One Meaning of Liberalism

I have a reputation among my friends and family as a rather aggressive liberal. I don’t deny that reputation, but I also don’t wholly accept it. As I recently explained to a family member, I try not to bring up politics in a conversation, but if someone else brings it up, I’m am more than willing to join in.

To me, however, politics does not mean partisanship. I am not a registered member of either of the major parties: I am not a Democrat, nor am I a Republican. I’m a registered member of the Vermont Progressive Party, the most successful third party in the United States. “Founded by the activists who helped to elect Bernie Sanders as the Mayor of Burlington” in the early 1980s, the Vermont Progressive Party now boasts 10 local officials throughout the towns and cities of Vermont, three state senators, eight state representatives, and two statewide officeholders (Vermont’s Auditor of Accounts and Vermont’s Lieutenant Governor).

So when it comes to talking about national politics (which is usually what I’m talking about with people), I don’t have a dog in the partisan fight.

While I’m not a Democrat or Republican, I am, in fact, a liberal. But when you take away the context of the national parties, the question becomes: what does it mean to be liberal?

The concepts that ring out the most are social justice, economic justice, a rigorous commitment to the facts, and a willingness to engage with the complexity of historic and systemic context.

Justice is at the heart of being a liberal. The pre-emininent philosopher on the topic, John Rawls, lays out two principles of justice: first, that there must be “equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties,” and second, that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage and attached to positions and offices open to all.”

The first principle means that everyone in the society has the same rights and obligations, regardless of who they are or where they come from. The second means that any difference in those rights or obligations must be acceptable and open to all; for example, if the President of the United States gets to have the pomp of the Marine Corps Band playing a song every time he walks into a room, it’s because we want to have the best of the best take that position and offering such pomp is one of the ways we try to entice them, and that’s okay, provided that the office is open to everyone.

In the context of social justice, it comes down to what Rawls famously calls the “veil of ignorance,” where you are asked to construct a just society of which you will be a permanent member without knowing anything about yourself — your race, gender, sexuality, ethnic background, intelligence level, physical ability, vigor, wealth, etc. In such a situation, you would probably design a society that is as fair as possible, since there is a reasonable chance that you would be among the least advantaged members of that society.

In practical terms, that means looking at today’s social and economic issues as if you were a member of the disadvantaged class. If you are a White person, you must imagine our criminal justice system as if you were a Black or Latino person. If you have a place to securely lay your head at night, you must imagine the nighttime worries of a homeless person. If you are a member of the financial services or advanced technology industries, you must imagine the depression of someone whose entire economic life has revolved around a coal mine. If you can comfortably sustain a medical emergency in your family, you must imagine the strain of a hospital visit for someone who doesn’t have health insurance. If you are free from the crippling hunger of addiction, you must imagine what it feels like to be so driven to score your next fix that you’re willing to demolish your closest personal relationships, including those with your children. If you can walk into a public restroom without any thought about which door is right for you, you must imagine the difficulty of someone who sees the male or female symbol as not representing their lived reality.

In such situations, where you are among the underprivileged, how would you design your society? Would you design a dog-eat-dog system, or would you design a society that was as fair as possible for everyone involved? Any reasonable person would attempt the latter.

When a situation arises — the protests at Standing Rock, for example, or Justice Gorsuch’s case of the frozen trucker, for another —  liberals attempt to imagine the viewpoint of the underprivileged member(s) of the conflict and develop their stances accordingly.

However, liberalism is not as simple as rooting for the underdog because along with social and economic justice, there is also a rigorous commitment to the facts and a willingness to engage with the historic and systemic context. Without these two elements, you’d have a knee-jerk liberalism that refuses to acknowledge any reality outside of its own.

I strive to not be a knee-jerk liberal, and whatever success I have is a function of my dedication to education, edification, and engagement. I seek out alternative viewpoints, try to read as widely and as deeply as possible, and focus as much as I’m able on questions surrounding the right and the good, knowing that there are no easy solutions to any of the conflicts facing  societies today.

