Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The American Ideology, Parasites and Higher Powers

-by Seth Galbraith, February 29, 2012


Santorum's physical sensations and mental processes are being dominated by what David Bohm called a "higher power" and Richard Dawkins would call a "selfish meme." A parasitic idea has attached to Santorum's idea of himself. It causes him physical pain and provokes him to lash out aggressively, even when the people he is attacking agree with him on every point.

All of us have parasites like this in our minds. Santorum's behavior has alarmed observers who sense something wrong in his overly personal reactions. I suggest that the problem is not depth of feeling but actual conflation of his personal identity and his ideas. This undermines any zealous feelings or high ideals Santorum holds, because the parasite has no interest in achieving goals other than perhaps protecting and spreading itself.

I have been wanting to critique Rick Santorum for some time, but I don't want to make it about his religious convictions. I think we do benefit from people who have ideals and strong opinions, even if they aren't popular, even if I don't share them, and even if they are wrong. Zealotry encourages sincere and active participation in society.

But Santorum has said two things that tell me he is ideologically blinded, and not just about religious issues:

  • Confession #1: JFK's 1960 speech about separation of church and state made Santorum want to throw up. He explains that JFK said people of faith should not run for office.
  • Confession #2: Regarding Obama's challenge for every American to get at least 1 year of higher education, Santorum said, with deep disgust: "What a snob!"

Both confessions show that Santorum actually failed to understand the obvious surface message of what JFK and Obama said.

JFK was saying that he would be loyal to America, not the Vatican, and that religious convictions should not be a barrier to participation in the public sphere. He was defending his own religious freedom, not urging other people to restrain their zealotry. There are reasons to be disgusted with JFK as a person, but it was the speech itself that made Santorum nauseous.

Obama's full statement defines higher education to include vocational training and apprenticeships, which is exactly what Santorum encouraged later when asked to clarify himself. Obama and Santorum do not disagree in their educational advice, Santorum simply did not listen to what Obama said.

Gut Feelings

Aside from a tendency toward self-centered and self-serving bias that we should expect from powerful people, Santorum's visible expression of disgust in both cases could explain why he did not comprehend the messages. He actually experienced nausea while reading or listening to the speeches and the part of his brain that comprehends language literally shut down in panic.

This is not that unusual. If I were to seriously threaten you in some way, you would also feel physically ill and stop listening to me. You would feel the urge to attack me or run away. (This is why good cop/bad cop is not just useful, it's necessary any time you are bullying someone. No one will listen to the guy waving a gun if he keeps shouting angrily.) We feel that way about all threats to our selves, not just physical threats to our bodies and the people we love, but also threats to the idea of who we are. Any piece of information in our minds can become associated with our identity, and then that information gains a degree of physical control over our bodies and minds, including the sensation of nausea and our ability to understand language.

Sometimes these ideas are very complex, well organized and very good at controlling people. These ideas are often called ideologies. David Bohm called them higher powers. Richard Dawkins proposed that they could be composed of selfish "memes" that compete against other ideas in the same way that genes evolve control over animals and plants as the genes compete to replicate themselves - even if it means the animal or plant itself must suffer. Let's just stick to calling them ideologies for now.

America is Conservative

Santorum is a conservative. Conservative ideas include big role for religion in politics and disdain for academic elitism. When Santorum called Obama a snob for wanting everyone to go to college, his audience applauded enthusiastically. Their response to Santorums anti-college sentiment was as warm and accepting as Santorum’s response to Obama’s pro-college sentiment was chilling and combative. Santorum was preaching to the choir. Santorum does not have an unusual ideology, he has a very popular ideology. According to Gallup polls, most Americans consider themselves to be conservative, but most Americans also support the Democratic Party, while only a minority support the conservative Republican Party. So conservativism is not just loyalty to a party, it is an idea in itself.

