Sunday, July 05, 2009

Why do so many Conservatives make clearly insane statements?

I have long wondered why the conservatives publicly make so many absolutely insane statements. For example, Sarah Palin's Friday announcement of her resignation considered in view of her Presidential ambitions seemed utterly insane. So do the efforts of the Discovery Institute to abolish the teaching of science to our children in public schools and replace it with Bible instruction. Then I read a rather arcane literary search to find the source of an odd quotation, and suddenly I had a minor "Aha!" moment. Those people are not insane. They simply hear a different music from what I hear.

So bear with me. The way to the "Aha!" is, like so many such revelations, a bit twisty. Let me start with Mark Kleiman's posts on his problem quote.

Mark Kleiman at The Reality-Based Community recently was taken by a phrase and decided to track it down to its source. The phrase was
"Those who dance appear insane to those who cannot hear the music."
His investigation is reported at The posts are interesting as a literary puzzle, and the quotation itself does need some recounting of its history of use to make a lot of sense. So I read them both. And with the resolution to the puzzle, I got more than I bargained for. I got what appears to be a real lesson in how we humans understand each other - or how we fail to do so.

In explanation I need to reproduce the fruits of Mark's exploration first. It's a quotation from Henri Bergson translated from the French to English.
I would now like to draw attention, as a symptom no less worthy of note, the lack of feeling which ordinarily accompanies laughter. It seems that the comic can only shake a person up on condition of falling upon the surface of a truly calm soul, one that is well integrated. Indifference is its natural environment. Laughter has no greater enemy than emotion. I’m not saying that we cannot laugh at a person who arouses, for example, pity in us, or even affection; only that for a few moments it would be necessary to forget affection, to tell pity to be silent. In a society of pure intelligences one would probably no longer cry, but one would perhaps still laugh; whereas souls that are invariably sensitive — in agreement and at one with life, where every event would be prolonged as a resonance of feeling — would not recognize or understand laughter. Try, for a moment, to let everything that is said or is being done capture your attention; act, in your imagination, with those who act, feel with those who feel, let your sympathy open up as wide as possible, and as though struck by a magic wand you will see the lightest objects take on weight, and all things imbued with a severe color. Now detach yourself, look upon life as an indifferent observer; even dramas will turn into comedy. It is enough for us to stop up our ears to the sound of music, in a room where people are dancing, in order that the dancers immediately appear ridiculous. How many human actions would be able to resist a test of this type? and would we not see many of them go from being solemn to funny, if we isolated them from the feeling that accompanies them? Therefore, the comic, in order to produce its complete effect, in the end demands something like a momentary anesthesia of the heart. It is addressed to pure intelligence.
In essence that says "You cannot understand how the dance you see makes sense if you do not know the environment - the music - the dance is conducted in."

Or to reverse that, if someone does or says something that is simply incomprehensible to the point of being insane, perhaps you are not aware of the environment within which it is being done or said.

Which brings me to the way conservatives and liberals see the political issues that are current in today's American political climate. For one point, why did Sarah Palin's announcement of her resignation effective July 26th seem so insane? We don't know what the actual environment Palin is operating in. In terms of Palin running for President in 2012, her resignation announcement is simply insane. But her running for President is the talk of the Pundits. Palin may simply not want to run for President. In fact, Palin may not want to advance in politics at all. Some reports indicate that she is sick of it. If the music she is dancing to suggests that she simply go back to her family and look for other ways to earn a living, then her announcement suddenly makes complete sense.

Or take another thing. The idea being pushed by the Discovery Institute that science is inherently wrong and at best should only be taught to children in school in classes that contrast evolution with the Biblical myths of the creation. As a person with extensive training in science, statistics and research methods and academic management studies, I find the idea that the Creation myth could substitute for science to be literally insane. But what I do not have is a correspondingly deep grounding in the Christian Bible, since it never made rational sense to me and never had sufficient literary interest to keep my attention for long. *

No doubt what the Discovery Institute wants to do is push a thorough grounding in the Bible onto all students. The fact that my mother was similarly insistent and I quickly learned to resist such pressures as not responding to the things I was curious about means nothing to the religious zealots of the Discovery Institute, nor does the utter impracticability of the the literal reading of the Bible as a substitute for science. I simply don't want and have never wanted induction into their environment. But also pretty obviously, they have no use for the environment I have been attracted to all my life. They reject it (science) and want modern children to similarly do so.