There is no easy solution to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. No easy solution to the war-mongering North Korean dictatorship. No easy solution to the Syrian civil war. No easy solution to the ramifications of a globalized economy. No easy solution to the economy’s dependency on oil. No easy solution to America’s withdrawal from imperial obligations. No easy solution to the clash of liberal Western democracies with fundamentalist ideologies. No easy solution to technology’s conquering force. No easy solution to the problems facing public education. No easy solution to gun control. Etc. Etc.

But the liberalism I aspire to accepts this complexity and says that the only way forward to a better society lies in grappling with issues in a reasonable and enlightened manner, acknowledging grievances, accepting historic realities, and finding, through democratic conversations and a willingness to compromise (not on principle, perhaps, but in fact), solutions that are acceptable to all.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world be as one.”

ISIS, Assad, and the trickster god

What does it mean to say there is a negative force in the world?

We have images of negativity that we use to talk about the idea, Heath Ledger’s Joker being one of them, the Christian Devil being another, the Dark Side of the Force being yet another, but the Joker, the Devil, and the Sith are just stand-ins to help us comprehend something much larger, something much more significant.

Incredibly intelligent people have believed in this negative force (St. Augustine, for example), and if they didn’t believe in this negative force as some kind of personified Devil, they still felt compelled to pass the idea down through the myths and stories they told their children and grandchildren, whether in the forms of Loki, Coyote, or Pan, all of whom are stands-in for the chaotic aspects of our universe.

But hold on a second, and witness the mistake I just made: I equated negativity with chaos. We’ll have to unpack that a little bit.

There is no trickster god in the Christian pantheon, if only by virtue of there not being a Christian pantheon. The closest the Christians come to a trickster god is the Devil. In a monotheistic universe, where God is One and God is Good and God is Merciful and God is Great and God is a jealous God, there is no room for a trickster who would pull one over on God; there can only be defiance.

The problem with having this as a founding element of one’s worldview is that it disrespects chaos, and chaos is an essential element of our universe. Acceptance of chaos imparts an understanding that not everything can be controlled, and if you can accept that, then you hardly ever look at those who act out of control as acting defiant.  Instead, you respect that chaos is the nature of the universe and search for some kind of rationale to explain whatever behavior you don’t yet understand, some line of cause and effect that you can trace backwards until you’re able to find a situation where you can exert some influence and actually start to gain some element of real control.

I’m thinking of ISIS at the moment, and Donald Trump and the millions of people whose worldview he represents.

When we think of Loki, Coyote, or Pan, when we think of a trickster god, we generally think of someone who’s just a real pain is the ass. He may be charismatic in the moment, but in the long run, he causes nothing but trouble for everyone involved.

That doesn’t sound like ISIS.

But that’s because our concept of the trickster is wrapped up in personifications. What the concept of the trickster actually represents is the human experience of thinking one is right when one is actually wrong and then having the universe prove your mistake in some enthusiastic fashion.

The continued existence of ISIS demonstrates that, despite the military might its able to exert onto any surface of the planet, the United States still cannot completely control the world.

Donald Trump (and the millions of people whose worldview he represents) are angry at that fact. They cannot imagine a world where the United States is not completely in control. They saw the downfall of the Soviet Union as the end of history, the final victory of Western democracy over the Evil Empire. We now live in a mono-superpower world, where America is Good and America is Merciful and America is Great and America is a jealous Superpower, and there is no room for having any other country or entity get one over on us. To continue to exist when America tells you not to is defiance, and defiance must be met with swift and powerful violence: Loki being slammed into the wall by Thor, the Joker’s face being slammed into the table by Batman, Assad’s airbase being blasted with six dozen warheads by Donald Trump (and the millions of people whose worldview he represents).

In a worldview that equates chaos with negativity, defiance is not acceptable.

(And yes, I realize that I just conflated Assad with ISIS, but I feel comfortable equating a head of state who used chemical weapons on his own citizens with a Muslim military that primarily decapitates Muslims; I also have no problem equating both of them with a negative force in the world.)

But in a worldview where chaos is not only acknowledged as its own kind of force, but venerated to the point where it earns its own festivals and shares traits associated with the gods of the various arts, the actions of ISIS and Assad can be placed within a larger context, one with such complexity that our need to understand and control can only be met by the universe’s laughing contempt for our vanity.

