Saturday, September 04, 2004

Culture War

This may be no news but there is a genuine culture war being waged in our country that has striking similarities to the conflict between Islamic fundamentalism and secularism that exists is most if not all predominantly-Muslim countries. I caught just a snippet of discussion on public radio among a commentator, a fundamentalist Christian public official, and a more liberal public official.

The fundamentalist was making the point that not only did his religious persuasion require him to adhere to a particular code of behavior it also required him to strive to bring the whole civic and social structure to adhere to that code. In his view the code was morally superior to the laws and practices as they stand now and it was his moral and religious duty to move society up to that superior plane. Such activism has in fact been the source of great social advancement of the common good in the history of this nation. When abolitionists began speaking, agitating, and demonstrating against slavery they were a small but energetic minority. They were also a great threat to the social structure of the time and had no want for opposition and criticism. In the end a bloody and destructive civil war was fought in large part as a result of their activism. Now we all agree that slavery was a bad thing and that the country and its citizens are better off without it.

Today folks in a similar fashion are coming into conflict over homosexuality, homosexual marriage, and abortion rights. They hold that their code bans homosexuality and sees an embryo as a full-fledged human being. And they believe their code to be morally superior to current laws and practices and as such they have an obligation to bring society "up" to that standard.

The crux of it all is how much of a real right do they have to impose their view on society at large. Is their right equal to that of the abolitionists or even the civil rights advocates of later years?

In a liberal or pluralistic world view one expects ideas to compete on their merit in the social marketplace. Eventually a consensus is achieved that is more correct or a reasonable compromise. The liberal view expects the fundamentalist to work and make his case.

That's all fine and good. But the fundamentalist does not see it that way. He sees the marketplace of ideas as an unfortunate secular circumstance. His job is to game or otherwise subvert that marketplace in such a way that his ideas are adopted and everyone toes the line. After all, his ideas are superior and there isn't any real need to examine them. He knows they are superior because some omniscient authority has told him so. Because of his belief he is obligated to toe the line of his code and it would obviously be a better world if everyone else did so as well. Anyone who exercises their freedom to be different is not a moral equal but someone who has chosen a lesser moral path. In their zeal to coopt the marketplace, the fundamentalists can be adept at "playing the game" and can have every appearance of seeking a fair intellectual competition. But when sufficiently challenged with objective evidence that refutes their position, they show that they "would rather fight than switch" (the allusion to an old cigarette commercial probably dates me).

The fact of the matter is that our society is not well-served at all when the marketplace of ideas is subverted by anyone. The preservation of that marketplace must be a higher priority than anyone's pet view, no matter how right and true that view may be. We have to make sure first and foremost that the market remains a fair market for all ideas, good and bad. And then we need to trust that the most pragmatic idea is the one than emerges.

While I have picked on the fundamentalists here (because today I see them as the clear-and-present danger), radicals can be just as dangerous to society when they seek to subvert the intellectual marketplace.

Here's the deal. The fundamentalist has the advantage of being able to completely focus his energies on the advancement of his point of view. He gains nothing by keeping the market free and open. In fact, a case could be made that a closed market in opposition to him is better than an open one. He just needs to commandeer the rudder to change the direction. The liberal must strive to keep the market open and advance his pet ideas. So whatever seemingly unbounded energies the fundamentalist muster to subvert the market, the liberals must find it within themselves to fight all the harder. For the true fundamentalist, the end justifies the means. No amount of intellectual dishonesty is too much as long as it advances the cause of the "righteous". Basically we have to fact-check like mad because no one eles will. And we have to be vocal when the rhetoric exceeds the objective evidence.

The days of easy complacency are gone for the foreseeable future. Perhaps after a generation of work we may get a rest.

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