Some days I get crankier about the current status quo than is sensible. Yesterday was one of those days. It shouldn’t have been, all things considered: my early morning errand run and work schedule granted me access to a stunning late summer’s afternoon–blue sky, billowy white clouds, sun dappled sidewalks, a warm breeze, and a long walk home with two books over a hundred years old apiece tucked under an arm for evening reading. What more could a body ask for?
But somewhere in the middle of that walk, I happened to remember that the majority of North Americans believe their very existence requires forgiveness. Luckily for them, of course, they also believe that forgiveness has already been provided in the form of Jesus Christ, but still: the majority of North Americans accept that the very act of being born as human beings (something that is ostensibly also regarded as a “blessing”) makes them unsightly in the face of an all-powerful creator. The majority of North America believes this all-powerful creator of Life, the Universe, and Everything needs them to a) accept their inherent, automatic sinfulness at birth as entirely their own fault, b) seek forgiveness for one and the same, and c) accept forgiveness for one and the same.
Well, that ruined my good mood. Silly brain.
Then I got home and caught up on the news–most of which, for me, is American in subject matter, despite the fact that I’m Canadian. Yes, American politics are just that addictive, especially during election season; for some reason (and thank goodness), all the economic outrage that emerges in a Canadian election cycle just cannot hold a candle to the public laundering of personal moral hypocrisies that seems par for the course in the American political media landscape.
But what truly fascinates me about this American election, more than any other I’ve experienced to date, is how so very many people can expend so very much energy trying to prove that two centrist candidates are actually radical and polar opposites. I look at this “the sky is falling” mentality so consistently emergent from America’s two-party system, and I can’t help myself; I’ve got to reach for either a bowl of stovetop popcorn or a bottle of whisky, and stay tuned.
To be sure, Obama and Romney are not the same person, and their governments will vary on foreign and domestic policies. But Obama has acted like many flavours of conservative president before him in his security policies (e.g. drone warfare and similarly invasive manoeuvres in Pakistan, American involvement in Libya, the highest number of deported illegal immigrants from US soil, the perpetuation and even expansion of privacy-compromising domestic security measures, and the maintenance of Guantanamo Bay [with some help from states refusing to assist in the dispersal of inmates]). And Romney, as part of a Republican ticket with no military service record whatsoever, has in the past espoused a desire to see his statewide healthcare policy (which resonates immensely with liberal values enmeshed in the Obama-care platform) extended federally, while originally holding more progressive views on other issues (like abortion and climate change) than the contemporary Republican party endorses.
Moreover, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney raised taxes and strengthened government regulations; as president, Obama lowered taxes and focussed on oil and gas drilling as part of his plan for the future of American energy. But best of all, both parties have plans for Medicare that (among other, very different ideological consequences) remove $700 billion from its equation–and yet, that has not seemed to stop these campaigns from raising all heck about the “speck” in one another’s eye.
For the record, yes, I do hope Obama wins in November, but not because I think the world will end (or even the US, for that matter) if Romney gets elected. I am as worn out as I am enraptured, rather, by all the end-times caterwauling in this general election–the way time and again a pertinent policy issue seems to need to be brought to near-apocalyptic proportions in American media before it can be considered worthy of serious debate.
Heck, if serious debate was even the clear and consistent result of such dramatic proclamations, I would probably be a little more accepting of this fever-pitch, but… it’s not. I look to American politics and I see a fractured media landscape that supplies different groups with different facts and priorities in any given news cycle. And then I see people on either side of this fractured media equation delighting in any opportunity to paint others in broad, judgmental strokes. And then I wonder, how on earth does anything ever get done in such a combative ideological climate?
I also do not mean to suggest, of course, that this is behaviour is at all equalized at either political polarity. Indeed, one of the most dangerous conflations in contemporary media is the notion that a “balance” of viewpoints is equivalent to fairness; some views do not merit a 50/50 time share in any given article, and most do not merit a mention at all.
