In between squats and curls we argue metaphysics at the gym, my fundamentalist Christian friend and I.
An extremely well-read man – he reminds me that until recently, just about every genius spent his candlepower contemplating God – my pal is all about first principles. As we discuss HB2, free speech and theories of education, he graciously demands that I explain my basis for claiming something is true as I slurp water from the fountain.
He has God. I have questions. But he’s right that the absence of an absolute authority makes it hard to defend any claim of truth. In our largely secular nation, subjective experience has achieved primacy over objective reality, personal feeling and emotion have become the Great and Powerful Oz of modern culture. The best answer to “says who”? is “sez me!”
“Not good,” I agree with my friend. But, drawing on another timeless insight, I add, “It is what it is.” The situation recalls Yeats’ magnificent observation about how “the best” – that is those who think deeply about the implications of their own thought – “lack all conviction,” while those who cling to the primal need for certainty in an uncertain world “are full of passionate intensity.”
Freed from the need or ability to ground their arguments in principles, the latter group wraps their personal desires in the cloak of morality. Transforming knotty questions about what is right into assertions of what they want, they cannot countenance views at odds with their own. Instead of meeting the demands of their logic – which requires humility and empathy – they embrace the intolerant eternal majesty of their own opinions.
This anti-intellectual background informs the passionate intensity of our political divide. It’s not that we can’t understand opposing viewpoints; we just don’t see the need. After all, the others are beyond the pale. This negation has potent psychological benefits. When our thoughts are not just a reflection of what we think, but of who we are, it allows us to blithely believe in our brilliant goodness. No questions asked.
This is most obvious on college campuses which are becoming hotbeds of illiberalism. Anyone who discounts the frightening displays of self-righteous anger that have become common occurrences, especially at elite institutions, is whistling past the graveyard. These are our future leaders.
This anti-intellectual mindset is also corrupting our democracy, which looks a lot more like a sandbox than the Agora. The decision by Senate Republicans to nuke the filibuster to put Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court, is the most recent in a long string of failures by representatives of both parties to find common ground. Cheered on by their unquestioning supporters, each side seeks total victory by any means necessary.
We see the same dynamic in Raleigh, where the legislature seems to spend more time advancing the interests of the GOP than the people of North Carolina. Their egregious efforts to reduce the number of judges on the state Court of Appeals to 12 from 15 is not about improving justice but thwarting Gov. Roy Cooper’s ability to fill vacancies created by retiring Republicans. As a conservative, I, too, would rather not have the Democrat name their replacements. But you can’t always get what you want.
Likewise, the gerrymandered districts Republicans created to give themselves veto-proof majorities in our evenly divided state. Their push to turn judicial races into partisan contests will only make things worse, further empowering the passionate, divisive voices that are crippling us.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of these naked power plays is that they make more and more sense in our fractured world. When the two parties can no longer work together, one party rule may be the only way to get something done. This is the same logic that led President Obama to rule by fiat, through executive orders and memos.
I wish I knew a way out of this rabbit hole. But it is deep because our politics are a reflection of our culture. As a start, maybe each of us – you and me – can spend more time thinking about the basis for our thoughts and beliefs, to ask not just what we believe but why. And then, when we see someone violating that, especially if it’s in the name of an outcome we desire, we should take a stand.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane @jpederzane.com.