Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The 'Fundamental Virtues'

Flying is one of those interesting contexts when people will usually be happy to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. It can be awkward when you realize that you’re falling into a political discussion with someone whose views are diametrically opposed to yours. I view these situations as an opportunity: a moment in time where it’s genuinely possible to learn something. I was sitting next to an older gentleman on a flight from LA to DC. As we were pulling back from the gate, I noticed the title of the chapter he was reading: “The Battle of Britain” and I immediately saw an opening.

“My granddad flew Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain”, I said. He looked up, a little baffled and I repeated myself by way of introduction. We started to chat. The book he was reading was a catalog of the seven moments in history. Seven separate events that the authors singled out as signature moments when 'Christian Freedom and Democracy' were preserved from the onrushing invasions of malignant invaders. One chapter was about the Persians at Thermopylae, another about the conversion of the Emperor Augustine, another about Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes, and of course, the Battle of Britain. I had reservations and voiced them. Isn’t that ignoring a whole slice of history? Wasn’t that conveniently forgetting the excesses of the Borgias and the Catholic Church in the days just before the reformation? He fielded my questions with some grace but not much engagement and we left it at that, for the time being.

Simplicity is appealing when we’re talking about virtue and goodness. Complex things, grey areas, pragmatic issues of contradictions lead to all sorts of issues and so it’s expedient to simplify matters to the simple dichotomy of ‘Good Guys’ and ‘Bad Guys’, or more sinisterly ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. Complexity leads to hemming and hawing, to moralistic relativity and the apparent slippery slope of compromise. Having said that, a simplistic view of what is right and wrong invariably leads to the sort of intractable argument that our political dialogue is currently, ridiculously, engaged in: a clash of core values that leads nowhere.

I hold the following boldly stated view: there are three fundamental virtues: (A) Compassion, (B) Integrity and (C) Understanding. These are inviolable, sacrosanct, absolute and, for want of a better word, ‘good’. Their inverse: Cruelty, Dishonesty and Ignorance embody what I consider as ‘evil’. The simplicity of this holds me in a strong grasp and interestingly, involves subtle complex pitfalls when applied to other people. Am I being compassionate or understanding towards others if I insist that they adopt my virtues as their own and judge them negatively if they don’t? This is where the complexity and depth lives of any truly moral person: in the consequences of your deeply held views to others.

In my mind, a Christian who preaches the Bible’s lessons of love and forgiveness only to turn around and say that homosexuality is a sin (and by consequence, any gay man or woman is damned) is a shocking contradiction with real, painful consequences to those people. The act of compassion requires you to ‘dethrone yourself from the center of your world and place another there’, leading inexorably to the golden rule: Do unto others as you have them do unto you. I doubt that any living soul would actually ask for someone else to issue a judgment of eternal damnation on them based on something as arbitrary and unconscious as sexual orientation, but I guess there’s a whole doctrine of sin to worry about. No, I say, let’s keep it simple: focus on Compassion, Integrity and Understanding and everything else will be fine.

My newly found friend and I started, inevitably, to chat about politics. He is a fiscal conservative, a bit more centrist on social issues and a frequent viewer of Fox News. He doesn’t like Hannity, Limbaugh or Coulter, but still feels that the Fox perspective is fair and balanced. He doesn’t believe the liberal media’s biases and positively loathes the demagogues of the left. He despises Barney Frank and Al Gore and argues passionately about Obama’s budgetary foolishness, about the importance of deregulation and the various ways in which the wealthy shouldn’t be penalized for their success. He and I talk about Health Care and the various sins of the left (from his perspective) and the right (from mine).

I suddenly realized that something important was happening: that he and I lived through the same events: the town hall meetings in 2009 where so much appalling propaganda was pumped through the airwaves surrounding the Health Care bill (mainly, in my mind, originating from the right wing, but he asserted from the left as well) and we had completely different experiences of those events. We literally were living in different worlds, with different logics and different narratives. There was no possible agreement or consensus between us largely because neither of us was getting the full picture. For whatever reason, whoever is to blame, there was almost no way of making an impartial, well-informed, fact-based evaluation of the issues since everything had been reduced to a polemic ‘them-against-us’ sort of argument. So many of the talking points we see in the public forum are geared to denigrating and dismissing our adversaries; of scoring points and killing off; of ridiculing and disingenuously undermining the others arguments.

Here was a man who had spent his life in business finances and he was sharing his expertise with me. The least I could do is listen and think carefully about what he was telling me about the tax code. I’ve read in the Economist (a publication with some chops in this area) that the latest wave of regulations in this arena are just too cumbersome and yet, as a good little liberal, I’m offered a moralistic justification for this legislation based on how the ‘banks are bad’. How can I, as a responsible citizen in a democracy, hold the reigns of power and hold my government to account if I have no accurate access to well-informed information? It’s impossible.

I dread the next few months as we all dissolve into the sepid, vile dialogue of a particularly negative presidential campaign where the three evils of aggression, bullshit and ignorance will reign supreme. I enjoyed my conversation with my new right-wing friend. I learned some things and I hope that he heard me when I said to him: “Don’t demonize the people involved in the conversation but listen to what they have to say”.

I walked away from the interaction feeling more far strongly that these fundamental virtues are the only things that really matter. On the whole, I could care less and less about a person’s political views. I do care very deeply why they might feel the way they feel. Are they motivated by compassion, honesty and understanding? If not, do they understand why? I will probably become a little strident concerning these virtues during the coming presidential campaign.

Let us elevate the level of debate, treat our adversaries with consideration and tell the truth. If anyone wants to make the claim that the USA is the greatest democracy in the world, they should be prepared for my comeback: “Show Me”.

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