There is a lot less action in a worldview that accepts the reality of chaos, not because it feels the need to exert less influence than a defiant worldview, but because it believes that one should only exert one’s influence where and when one is able to make a real difference.

If this was just a philosophical difference, then this would be merely academic. The problem comes when the person (and the worldview he represents) actually has real power and yet no understanding of how or when to use it.

The worldview that sees chaos as defiance uses its power (consciously or not) to smack down the defiant one. The other sees chaos as natural element of the system and so attempts to trace down its origin, biding its time until it knows its power will do the most good.

The first results in innocent bloodshed, as anger always does. The other results in feelings of helplessness; and yet, it also results in a commitment to put one’s best minds to the problem and to not give up until they discover a reasonable solution, and if such a thing never happens, it results in the guilt that comes from feeling that one might have saved someone if only one had been able to solve the problem sooner.

Both worldviews have negative consequences.

But that’s what it means to have a negative force in the world. It means to have disorder (in the sense of entropy and its negation of order) constantly chasing us down.

ISIS exists not because they are evil. They exist because the once-unified conception of Islam is breaking down into a variety of sects, each more atomistic, and hence more fundamental, than the whole from which it came. As an embodiment of Islam’s militaristic and world dominating underpinnings (rather than an embodiment of its merciful and peaceful underpinnings), ISIS necessarily confronts The Other with violence and negation.

The only rational response to such an entity is containment and education, the same as one would do to the outbreak of any disease. Yes, people will die because of ISIS, just as they die because of ebola and AIDS. We can influence the numbers, perhaps, as well as the timeline, but total and swift eradication is simply beyond our control.

Assad, for his part, exists not because he is evil. He exists because the world order created in the 20th century is falling apart, its march toward global unification fracturing into hundreds (if not thousands) of disparate ethnicities and nationalities, just as Syria itself is dissolving into dozens (if not hundreds) of disparate militias. “Syria” no longer represents a specific center of political power; the word “Syria” itself is an anachronistic relic of 20th century cartography whose signifier now marks a localized region of 21st century chaos.

The only rational response to the Syrian situation is to come to the aid of all those who have been tossed out of their homes by the whirling chaos of that all-encompassing war, to provide succor to its refugees and food and first aid to those still stuck inside. To join the battle with any larger mission is to find oneself caught in that swirl of chaos with no logical end or exit in sight.

To say that there is a negative force in the world is not to say that there is evil; it is, instead, to acknowledge that we do not, and cannot, live in utopia — and rest assured, if we don’t remember that, the universe will continue to teach us, again and again, and in enthusiastic fashion.

Pouring Love

 

During the next two months (and then some), I’ll spend around four hours a week working one-on-one with a young person who suffers from schizophrenia. I’ll also spend time with students who are diagnosed with a variety of other social and emotional disorders (not to mention learning disorders), but it’s the student with schizophrenia who will require the most from me.

This young person is almost completely detached from reality. They suffer from delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, catatonic behavior, and disorganized speech. At any given moment, the student might break out into a terrified or stress-induced screaming or crying fit.

But…and this is a big but…this student is perhaps one of the strongest people I’ve ever met because, to some extent, they are aware of how they must appear to other people, and yet, they still come to school every day, and even on their worst days, they fight and struggle to make sure they make it to our building.

Can you imagine knowing — knowing! —  that at some point every day you were going to have a mental, emotional, and physical breakdown, and yet still finding the strength to get out of bed and go to school each day?

This student is incredible. Absolutely incredible. They sing, they paint, they read, they write. And yes, they have harrowing breakdowns, but they also find some reason, every day, to be kind and thoughtful to others, to stand up for themselves and for those they think are wronged, and to be genuinely appreciative of the talents and kindness of those around them. I don’t think more than a day or two has passed without them finding someone else in the school to let that person know how gifted or beautiful they are.

The student is a walking ball of light. It’s just that, sometimes, the light gets very dim. But that’s when it becomes my job — and the job of my colleagues — to help this student find their way out of the dark.

