Truthiness, Hot Buttons, and Why I’m a Progressive

February 25, 2011

Politics are draining. Depressing. Divisive. Yet unavoidable.

“Political” is a term that in a blanket-sense covers all interactions between individuals in a society. Party politics on the other hand are something else entirely. I’m beginning to wonder what that something else even is anymore.

I find it frustrating that the huge divide in ways of thinking seems less likely than ever to be bridged as years go by; with all of the media and information we have at our fingertips, we still have no way of reaching common understanding on certain basic issues by looking at “facts.” Two equally intelligent people can discuss an issue and both be convinced that the other is completely wrong, that they alone have studied the facts and determined the truth–why can’t their opponent see what is clearly in front of their face? Now, in terms of “facts” derived from media the issue is certainly muddled, to the point that those cynical post-modern thinkers who claim we can have no truth on any issue seem to be onto something–but I stress that must not be the case. I’m not ready to cede meaning in life to nihilistic claims of complete relativity. Yet media continues to pour gas on the division–you want facts? How about emotionally-charged, morally self-righteous, tell you what you want to hear if you’re a liberal facts from MSNBC? How about loose-with-details-about-what-actually-happened, appeal to your fears and prejudices, hyperbolic facts from FOX news? Or facts that hype a sensationalized, isolated news event for ratings while millions of other things are going on from CNN? Or scour the blogosphere for pundits, critics, bloggers, journaists who all have facts to support what you already believed before you went looking for something to back it up with. Facts like this are what led Stephen Colbert to accurately coin “truthiness” a few years ago, a reality now so recognized you can find his word in the dictionary.

What brings this on is a few issues that have bubbled up in the news the past few weeks; log onto facebook, if you are one of the suckers like the majority of us who daily use that medium to “connect” with people, and unless you’re one of those people who only adds friends who politically agree with you (and I know people who do things like that–it’s a continuation of the habit many keep for years, growing up with a certain ideology, surrounding themselves with others who share that same ideology, only encountering the other side in any serious way in an educational setting and then closing their mind off to considering that way from the start), then you probably see on a daily basis anytime a culturally significant news story occurs a host of hyperbolic reactions from the right and the left. Now, engage in a debate on one of those issues on a source like facebook and all you will produce is a string of responses that people frenetically hack out self-righteously without bothering to fully read or consider the opposing statements in the first place and everyone will log off a little pissed that people don’t agree with them, a little smug that they have retorted, and that will be it. Well, you can say this entire article, and for that fact this entire blog, is the same thing regarding different issues but in longer-form. I suppose so, I won’t deny that I feel like a hypocrite on a daily basis about a host of issues, but hey. We have to express these issues, debate them, consider them, and I try to formulate my thoughts and be open to different possibilities when I work on something like this. And I use the facebook to politically engage issues when something is emotionally or socially pressing for me, to express dissent or urge participation, to organize like-minded thinkers; yet I have my doubts that some of the debates on such a medium have any positive reaction (as an aside, it should be noted that for all of the gripes we can give FB, it does have the potential for more importance than most of us can imagine–look at the role it played in the Egyptian revolution; when facts and events are supressed and hidden, any medium that gets the truth out past those who might conceal it is essential).

All of this preamble to really get to my point. I began to wonder what some of the main reasons I have for holding onto some of the beliefs I have politically. I feel that I have developed my own political grounding from considering all of my alternatives; that I have been equally exposed to all political possibilities and views at different points in my life, and the views and positions I have developed at the present are a result of life experiences that have caused me to thinking about issues in  certain way, to  an ever continuing evolution in religious thinking I have gone through, to relationships I’ve made, jobs I’ve had, education I’ve received, reading I’ve done, things I’ve witnessed…taking all of that into consideration, what I feel forms my opinions in large part is the idea of “people over principle.”

Principle is a guiding rule for many people. “I believe in the sanctity of marriage and that is one man, one woman. Therefore I politically deny rights to same-sex couples,” a person with certain principles will say. Or, “I believe in State-rights and small government–if a state wants to create and enforce its own immigration laws contrary to what big government tries to impose on them, I will support that state’s right to do so even if I may disagree with how individual immigrants might be ill-treated in the commission of said laws,” another person with particular principles might say (and I have heard such statements in various forms from friends; I have also read such statements in history books regarding the south and the civil war).

I believe in people-over-principle. A friend of mine had a father whose job it was decades past to break unions in the south. He was staunchly anti-union on principle. I believe in people, that people deserve collective-bargaining rights to ensure government, businesses, or corporations do not strip them of the ability to organize and speak out against unfair labor practices. I believe big business, even public sector business, will exploit people, treat them unfairly, and pay them as poorly as possible in the name of profit or buget-reduction. In the current case of teachers Unions in Wisconsin, I believe that teachers are struggling to protect their right to be paid and treated fairly–the issue is the collective bargaining resource more than any particular cuts. The teachers union even agreed to comply with the cuts if they could keep the bargaining chip for the future and the other side refused. Take away a bit now and the right to debate the future reductions, and before long the teachers will have no right to a living wage. Education is a value in itself for people–better educated people have better opportunities. Another issue from this week involved the Obama administration refusing to defend the DOMA act in court. This has many conservatives crying foul. Some because they see it as a stepping stone to legalizing gay marriage and they see that as a step to an immoral society. The principle of “gay marriage is wrong” is more important than the people who are gay. To be fair, other conservatives disagree on the issue as a matter of another principle, that of our system of government and its checks-and-balances; they argue that the President is not doing his job by holding up his end of the bargain and defending DOMA in court regardless of how he or any of us believe about the issue itself. This is a rather tight argument based on principle, but can be countered in part in that Obama is reacting to the idea that certain clauses in DOMA are unconstitutional and thus suspending enforcement of the law until the legal ruling on its constitutionality is completed–enforcement of an unconstitutional law is itself unconstitutional. While certain recent presidents have overlooked the constitution in laws and have been selective in enforcing other laws (*ahem* Bush), this is only a major issue now that it is Obama doing it and that it concerns gay marriage. People over principle for me insists laws be judged according to many complex issues; slavery was once legal, it was once legal to kill Native Americans who were on your property, etc. Those laws were both immoral and unconstitutional to enforce.

So, this is why I consider myself a progressive. People over Principle is part of the groundwork of Progressive Politics. Progressive Politics can be rooted in any party; Teddy Roosevelt was a progressive in many ways; FDR, JFK, and Clinton were all Progressives in many ways that, though flawed and capable of great mistakes, also accomplished major feats for people over principle.

The political sphere will always be ruled by greed, self-interest, and contradiction. So when it cannot serve the best interest in a progressive vision, the religious community can. Progressive means looking to the future not maintaining the status-quo; in religious relationships, progressivism is the key to survival. Do we look to the past only–to the violence done by members of one religion to members of another? No. If we look for that, we will certainly find it in every sphere (but we will likely be overlooking the cultural, political, and social reasons that contributed to that violence or caused a particularly violent interpretation of religion to take root). Progressives can be found amidst the many brilliant Islamic Reformers and Muslim thinkers, Christian theologians, pastors, and priests, Jewish rabbis and teachers, Buddhist activists and monks, Native American ecologists, etc. In the moments when the political sphere ceases to do justice and make progress, there is much room for the interreligious community to step up, and perhaps the future of progress can truly be found there.

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