Similarly, while fanatics exist on both sides of the political spectrum, there is evidence to support the claim that conservative thinkers are more likely to moralize first, then disregard or distort facts that do not fit these intuitive views (“What Dilemma? Moral Evaluation Shapes Factual Belief”). This makes a lot of sense when one factors in the clearly demonstrated correlation between high religiosity and conservative thinking–the former being another ideological arena in which gut instinct is prioritized over concrete evidence. There is also survey data demonstrating that conservative news media plays an added destructive role in this process, such that you are more likely to have a superior knowledge of current events from not watching any media whatsoever, over watching one conservative outlet in particular (“NPR viewers best informed, Fox viewers worst informed”). So it’s in many ways a social behaviour set that’s not going anywhere any time soon.
And the consequences are as palpable as they are frustrating. I have certainly seen this thought process firsthand when discussing abortion, contraception, and sex ed policies with strenuously conservative Catholics who hold that even if I could convince them that government policies in favour of all three actually reduce abortion rates, they’d still be opposed to such policies “on principle.” Meaning that maintaining a ban on personally-perceived immorality is more important for some than actually reducing its incidence.
This in turn makes sense, however, when one factors in the realization that such people are viewing the world from a long-game perspective; to them all the facts in this world pale in comparison to their belief in a greater world to come. So what, then, if certain policies help people in the here and now? People shouldn’t be lifted from suffering in this life, the argument seems to go, if that suffering is what’s going to make them desperate and fearful enough to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, and so be spared eternal damnation in the life to come. That’s “real” compassion in the minds of many religious folks I’ve spoken to.
So talk about adding to a bad mood, no? From revelling in a beautiful late summer’s day to remembering how divided the world is, and wondering how on earth to build a compassionate society with members who have such disparate views of what true compassion entails. Silly, silly brain.
I shook it off, though, when I went for supper and remembered how I’d spent the bulk of my weekend. I have two young nephews–five and one apiece–and when I’m around them I feel the tremendous responsibility that comes with being a self-aware entity in the universe: to protect them, yes, but to do so by imparting all that I can about the wonders and the dangers of existence. This past weekend, those wonders and dangers revolved around making dough, using that dough for calzones, and preparing enough homemade mac and cheese to feed a small army.
So as I sat down to some of that leftover mac and cheese I thought about all the children in the homes of highly religious conservative Americans. This was when I realized I’d become so frustrated by the “us vs. them” mentality entrenched in American politics and religious culture that I’d started to espouse an “us vs. them” mentality all my own. This is when I remembered, too, that people who don’t think as I do about Christianity probably still feel that same tremendous sense of responsibility when in the presence of younger kin.
I reminded myself, then, that even when these folks scare small children with visages of a hell permitted to exist by an all-loving creator, or introduce the concept of someone who’s forgiven them for simply being born as cause for gratitude, these adults are doing so because they truly believe it’s in the best interest of those children to hear such things.
Certainly, it doesn’t make the belief set any more accurate, in my obviously not very humble opinion. And from where I sit, it doesn’t make what they’re doing any more beneficial for the child (especially when joined with shockingly ignorant scientific views about the nature of the world).
But it still serves as a reminder that these are human beings first and foremost–people who love and have been loved; people with fears and dreams and passions and peccadillos alike. People who have had their curiosity ground out of them, perhaps (in keeping with St. Augustine’s pronouncement on “the disease of curiosity … which drives us to try and discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and which man should not wish to learn”). But people nonetheless.
No, I do not believe that any person needs forgiveness for being born.
I do believe, however, that the great majority of us need forgiveness for forgetting that we were born at all, all of us, let alone born as ignorant, fragile, and irreparably human beings.
Lifting ourselves from ignorance is already more work than our one and precious life will most often yield. But oh, how much harder the slog when we eschew this fact for the thrill of passing judgment on people presented to us most often through the spin of popular media.
People who are reduced, that is, to the ideas they hold instead of the experiences they’ve had, the loves and losses they’ve shared.
People who, simply by not being in our immediate friends groups or families, become such easy targets for the dehumanizing conclusion that they are not like us, not like us at all.
History is rife with examples of the “us vs. them” mentality writ large. But how many instances, I wonder, have actually made the world a better place?