What’s encouraging is that, from what I have seen, the student is treated extremely well by their peers. Those who are too young or too self-involved to understand what’s happening generally stay out of the student’s way, and those who have a sense of what’s happening seem to be very supportive, offering themselves up with a level of kindness and service that impresses me to no end. We recently had to evacuate one of our buildings because the student’s breakdown was so disturbing (our school buildings are pretty small), but none of the other students complained about having to leave their classroom, nor did they hold it against the student once the episode was over. And remember, more than half of the kids at my school are here because they have a history of being unable to get along with others.

The way the student’s peers have stepped up has been amazing and inspiring to watch. That goes for my colleagues as well. In a staff meeting the other day, as we discussed ways to help the student, one of my colleagues summed up our responsibility as, “We need to just pour love on this kid right now.” We’re not doctors or psychologists; we can’t prescribe medication, and while we can effectively provide a layman’s version of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (which the DSM 5 recommends for schizophrenia disorder), we aren’t trained psychologists. We are, however, humans who have decided to spend our days helping the next generation grow into healthy adults, and we can “pour love on this kid.”

I know that the next few weeks (and let’s be honest, months and possibly years) won’t be easy with this student. But to a large extent, I am looking forward to it. While we obviously want this student to get as much help as they can, I also think that with the student body we have and the staff we have, this is also a good and supportive place for them to come every day.

An Open Letter to Sen. Leahy

One of my senators, Sen. Leahy, made a statement recently about not being “inclined to [join the Democratic] filibuster” of Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court. While he later walked back those comments after liberals from around the country organized a “flurry of constituent calls” to his office, I wanted to add my voice to that flurry of constituents. Here is the message I sent to my senator:

Dear Senator Leahy,

I am writing to express my support for the Democratic filibuster of Judge Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court. As his decision in the infamous frozen trucker case made clear,  Judge Gorsuch rules with a clear bias in favor of the corporate interest. In a near future where many of the court battles will be fought between the interests of the individual and the interests of the corporations and the money-class, the lifetime appointment of a judge who prefers to rule for the millionaires and billionaires would strangle our country’s progress for at least a generation. I urge you to not only join your Democratic colleagues in filibustering Judge Gorsuch’s appointment, but to lead your party’s undecided members into joining the filibuster as well.

Thank you for your time, Kyle Callahan

Pay Attention Now

Over the next several weeks, days, and hours, you have to be paying attention. Some major things have happened, as you probably know.

First, the Republicans in the House of Representatives, led by Speaker Ryan, took a drubbing on the American Health Care Act. President Trump is trying to blame the Speaker for it, and it appears the Speaker is going to take it up the ass. The President called, via Twitter and Fox News, for the Speaker to step down. He has officially sicked the Republican Congress on itself. He doesn’t know who will win — the “moderates” (as if there were any) or the more extreme right — and to be fair, he probably doesn’t care. If Ryan ends up remaining in the post, he’ll be so beat up internally that he’ll have to come to heel.

Second, the Democrats in Congress are feeling emboldened after their victory in the House on Friday. Now the Senators have a chance to get their moment. Can they successfully block Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court? The grassroots did their job back during the town meetings. The Representatives did their jobs in the wells of the House. Now can the Senators ride that wave of victory in the Senate? Senators Schumer, Franken, Leahy, and Feinstein are carrying the ball. Let’s see what they can do it.

And watch out for how the Republicans play it. If they use the “nuclear option,” they’ve effectively taken the ball and gone home, like a sad bunch of quitters.

Third, Sen. Sanders is going to propose a single-payer healthcare bill “within a couple of weeks.” People have been asking what Bernie’s role in the Democratic Party will be after his national reputation reached the stratosphere during the primary campaign. If you want to know the difference between the pre-Bernie Dems and the post-Bernie Dems, watch how loudly the rest of the Democrats support his bill. If they come out swinging for it, then maybe they actually learned their lesson. If they do not, then their chances of taking back the Senate in 2018 are zilch.

Fourth, Trump is announcing later today that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is going to run a new White House office dedicated to innovating the operations of government using contemporary business principles. As the Washington Post explains it, the office will be “a SWAT team of strategic consultants…staffed by former business executives and…designed to infuse fresh thinking into Washington.” The office is being advised by, among others, Tim Cook from Apple and Bill Gates from Microsoft.

The message is that this is a non-ideological office run by the New York contingent of Trump’s senior advisors. Watch how the media treats this announcement. It should signal their preference for Kushner over Bannon, and if the news is received well, be prepared to read more stories about pro-business but less “ideological” bills in the House and Senate (such as the removal of Pres. Obama’s privacy regulations last week).

The President has lost on almost every major initiative so far. His immigration orders have been shut down by the courts; he couldn’t repeal and replace Obamacare; he almost lost on his cabinet (hopefully, the Senate Dems were saving their strength for the Supreme Court nomination), and his national security apparatus is in dire straits due to the investigation into his campaign’s ties with Russia.

But if the President can get a media win on the White House Office of American Innovation, maybe Bannon’s star will start to dim.

Fifth, speaking of Russia, we have to keep our eye on Congress this week when it comes to the investigation. The Democrats and Republicans in the House seem to be approaching the investigation on completely partisan lines, while the Senate Intelligence Committee has been more low key. The latter will have their first public hearing this week, and the questions the Senators ask should signal how seriously they’re taking it. If the two parties are contentious in their questioning, as the House Judicial Committee was during Gorsuch’s hearings, then don’t expect either of Congress’ Russian investigations to be on the up and up.

So pay attention now: Will the Republicans in the House go after Speaker Ryan? Will the Democrats in the Senate block Judge Gorsuch? Will they also aggressive promote Sanders’ single-payer bill? Will the media gush over Kushner’s new office? What will happen with the Russian investigation?

And don’t forget: keep your eyes on the other bills making their way through Congress. The politicians are only in DC for two more weeks before they take off for a long recess. Watch what they do before the run for the hills, because the Republicans will definitely engage in some rear-guard actions as they scurry for home.

Just two more weeks of vigilance before we can take a breath. Don’t let up now.

The Personal is Political

Several of my friends on Facebook (all of whom lean conservative, interestingly enough) recently complained about Facebook not being fun anymore because their feeds are full of nothing but politics, politics, politics. As one of them suggested, everyone should “unfollow people who are draining every ounce of your Facebook Fun because they only post political crap you’re tired of hearing about!”

It’s not just my (conservative leaning) friends. You can find plenty of articles on the topic around the web. For example:

Generally speaking, those who make this argument seem to feel that Facebook should be like a friendly reunion where people who don’t see each other very often can share what they’re doing in their lives, gush over photos of each other’s kids, and exchange some good humored ribbing. It’s “a way of hanging out with everyone you ever met, and political ranting makes the whole thing…awkward.”

As you might imagine, I don’t agree with this argument.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve unfollowed friends on Facebook because of their political rants, but it wasn’t because of their political leanings (I greatly appreciate having right-leaning friends who help me stay out of an entirely liberal bubble), nor was it because the ratio between their political posts and their “personal” posts was too high. Instead, it was because these particular friends demonstrated very little ability to act civil with those who disagreed with them.

Provided you can remain civil, and remember that the people you’re talking to are real live people and they have stresses and interests that are different from your own, then I find that there really isn’t a better place for online conversations than Facebook.

Facebook allows you to connect with virtually everyone you’ve ever met, which means you can have conversations with people from college, people from high school, people from that trip you took once, and people from your extended family, all at once. People who maybe don’t ever see each other in person, who may not even know one another, and who live in variety of places around the country or around the world can actually engage in a substantive conversation about a timely topic, should they choose to.

The software itself is perfect for this. You can have threaded conversations with direct replies to people, so you can engage a particular topic from multiple angles, and people can choose to focus on a single, a small subset, or all of the angles. You can include links to supporting articles, including fact-checking services such as Snopes.com. You can tag other friends to invite them into a particular section of the conversation, either to support what you’re saying or to provide an insight that you couldn’t provide on your own. And you can get notifications everytime someone adds a comment to the discussion, ensuring that you don’t miss out on anything important (or funny).

Honestly, Facebook is perfect for these kinds of in-depth conversations.

But that’s not what I want to talk about…not exactly.

There’s a slogan that came out of second-wave Feminism in the 1960s. You’ve probably seen it on a button: “The personal is political.” It comes from the title of an essay by Carol Hanisch published in Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation. The essay wasn’t originally given that title because it was written more as an internal memo to members of the women’s liberation movement, but after it got picked up and published, the editors gave it that title.

In the memo, Hanisch argued that the women’s liberation movement had to continue to engage with “apolitical” women through what detractors derisively called therapy” or “personal” groups but what supporters such as Hanisch would go on to call “consciousness-raising groups.” She argued that through their derision of these group sessions, some of the more activist supporters of the movement were pushing away women who desperately needed their support and whose support, in all honesty, the movement desperately needed.

She painted a portrait of what these group sessions were actually like:

We have not done much trying to solve immediate personal problems of women in the group. We’ve mostly picked topics by two methods: In a small group it is possible for us to take turns bringing questions to the meeting (like, Which do/did you prefer, a girl or a boy baby or no children, and why? What happens to your relationship if your man makes more money than you? Less than you?). Then we go around the room answering the questions from our personal experiences. Everybody talks that way. At the end of the meeting we try to sum up and generalize from what’s been said and make connections.

She went on to argue that through these sessions, she was “forced to take off the rose colored glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman.” The sessions gave her “a gut understanding of everything, as opposed to the esoteric, intellectual understandings and noblesse oblige feelings [she] had in ‘other people’s’ struggles.”

Women didn’t attend the meetings “to solve any personal problem. One of the first things we discover in these groups is that personal problems are political problems [emphasis added]. There are no personal solutions at this time,” she continues. “There is only collective action for a collective solution.”

What does this have to do with not being political on Facebook?

If I show you a picture of my daughter scaling a rock wall at our local climbing gym, you can sit back for a moment, smile, click “Like,” and move on. But what have you and I just done?

First, we ignored all of the injustice in the world. We said to ourselves, “We are comfortable right now, so let’s just smile at each other for a moment, and then move on.” It’s the mental, emotional, and spiritual equivalent of running into each other at a coffee shop, smiling at each other, and moving on.

But I don’t want to just smile at you as we pass each other by at a coffee shop. If I’m friends with you on Facebook, it’s not just because I met you once. It’s because in some real and authentic way, I want to consider you my friend. There’s a real chance that we actually are friends, like in real life, and if we’re not, then there’s a real chance that at some point, if only for a few minutes, in real life, we actually were, and if we weren’t, however I know you, if you’re my friend on Facebook, it’s because at some point in my life, I thought about you and was actually willing to call you, in all honesty, my “friend.”

I don’t want to run into one of my friends at a coffee shop and simply nod and smile. I want to stop and talk for a little while.

And I get it, not everyone wants to talk politics, and most of the time, not everyone wants to talk about the world’s injustices. But the people I want to call my friends are willing, at least some of the time, to really get into it.

I went back to the town where I grew up last weekend to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with the Irish side of my family….or so I thought. To my complete surprise, my brother invited his best friend (a second-generation Italian) and his best friend’s family to the party as well. I couldn’t have been happier. There hasn’t been a minute in my life when I haven’t known this guy, and in my childhood, I saw very little difference between him and my brothers: like them, he was always there, and he usually treated me with love.

But this is a guy I don’t see as often as my brothers, so when he came walking in the door, it was like being surprised by a long-lost brother who I hadn’t spoken with in forever.

Let me set the stage for a moment. This man is a physical education teacher (and I stress the word teacher) in a Catholic preparatory school for high-school age boys. He’s a dedicated Ironman whose idea of a dream vacation is to bike the route of the Tour de France. He’s a regular churchgoer whose coworkers are ministers, and he feels that Christian charity is not a thing you give money to but a thing you actually do in your daily life, a way to be.

He also voted for Donald Trump.

Within moments of his arrival, he approached me in the corner of the kitchen and without missing a beat, engaged me in a substantive conversation that ranged from God to transgenderism to television shows to the art of teaching to the meaning of friendship to the power of plays. We spent most of the night together, joined by our wives at points, my brothers and cousins at others, our daughters at still others. It was great.

