Sunday, September 27, 2009

Anti-Obama Demonstrators: What Motives?

I read about Jimmy Carter's interview where he seems to be back speaking truth to power. In this case, he offers his opinion that much of the vehement opposition to Obama comes from racism. Put simply, some cannot accept a Black president. Seeing and hearing what I have of late, I'm inclined to agree with him, at least this is a factor. I respect libertarianism, philosophical anarchism, free market economics, and traditionalists. However, many protesters strike me as clearly irrational—Obama is not a Nazi, not a Communist, and not a Kenyan, etc. On cannot locate a coherent argument in much of the popular discontent.

Reflecting on the above, I have developed the following hypothesis: Civilization (and its cultural carrier, education) represents the project of overcoming –or fast-forwarding—evolution. Our "gut—most primitive—instincts promote us to distrust the Other. This could be the result of a survival trait. The Other is a competitor in a harsh, Malthusian environment. Thus, in the words of contemporary psychology, we see the difference between System 1(fast, down-and-dirty heuristics) and System 2 (reflective and reasoning). Thus, the Socratic project (Socrates as the proto-type of reasoning man in the West) and his Axial Age counter-parts represent forces working in favor of System 2 (Reason). However, Socrates and his ilk have not triumphed after 2000 plus years. We find that each generation must pass through its own learning sequence; indeed, each individual must do so, and not all make it. Thus, physical and cultural evolution must undergo a constant recapitulation for the Socratic project of reason to succeed. (I would posit Buddha as perhaps the best-known Eastern counter-part of Socrates and the tradition of reason.)

The bloody and genocidal 20th century demonstrates how tenuous the sway of reason and rationality are upon us. A part of the Socratic project must include a measure of liberty and liberality. Plato's mistake—pointed out by the likes of Hayek and Popper—arises from thinking that reason ("Reason") compels a particular answer to any problem—but it doesn't, it can't. An answer cannot be compelled because we don't have the resources of time, computing power, and insight to know for sure the "right" answer to most problems. Freedom to explore and toleration of exploration by others becomes a hallmark of modernity. Liberty and liberalism must include a public space in the sense defined by Hannah Arendt: space to literally and figuratively interact, explore, and create.

So what's all this to do with Obama and the racism manifesting against him? Racism seems to me a cultural artifact of System 1, now deeply ingrained in some sub-cultures. It represents the primitive instinct of distrust and aggression toward the Other. However, while the distrust of the Other comes from the primitive (shall we say reactionary?), racism as a manifestation exists only as a cultural creation. Racial differences that seem so stark to some are in fact trivial biologically. As a social (or cultural) creation, race is huge; as biology, it's next to nothing. However, think of the education (formal and informal), intelligence, and open-mindedness that one needs in order to weigh and judge from such a perspective.

In the end, we will have to battle racism and other forms of prejudice for a long time to come. However, I do believe that the tide continues to turn, and the world changes for the better. But it is all so tenuous!

Addendum with a couple of quick points:

  • Jimmy Carter improves with age. I think that he's now 85! Happy birthday, Jimmy!
  • Dave Brooks in his NYT article "No, It's Not All About Race" counters the racism argument by saying it's all native populism. Part right, I think (as usual).
  • Frank Rich in the NYT "Even Glen Beck Gets It Right Twice a Day" has the most insightful take in my opinion.
  • After writing all of the above, Stephen Colbert weighed-in on the issue "The Word: Blackwashing" and skewered it the way only he can. Interestingly, the audience groaned more than laughed at Stephen's extreme take, which tells me that he was hitting some nerves.