Sunday, October 14, 2007

Are you entitled to your own truth?

One interesting article in Reason Magazine is, The Culture War on Facts, by Ronald Bailey. Its subtitle, Are you entitled to your own truth? poses a most interesting challenge to folks who wish to back up their arguments with 'truth.' What is Truth? That perennial question is particularly important in these times, especially here in America where the truth is commonly hidden, misconstrued, or spun.

There is no more pressing or transparent example of What is Truth? than the current situation our nation faces in the Bush War scenario. Several spinners of the truth in this playbook have left the public stage in shame, the most glaring loss that of General Colin Powell. questioned the testimony of General Petraeus before he opened his mouth, no doubt a blowback of this very question of truth.

A quick summary of the data found in the study which led to the article by Mr. Bailey is this:

The chief aim of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project is to show how cultural values shape the public's risk perceptions and related policy beliefs. Project scholars define "cultural cognition" as "the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact to values that define their cultural identities." Their research found that cultural identity values "exert substantially more influence over risk perceptions than does any other individual characteristic, including gender, race, socioeconomic status, education, political ideology and party affiliation."

Although this study focused on 'cultural cognition,' I find it helpful in attempting to understand why some Americans [actually quite a lot of Americans] were, in the words of Emerson, roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice, at the beginning of the Bush War on Iraq. My wife and I were victims of this 'roaring' as we raised our voices in opposition to the rush to war, only to be shouted down, cursed, and spat upon by folks who were blinded by Patriotism.

Today, this roar has gone hoarse. Citizens holding signs at street corners these days are greeted by friendly honks of horns and high-fives, quite different from the 'greeting' they received four years ago. The line above, the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact to values that define their cultural identities, is of paramount importance in examining this shift of 'support' for the Bush War. What defines the 'cultural identities' now in late 2007 that was not defined in early 2003?

I suggest that it might be described as 'tribal revenge tendencies.' Anthropologists talk of the strength of tribalism which still exists deep in our 21st century psyche. That 9-11 attack on America galvanized and switched on our common need for tribal revenge. We were those people described so succinctly by Emerson. Interestingly, it is this same tribalism that is causing such difficulties for the Bush Administration in Iraq. But that is his problem to deal with.

It is my hope, perhaps my obsession, to continually remind others of the need to confront these ancient instincts buried deep in our primitive brain. Not only confront but examine. As a society we ought not repeat that communal anger and subsequent thirst for blood that was clearly displayed in the days and months after 9-11. Of course, we were instructed just days after this tragedy by President Bush himself, standing at the rubble, bullhorn in hand, to ferret out and punish those responsible for the heinous act.

Unfortunately, Mr. Bush could not do that. It was like the proverbial needle in the haystack. Even after destroying most of the haystack, bin Laden was still elusive, mocking him. Bush was almost immediately advised to use Saddam as a scapegoat by the cunning neocons among his advisers. The naive president eagerly accepted the substitute plan. The propaganda machine was switched on and the revenge motif spread rapidly throughout the nation. My wife and I were some of its earliest targets.

The Reason Magazine article focused on so-called cultural issues like the death penalty, abortion, gay rights, the minimum wage, school choice, nuclear power, public health, gun control, climate change, the propriety of Christmas crèches in town squares, and affirmative action. Clearly each of these issues are emotionally charged. Yet few Americans would classify 'patriotism' as a cultural issue, yet it is the most basic, oldest cultural instinct we humans possess. We need only page through our world history books to see example after example of cultural revenge meted out time after time.

Because many in the current administration have begun a new set of attempts to preemptively attack Iran, it would be wise for our citizens to remember what happened four years ago when they mindlessly followed both their vengeful instincts and the propaganda fed to them. Hopefully the maxim, once bit twice shy, will ameliorate their reactions. Yet, revenge is a powerful and ancient human emotional instinct. Nonetheless, if our society does not reflect correctly, we will have 'to explore the cleanness of its hands and purity of its heart.'

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