At no point did we shy from discussing politics. I’m not talking about partisan politics. Neither of us are firmly committed to either the Republican or Democratic party. True, when forced to vote for them, we often (if not always) vote for opposite parties, but when we do, we do so with clear enough eyes that we understand why other people would have justifiable concerns about our chosen candidates. I don’t think either of us would give a full-throated defense of either party.

When I say we didn’t shy from discussing politics, what I mean is that we didn’t shy from disagreeing with each other based on a disagreement in principles. We understand the strength of our relationship, and so we’re able to challenge each other without the other having to take offense. We know that each of us are dedicated to growing as human beings, and if we disagree with each other and challenge each other, it’s only because we care for one another and want the other one to continue to grow.

If I show you a picture of my daughter scaling a rock wall at our local climbing gym, and I follow it five minutes later with a link to an article on white male privilege or to the specific details of a law being proposed in Congress or to an analysis of our President’s ties with a foreign power, it’s because I want to do more that just show you pictures of my kid. It’s because I also want to challenge you as a human being, and to provide a signal to you that I would like to be challenged as well. The hope is that, through our conversations, we can each grow into something better than we currently are, which often comes from exposing ourselves to new and sometimes contrarian ideas.

The best thing we each could do with a “political post” on Facebook would not be to click “Like” and simply move on, which would be like running into each other at a coffee shop and just throwing pamphlets in each other’s faces.

The best thing to do would be to — at some point — read the article the other person shared, or if we don’t have the attention span for that, to at least look at the headline and then ask a question about it. Through that interaction, we start to earn (or renew our committment to) the word “friend.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I can’t be friends with anyone who doesn’t read every article I share or leave a comment on every post I write.

What I am saying is that if you think Facebook is more for personal stuff than political stuff, then you need to understand that the personal is political. By closing your eyes to anything you might disagree with, you’re committing a political act, one that commits you to remaining the same forever and forever, while also committing you to accept (and thus tacitly defend) the status quo, injustices and all.

If I’m friends with you on Facebook, it’s because I either am or want to be your friend in real life. That doesn’t mean always giving you a shoulder to cry on (though of course I would if you needed me to), but it does mean always giving you my willingness to get into it with you, even if sometimes I have to be the one who starts it.

What’s more personal than being willing to engage with one another from places of differing principle? And since I can’t see you everyday, and so few of us actually write emails (let alone letters) anymore, and since texting definitely isn’t a good tool for in-depth discussions, why wouldn’t the serindepity of running into each on Facebook be the perfect place to connect?

Some might suggest it would be more appropriate to take those conversations to someplace more private (Facebook Messenger?), but there’s a commitment to a private conversation that we’re not always willing to have. It’d be like if we ran into each other in a coffee shop and I said, “Hey, why don’t we go sit in the front seat of my car and catch up?” That would have the chance of becoming weird, right? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate for us to keep our conversation in the public/private space of the coffee shop, where if someone we both know happens to stumble in, we can increase participation in the conversation, and where we can also remain safely in the public eye, forcing us both to be on our best behavior?

I honestly can’t think of a better tool for allowing the personal to become political. And that’s why I’ll keep talking to my friends on Facebook the way I talk to all of my friends: with a love for conversation and committment to helping each other grow.

There’s nothing more personal, and nothing more political, than that.

Losing the Soul

I’m currently reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. I haven’t finished it yet, but I came across an argument in it the other night and I want to make sure I understand it.

Harari argues that there are three elements that universalize all of human culture. The first is money; the second is empire; and the third is the belief in a superhuman order:

Merchants, conquerors and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division, ‘us vs. them’, and to foresee the potential unity of humankind. For the merchants, the entire world was a single market and all humans were potential customers. They tried to establish an economic order that would apply to all, everywhere. For the conquerors, the entire world was a single empire and all humans were potential subjects, and for the prophets, the entire world held a single truth and all humans were potential believers.

He then devotes the next three chapters to the elucidation of these assertions, and I highly recommend that you read them, but that’s not the part of his argument I want to explore.

In the chapter on the universal belief in a superhuman order, Harari categorizes natural-law ideologies as forms of religion, putting humanism  in the same category as Christianity and Zoroastrianism. He argues that humanism is the worship of humanity, much as Islam is the worship of God. According to Harari, humanists believe there is a “unique and sacred nature” to our humanity, and that this is the most important thing in the world, and that therefore, “the supreme good is the good of Homo Sapiens.”

