Waxing Political

Posted in Politics, Philosophy by AST on Wednesday, January 19th, 2005

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Generally speaking, I don’t really share my political beliefs with others. Most of the time, I feel it’s my business, but this is how I was raised. Those last few words are kinda the point of this whole article, so keep them in mind. There will be a quiz.

At the moment, I’m sitting on a BA flight to Helsinki for a meeting. In line with not having vocal political beliefs, I don’t often read general news, but airplanes are great places for this sort of thing. Fortunately, BA (God love them) still provides a level of what I would consider “real” service in the air. You have your choice of 4 newspapers, real food (OK, so it’s small), free drinks, a real magazine or two and power points in their business class seats–all for the price of admission. Out of habit and previous experience, I grabbed a Wall Street Journal Europe and the Financial Times. Normally, if you read both of these papers, you have a fairly balanced view of what’s going on in the world.

So, there I was, reading away about the latest situation in Iraq, Ukraine cargo planes getting seized due to lawsuits, Oracle’s issues with the confidence of it’s inherited PeopleSoft customers and then I get to page A3, which has as the main article In Divided U.S., Who Gets the Kids? Mind you, I’m not criticizing the fact that the WSJE published this article (by Jeffrey Zaslow, if you’re interested), but I was deeply disturbed by the situation described within it.

The thrust of the article is that both the Republican Right and the Democratic Left are looking for new voters. Where will they find these voters? Yep. Some of the children of today will be voting age by 2008. Fair enough. This stuff has gone on for a long time. Most of us were heavily influenced by the beliefs and values of our parents (this is the reference to sentence 2). It’s the natural order of things. They tell us what’s right and wrong both by what they tell us as we grow up, but also by what they show us. The article presents several kids of different political backgrounds ranging in age from about 7 to 18. What’s most disturbing is some of the bone-headed statements of absoluteness regarding what is “right” and what is “wrong”. The topics range from Iraq, Prayer in School to Gay Marriage and homosexuality in general, but the sense of one side of the issue being “right” and the other being “wrong” expounded by these kids is absolutely frightening.

Think about this in context for a minute. On page A1, there’s an article by Farnaz Fassihi called Iran’s Influence Worries Iraq Voters. Leaving the question of “Iraq Voters” or “Iraqi Voters” aside, this article discusses the issues regarding a perception within Iraq that people who have been living in exile within Iran for some time will push the Iranian agenda of a more fundamentalist Islam onto Iraqi culture. Talking about fundamentalism, if you haven’t read parts of the 9/11 Commission Report, you probably should. I started it but unfortunately, got sidetracked from finishing it. It has some interesting references to fundamentalism and some good explanations as to what it really is. If you asked the majority of Americans if they thought “fundamentalism” was a good or a bad thing, I think that they would say “bad.” However, if you asked the parents of one Natalie Hair, 15 who is a regular attendee of First Baptist Church of Orlando if they think there’s anything wrong with their child “witnessing” via telling public-school classmates what the Bible does and does not condone, I’m sure they’d say no.

The article also points out a lot of cases where the kids in question (KIQ?) respond as Ms. Hair does when describing her feelings towards her church teaching creationism. She is quoted as saying, “That helps me defend my belief that evolution is false.” Apologies for picking on Ms. Hair, but she was presented early in the article when I was looking for references.

There’s nothing wrong with beliefs. We all have them. Some of them are eventually proven false (as far as I know, there really isn’t a Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy, but when I was 4, you bet. Where’d they go?). Others are more complicated and are based on our experience and on what we’ve encountered in our life.

Most of us have heard the old joke (apologies to the devout Catholics) about the man who died and went to heaven. St. Peter is showing him around the place and they come to a 100 foot tall brick wall going as far in both directions as the eye can see. When the man asks, “what’s in there?” St. Peter replies, “Oh, that’s the Catholics. They think they’re the only ones up here.”

Of all the Catholics that I’ve known in my life, nearly 95% of them would at the very least chuckle slightly at this joke. It’s known as humility for those who are interested. The reason the joke exists is that regarding certain issues, Catholics have historically held an “all-or-nothing” attitude. Thus, someone had to come up with a joke about it.

I don’t claim to have the wisdom of the sages, but the way I see it, things are a lot closer to the old Live song “The Beauty of Gray” than they are to anything which is truly “right” or “wrong”. An individual’s beliefs guide them through these decisions on a day to day basis through these shades of gray. Life is really about the journey anyway, so this makes everything interesting. Sorry, drifting a bit off topic here, but it does all fit together.

Since I left the U.S. in 2001, I’ve been exposed to a wide variety of cultures firsthand. The majority of these cultures have been Western European ones (Spainsh, French, Irish, UK, Dutch, Portuguese and Norwegian), but they all have intrinsic values which are just as valid to them as Ms. Hair’s fundamentalist Christian ones. Does this make Ms. Hair right or wrong? Now things start to get interesting, don’t they? Just because people in the Middle East, Asia or Africa view things differently than they do in Mattoon, IL, are they right or wrong?

Before everyone gets excited here, I’m not talking about basic human rights issues, or saying I left the U.S. for any other reason than I wanted to be a better Traditional Irish musician. I’m not, and I didn’t. What I am talking about is once you look “over the wall” you realize that there really are other people out there with different beliefs than you have. You can even be friends. No, you don’t agree with everything they say or do, but they’re still your friends. From my time in Europe, it seems that generally speaking, Americans tend to get more polarized in their thinking than other cultures I’ve seen. How does this happen? It may happen because there’s not a lot of awareness that part of what made us a great nation was diversity. You don’t have to agree with people, but you do have to respect them and accept the fact that their beliefs may different from your own. It might happen because it’s easy to influence children’s beliefs. It may happen because generally, once someone’s mind is closed to other ideas, so is their circle of friends and so is their community. I’m also not saying Christianity is a bad thing. For a lot of people, it helps them deal with things like grief, joy and daily life. But if you look at the other side of the coin, some of the most horrific things in history have been done in the name of Christianity. Rape, plunder, looting, pillaging, genocide… Pirates? Outlaws? Nope. Try the Crusades for one of the ones off the top of my head.

The failure isn’t that one thing is “bad” and that one is “good”, it’s the loss of the objectivity crucial for the fate of the world going forward. Last time I checked, the world’s getting smaller, not larger. More and more people are communicating, interacting and conducting business than ever before. Who is going to decide this fate (providing we avoid some sort of cataclysm between now and then)? The young people of today, their children and their children’s children. How will they be best prepared to do this? If the parents of the world recognize this fact and begin to focus on the similarities rather than the differences. Recognition and tolerance does not necessarily mean acceptance and adoption. Maybe it’s time we start “looking over the wall” as a nation and realize we’re not the only ones in the world. Republican or Democrat doesn’t really matter that much to the rest of the world. We’re the United States of America: One Nation under God, (and hopefully) Indivisible.