Either-Or

2004-09-29

It's rather sad that most people can't break out of dualistic ways of thinking, especially in politics; most folks seem to assume that either you're a conservative (Republican) or you're a liberal (Democrat). Yet we've become much more sensitive about areas like religion: today, no one would ask "Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?" and assume that those options exhaust the alternatives (what about Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian, and a thousand other belief-systems?). So why the dualism in politics? Why not a recognition that there is a wider range of political belief-systems (progressive, green, paleo-conservative, authoritarian, libertarian, etc.)? What is it about politics that makes people uncomfortable with more than two possible positions?

Going further, it's even more difficult for most people to envision the possibility of having no political belief-system (just as most folks think that having no religious belief-system is beyond the pale). Once upon a time in Western civilization, the only religious alternative was Catholic or Protestant (and even before that, the only alternative was Christian or apostate). Somehow, the idea of religious toleration took hold, at first haltingly (it seems to have originated in the Netherlands in the early 1600s) and eventually with increasing vigor; but it is far too early for most people to practice true political toleration. The interesting thing about the idea of tolerance is that it tends to circumscribe what one can live with and what is unacceptable. For example, in the early modern West many people could tolerate any Christian belief, but not anything outside Christianity; even today, few people (at least, few Americans) find a lack of religious belief to be acceptable. Much the same is true in politics: people will tolerate others in their political party, but not those in the opposition; or they will tolerate anyone who "works through the system" by trying to get elected (even if they are in minority parties such as the Greens or Libertarians), but will not tolerate those who eschew electoral politics altogether. I often think that someone who lacks a political belief-system (an anarchist, if you will) is today just as out of step with the times as someone who lacked a religious belief-system (an atheist) in, say, the year 1004 A.D.

Yet I have found that letting go of my desire to change the world through electoral politics has been, as they say, a liberating experience. No more does my life revolve around yet another pointless election, in which we Americans will swap out some monkeys while the same old organ grinder plays the same old tunes. Anyone who thinks that electing Kerry instead of Bush will make much difference is fooling themselves. No matter who wins, the government headquartered in the city of Washington (along with its local franchises) will continue to meddle deeply in the internal affairs of foreign nations, continue to throw millions of young (mostly minority) men in prison for possession of the wrong drugs, continue to run up unsustainable debts, continue to sell favors to parasitic corporate interests, and so on down the list. But I won't be participating in this farce anymore, because I no longer have a political belief-system, i.e., I have stopped believing in government (just as, at the age of nine, I stopped believing in God). It seems to me now that, despite its feel-good aspects, voting is just as causally efficacious as praying. I cast no aspersions at those who engage in either behavior, and I'm not proselytizing them to stop; but you won't find me joining in.

And yes, this means (among other things) that the government headquartered in the city of Washington no longer has my consent.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal