There are two types of people in politics: those who accept the burden of freedom and those who cling to the comfort of their own delusions. Contemporary American politics and culture has been a feeding-frenzy for the desperate fury of weak (not stupid) people who would rather believe in absurdities than actually think rationally. If you believe absurdities, you will commit injustice.
Totalizing conspiracy theories are comforting because it gives the illusion that there is some invisible hand pulling the strings of modern society from behind the scenes, instead of seeing modern society as an amalgamation of other scared, confused people trying to get by. Glenn Beck calls it the Democratic Party, Dan Brown calls it the Freemasons, Matt Taibbi calls it Goldman Sachs, Adbusters calls it the Republican Party. In any case, it's stupid, it's wrong and it's childish. I was excited about Barack Obama because he seemed to embody the maturity and reasonableness that has been missing from American politics and culture for the last decade. It's still missing.
Measured and reasonable is the enemy of these people because it threatens them with the possibility that the beliefs that have given their lives meaning are wrong, untrue and unjust. Approaching the world rationally, that is to say, freely, precludes the comfortable security that has swaddled cowards for generations. It is easy to believe that capitalism/socialism/oil/money/pesticide/meat-eating/the Jews/the Illuminati is the root of all of mankind's problems. It's easy, and it's wrong.
Most people who profess an interest in politics exude an absolute confidence in their beliefs that is immune from the intrusion of reason or reality. Whether they're dogmatic about free-market capitalism or the righteousness of locally grown food, it is dogma nonetheless. They know what they think, and to hell with anyone else. The world is a big, scary, complicated place. I am very suspicious of any bright-eyed college student or high-rolling businessman who claims to have it all figured out. Conversely, the equally thoughtlessly dogmatic commitment to diversity is just as poisonous because it allows stupid ideas to fester. What we need is a comprehensive post-partisanship: a realization that no single ideology is sufficient. This will take the courage to face ambiguity and uncertainty with resolve and determination.
Some people find ways to make their lives meaningful in the absence of some absolute authority to define it for them. It often takes the form of the stereotype of the "coastal liberal elite": the newspaper-reading, concert-attending, book-reading yuppies that are the butt of populist politics. Hawkers of political rage scorn this exercise of reason and rationality because it threatens to reveal the bankruptcy of their own poorly considered beliefs. Some families don't want their kids learning about evolution because it would threaten their comprehensive Christian worldview. Other families don't want their kids reading the Bible because it would threaten their comprehensive atheistic worldview. Whenever someone laments the "eroding social fabric," it is really just code for "I am terrified of actually having to figure out how to create a just society."
This summer's health care debates brought some of the most absurd conspiracy theorists out of the woodwork. It was breathtaking to see people argue in all seriousness that they were worried about the United States government euthanizing the elderly or to see people compare health care reform to the Holocaust. On the other side of the ideological divide, there are the people who think that 9/11 was an inside job and that George Bush was a puppet for one New World Order or another. These people's opinions should not be taken seriously. They should not be listened to. They should not be respected.
Politics is the reasonable deliberation among people who have the maturity to recognize that their opinions are not universally right and that they do not know everything. The apoplectic wailing of cowards who need an absolute authority structure to define themselves against is not politics: it is what teenagers do.
People on both sides of the aisle fear the collapse of their ideologies because then they would have to come to terms with the reality that they have been living a fantasy all along.
Brian Judge '11, a philosophy concentrator from North Carolina, can be reached at brian_judge(at)brown.edu.