogues in generating support for far-right candidates in a populace that tends to favor centrism, the increasing onslaught of organized efforts to promote anti-evolutionism, etc., may be changing that dynamic. The quiet (and sometimes guilt-ridden) prejudices of the secular community, previously voiced only by the most radical of their ilk, are becoming more openly expressed. And yes, it is done under the guise of rational conclusions possessed of moral superiority. Some of it is likely just frustration, or an attempt to fight fire with fire. But the rise of the secular semi-demagogues appears to be imminent/underway. True to form they take their inspiration from well-known and often controversial passionate idealogues. Whether or not they are just a passing fad, a flavor-of-the-month reaction, or whether they become a fixture of the secular side of Western society had yet to be determined.

The problem with the semi-demagogues on both sides of an ideological divide, aside from the internal conflict generated, is the wasted opportunity to find common ground in forming solutions to mutual problems. Rather than "blaming each other" for such problems, a dialogue of mutual respect can be established. To take this out of the maddeningly abstract to a concrete example, consider the following: Fanaticism has beset humanity throughout recorded history. Fanaticism has been rooted in every cultural institution, from tribal conflict to extreme nationalism, from racism to ethnic cleansing, from battles over partisan supremacy to holy war. The last example, religion, is certainly a sore point between the secularists and the faithful. Neither anti-secularism nor anti-religionism is new, but both have taken on a great deal of ferocity of late. Ironically, both sides are missing some pretty vital common ground.

Spiritualism is a search for human virtue and fulfillment, whereas religion houses traditions for guiding people in this search. By necessity religion adopts the cultural understanding/conventional wisdom of the workings of the universe. This understanding, for numerous (proposed) reasons, has often included supernaturalism. It also includes imagery and myth for conveying deep revelations about human nature. Supernaturalism and myth tend to merge into the kinds of beliefs that people commonly associate with religion, and, unforunately, with the kinds of belief some come to equate with religion. In addition, as might be expected, religious traditions tend to be fairly conservative and slow to change. There is a constant question of which of these elements (spirituality, myth, supernaturalism) and their compounds (for example a literal belief in winged immortal beings that you can see and touch called angels) should hold priority. Faith (deep trust) may be placed in any or all of these elements of religion, with varying results. In some cases you get blind obedience to dogma, whereas in other cases you get unwaivering devotion to the equality and value of all people. So what's the point of this rough and ready sketch of religion and spirituality?

Religion is not dogma. Like other movements or organizations that become cultural institutions, they can be co-opted and shaped to fit the will of the ruling class or party. It is simplistic to say that religious faith is in and of itself dangerous or outdated. Instead it is more reasonable (and in a way kind of obvious) that is the construction of some beliefs that are outdated. By simply attacking "faith", the polarization will continue and worsen. But by instead continuing to educate people and working with groups who are motivated to update the views of the world incorporated by religions into their spiritual guidance, the objections to ideas that some groups label as against-their-faith (for example, respect for multiple cultures, evolutionary theory, etc.) will shrink as new knowledge is successfully incorporated and contextualized in terms of their religious convictions. By declaring some kind of secular jihad on religion and faith as hazardous anti-modern liabilities, the problem will worsen rather than improve. Rather than driving away religious liberals and moderates as complicit co-conspirators in perpetuating dangerous and backward traditions (which appears to be a minorty view among secularists but slowly growing in popularity among some), they should be seen as allies in reason.

Now wasn't that a long and rambling thing? And whether you were nodding in agreement, groaning in dismay, or scratching your head in confusion, life goes on.

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