Wednesday, 22 August 2007

The Radicalism of Rigidity

What makes an idea, an ideology, a politician or a political party too extreme or too radical? The language of left, right, and center applied to politics reinforces a misapprehension that there is a linear measure against which any idea or politician can be measured to determine whether they are extreme or "centrist". But dangerous radicalism can raise its head anywhere along the mythic spectrum, as can worthy concepts.

In great works of art, it is the interplay of darkness and light, of bright colors and muted tones which lend to their wholeness and beauty. Some masterpieces are dark, others light, but regardless of where the overall tone of the piece lies, it is the variation within it which give it meaning and make it work for the viewer. And so it is with politics. Ideas are our color pallet, society's institutions, whether government or private, are our paintbrushes. Precious few ideas by themselves are terribly dangerous, but any idea over applied with rigid fanaticism will likely have bad results. It doesn't matter whether the idea comes from Karl Marx, Milton Friedman, John Locke, Adam Smith, or John Keynes; rigidity and the unbending application of any narrow set of precepts to solve every problem is dangerous and almost always bound to have disastrous, even if unintended, results.

I am unabashedly liberal, and by some accounts in certain areas - extremely so. But I recognize that truth can come from anywhere, and I KNOW that certain conservative ideas have far too much merit to be ignored or dismissed out of hand simply because they are conservative. I'm a big believer in using a full pallet in painting our democracy. Let's work together and see what works, don't be afraid to try new ideas, or to mix old ideas in new combinations. As they say the devil is in the details, and reasonable people will disagree with each other on how to proceed. I wouldn't presume in a single article to provide THE answer to solving our problems. What I will suggest with some confidence is that we should be wary of those who prescribe adherence to a rigid agenda in addressing those problems. And rigid agendas can come not only from the far right or far left, but can just as easily come from the center, from libertarians, neoliberals, neoconservatives, etc. etc.

A recurring theme in my criticism of the Bush administration has been that it's not how far right they are, it's how far wrong they are. Well, my belief is that what has been so wrong is precisely that rigidity in applying a narrow set of precepts, from a canned set of talking points to every policy on every front. When you're a hammer everything looks like a nail.

Monday in the Democratic column at Watchblog, Paul Siegel wrote a commentary arising from his reaction to the coal mining tragedy in Utah, in which he attacked the rigidity of the popular ideology which holds sacred the primacy of the free market in determining government policy. I remember being struck by how "on target" the piece was, only to discover how utterly repulsed some readers were by that article, declaring disgust and an inclination to vomit because of it. Upon rereading the article, I understood better this reaction, and realized that Paul and his commenters approached the subject with different understanding of the particulars of this case (and I think the exposure of the those particulars will largely vindicate Paul), but also see that Paul erred in seeming to imply that the rigidity he attacks might be applied generally to all conservatives. I'm confident that Paul would agree with me that such is not the case, but rather that the talking points of the conservative movement in this country over the last three decades, as encapsulated in the commentary of such ideologues as Rush Limbaugh, do attempt to prescribe such dangerous rigidity.

Limbaugh in fact is a master at exploiting the misapprehension I spoke of at the beginning of this article in leading his listeners to assumptions about the reasonableness of some ideas and solutions as opposed to the "radicalness" of others. People on the left are just as guilty of the same technique and honestly that bothers me just as much. But let's look again at some of Paul's specific language to see why his suggestions are in fact the moderate ones. In his key summary paragraph, Paul acknowledges that "Ownership, free markets and self-reliance are all good." That statement certainly does not come from the radical left. He goes on to say "But they must be modified occasionally. Ownership cannot get anywhere without people to do the work. Free markets must be regulated for the interest of the average person. Self-reliance must yield to working as a community for the common good." In other words, Paul wants us to use a full pallet of ideas in working out solutions that - well - work! Now some were offended that Paul put words into the mouths of conservatives in parodying the rigidity which he and I see have dominated the conservative movement, but for many movement conservatives those words are all too close to what they are trying to imbue into the conservative American psyche. When someone in all seriousness comments that "If the government has no power to regulate the economy, their(sic) is no corruption", it is evident that in many cases they have succeeded in implanting such rigid thinking.