He goes on to divide humanism into three main sects: liberal humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionary humanism, with each sect differing on its definition of humanity.

For liberals, “humanity is a quality of individual humans, and that the liberty of humans is therefore sacrosanct.” For socialists, “humanity is collective rather than individualistic…[and therefore it] seeks equality between all humans.”

Both of these interpretations spring from faith in a kind of secular soul, with liberals defending the unique liberty of each soul and socialists defending the common essence shared by all souls.

But I want to explore Harari’s characterization of the third sect: evolutionary humanism. He writes that evolutionary humanism is “the only humanist sect that has actually broken loose from traditional monotheism.” He then concludes this assertion by writing that evolutionary humanism’s “most famous representatives are the Nazis.”

What distinguished the Nazis from other humanist sects was a different definition of ‘humanity’, one deeply influenced by the theory of evolution. In contrast to other humanists, the Nazis believed that humankind is not something universal and eternal, but rather a mutable species that can evolve or degenerate. Man can evolve into superman, or degenerate into a subhuman.

What’s interesting is that Harari seems most persuasive when he’s discussing this particular dogma. He goes on to characterize the Nazis’ arguments and actions as an attempt “to protect humankind from degeneration and encourage its progressive evolution.” He then shows that this mission was not outside of the mainstream in the early twentieth century, with white supremacy playing a significant and proudly proclaimed role in the governments of both the United States and Australia well into the 1960s and 70s.

“The Nazis,” Harari writes, “did not loathe humanity.” They just defined it differently from liberals and socialists. According to the Nazis, if the fates of the fittest examples of humanity were not defended and promoted, they “would inevitably drown in a sea of unfit degenerates.”

With the lessons of evolution guiding their way, the Nazis proclaimed that “the supreme law of nature is that all beings are locked in a remorseless struggle for survival,” which is why they educated their people to “steel [their] wills to live and fight according to these laws.”

Harari ends the chapter by making what I find to be a persuasive argument in favor of evolutionary humanism. If liberalism and communism require the sanctity of the human soul, and science continues to find no evidence of said soul, it seems clear that the only true laws are the ones we find in nature, the ones that show us more and more that what we think of as consciousness and free will can better be defined in terms of “hormones, genes, and synapses.” Homo Sapiens are no more immune to these laws than any other species evolving on Earth.

And if all of that is true, then, indeed, evolutionary humanism makes the most sense, and we must acknowledge that humans too are subjects to the laws of nature. This does not mean that we must all become Nazis. The science of genetics, which did not really exist when the Nazis formed their racist theories, debunks much of what they believed about the evolution of the species.

But that also doesn’t mean that people in the vanguard aren’t already using the science of genetics and the theory of evolution to improve the fitness of their offspring. People choose sperm donors based on their intelligence. They abort fetuses based on the clinical detection of a birth defect. They choose the sex of their baby to prevent the spread of a sex-linked genetic disorder. In addition, hundreds (if not thousands) of scientists are, at this very moment, developing lines of research that could lead to the creation of a species whose fitness for future environments may very well exceed our own.

In a world where all of this is true, evolutionary humanism does make the most sense, but agreeing to evolutionary humanism erases the human soul from existence and denies sanctity to pretty much everything.

This follows from what Harari argues about money and empires as well. The universalizing aspect of money denies sanctity to other systems of value — if something can’t be converted to money, its value will always remain suspect. The universalizing aspect of empires, meanwhile, denies sanctity to cultural difference, bridging the gap between “us” and “them” through military, economic, and cultural conquest, followed by years of subjugation, and concluding in a syncretic assimilation that channels parts of the conquered culture back into the culture of the conqueror, until even their myths entangle and encompass each other and the truth of what they might have been slips forever into the darkness of their history.

In the story of Homo Sapiens as told by Harari, our distinct values are denied, our distinct cultures are denied, and finally our distinct souls are denied. Until all we are left with is…

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to that one yet. As I said, I’m still reading the book.