If you poll Americans on individual issues, they usually skew toward moderate or liberal positions. Liberals have used this to claim that Americans are liberal. This confuses individual values with the ideological system, which could very well have it’s own agenda that conflicts with the individual’s values and interests. We see this in totalitarian socialist countries that boast about their egalitarian, popular values, but practice elitism and brutal repression of dissent. We Americans are also capable of betraying our own personal values for some great cause.

Totalitarian Systems and Tendencies

Václav Havel described a totalitarian system as a society in which everyone is involved in oppression as both oppressors and victims, in contrast to a conventional dictatorship where oligarchs focus their oppression on particular enemies. The totalitarian system requires everyone to adhere to a coherent ideology. Because individuals do not all have the same attitudes, experiences and interests, this adherence is hypocritical. Attempting to live within the truth of individual experience is a potential threat to a system where all oppress all, so any deviation is punished as a serious betrayal of the system.

Havel noticed similar tendencies in western consumerism, but argued that public competition for power required political parties to adjust their ideology to conform more closely to truth than the ideology of a single party state, whose ideology only needs to be coherent, not truthful. But tossing political power around in a popularity contest only offers us protection from becoming a complete totalitarian system with a completely hypocritical ideology. It does not mean we cannot have totalitarian tendencies, attributes and practice mixed in with a degree of sincere reflection. Also, If the majority of people adhere to an ideology, regardless of which party they support, then the public competition for power only requires truthfulness from parties that need to win minorities to their cause. If all conservatives consistently supported the Republican Party, they would always win.

Ideas can Hurt You

Take one idea from conservativism: the anti-college sentiment. The idea by itself makes sense. We live in a society of unequal people doing unequal jobs, rich and poor, less educated and more educated, talented and ordinary, laborers and inventors, care givers and risk takers. Putting everyone through the same education would be inefficient and inflate the status of those who succeed academically over those who do other important work.

The problem comes when you take a reasonable idea and make it part of who you are. Now you hear any endorsement of the idea as an endorsement of yourself, and any critique of the idea as a criticism of yourself. It becomes impossible to talk frankly about education because even the faintest suggestion of a difference in opinion will be taken as a personal insult.

The anti-college sentiment, when it is incorporated into an ideology that has won your allegiance, doesn’t just require you to support a wide range of education options or oppose the trend toward more expensive and often useless degrees (reasonable goals) It also requires you to actively oppose the efforts of anyone who doesn’t hypocritically pander to your ideology. It even makes enemies out of people who share your objectives issue-by-issue, point-by-point, as in the case of Obama and Santorum on academic, technical and vocational education.

So the ideology hypocritically prevents you even from accomplishing goals that naturally follow from the ideas that make up the ideology. The ideology is just an idea attached in your mind to the idea of yourself, triggering the instinct to defend yourself if the ideology is threatened. The ideology will still be there regardless of whether you are actually able to truthfully live by the ideas that make it up.

Letting an ideology take control actually betrays the values that made the ideology appealing in the first place.

Don’t Take it Personally

America’s past and present are full of totalitarian policies that conflict with our values but served our ideologies well. We currently have a prisoner population worthy of a totalitarian police state, handing out big sentences for small crimes as “deterrence.” We used to have overt racial segregation, state eugenics boards, prohibition, slavery and puritanism.

Rick Santorum literally takes conservative ideas too personally. Rather than feeling conservative values deeply in his soul and idealistically making them a priority in his mind, he has actually conflated the ideas with his personal identity, linking primal urges to hair trigger reactions the same way we all respond to personal threats and insults. As long as he lets these gut reactions rule him, he will be compelled to attack inappropriate targets and betray his own values. This is a poor quality in a leader whether you share his values or not.

An ideology is a totalitarian system inside the minds of individuals with power to control their physical sensations and mental processes. If we allow ideologies to rule us, we are hardly more free than a society which embraces a totalitarian system of government. Our idealism and zealotry can only be truthful and effective if we reject oppression from within and around us.

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