The real "Aha!" for me was to realize that Creationism is NOT insanity. It is simply the rational expression of the total environment the Fundamentalist Christians have created for themselves and now emerse themselves into. They have their own school systems, their own separate churches (which reject mainstream churches and call them "Unchristian") and with FOX News, they have their own captive popular news outlet on TV. They also teach their followers that all sources outside their captive media are telling lies and should be rejected.

US Senators like Jeff Sessions and Jim Inhofe have come out of that environment and are representative of it. The apparently insane statements they make describing their beliefs are not so much insane as they are representative of the very insular fundamentalist Christian culture which is their total environment.

But the reverse is undoubtedly true. They see my statements in many cases to be quite as insane as I see theirs. That's because they have no idea of my environment and want nothing to do with it.

Religion is not the only area in which individuals from different environments see each other as spouting insane statements. True believers in Libertarianism also represent such a closed total environment, and for all the logic that has gone into assembling the theories of economic market libertarianism, it simple fails in practice whenever it is tried. The True Believers will not accept that it has failed, however. They don't consider reality and real situations to be refutation of their neat and pretty theory.

Given all that, I don't think I can any longer see what the conservatives say as being insane. It is simply representative of a very different environment. I cannot hear the music to which they are dancing. But unfortunately, they cannot hear the music to which I dance, either. The conflict is not going to end.

But since government has to operate for everyone in the area governed, it cannot operate based on any given ideology. That is the great power of the separation of Church and State given us by the Constitution. The purpose of that provision is clearly to keep the police functions of government from intervening in what is often a conflict between people who have sharply different and conflicting environments and world views. What the Fundamentalists are demanding is that their world view that is expresses as Creationism be taught as a replacement for the world view of the Enlightenment as expressed in science on the general level and Evolution in particular. But public schools are specifically set into place by government to teach students how to operate government without enforcing a specific ideology.

Both Libertarians and Fundamentalist Christians reject reality-testing of their ideologies, because science works by proving that assertion are false. The fundamentalist ideologues reject any suggestion that their ideologies are false, so they attack the schools, teachers and publications the teach other views.

That rejection is a key method of teaching and perpetuating the memes that are at the core of their ideologies. Neither fundamentalist Christianity nor Libertarianism can continually be transmitted to new converts reliably if they are allowed to test the memes against reality occasionally. That avoidance of reality-testing permits the passing on of the memes and perpetuating the doctrine.

So welcome to my analysis of insane political pronouncements. The real problem is that they are only insane when you cannot hear the music the speaker is "dancing to." Does that help?

Beats me. But it satisfies my curiosity.

* A strange and very pleasant recent exception is the outstanding book entitled A Palpable God by Reynolds Price. I picked it up because his opening 44 page essay on the nature of "Narrative" was said to be the best writing on the subject out there. He then goes on to illustrate what he means by translating 30 stories from the Bible, mostly old testament. I will agree that the essay is the best I have found on the subject of what narrative is and how it works, and his illustrating stories become fascinating in context. I find the subject of the nature of narrative particularly interesting because I read that brain researchers using modern tools to study the brain in action have concluded that our memories are laid down in the brain in a narrative form.

Humans have been equipped by evolution, not only with language, but also with the narrative form of structuring thoughts in language. That, it seems to me, also has massive implications on how human societies are formed and aggregated into larger structures like clans, towns, and Empires. In an oral age, story-tellers carried the knowledge of human civilization to others as well as stories being the primary way of passing knowledge from one generation to another.

It also may be the explanation why such written stories as The Torah, the Bible and the Koran consist of are so central to organized western religions.

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