Monday, June 21

Bubbles Right and Left

skepticIdeologies are funny things. Everyone has one, but most people, most of the time, are unaware of most aspects of the ideologies they espouse and live by. Most ideologies are implicit most of the time. But all ideologies, explicit and implicit, have a tendency to overemphasize one aspect or factor of reality to the suppression or exclusion of all others. In extreme cases, the result is a “bubble”. Bubbles occur when one value or issue in any ideology trumps all other considerations: when security trumps liberty (or vice versa), when tolerance trumps the critical faculty (or vice versa), when morality trumps compassion (or vice versa), etc. Furthermore, bubbles can occur at either end of the conservative / progressive political spectrum, the left as well as the right. Herewith some examples of both.


Conservative ideologies comprise the following bubbles, among others:

o The recent and late – and unlamented – housing bubble:  President George W. Bush and his Administration, especially in his first term, talked about an “ownership society” in which home ownership was overwhelmingly the rule rather than the exception: the more people who elected to own their own home instead of renting gave people a stake – an intimately personal stake -- in their society, their local community, their local neighborhood, etc. At least on an intuitive level, that is a difficult thesis to argue against. At least in an ideal world with an ideal economy. The problem is that we have neither such a world nor such an economy. So, in out-years, the Federal government's indiscriminate promotion of home ownership for essentially everyone turned out to be a basically unlimited Las-Vegas- / cruise-ship-like buffet for home-loan and mortgage companies and banks, many of which, to mix the metaphor, began to act like ladies of ill repute with the Fleet in home port. The result was the “housing bubble” and the attendant catastrophes of non-liquidity, unemployment, a free-falling stock market, a crashing GDP, and the dissolution of individuals’ retirement savings. (Other factors, too, of course, but the housing bubble was an important piece of the puzzle.) Why? Because the salient value of home ownership overwhelmed more mundane and prosaic considerations of simple affordability.

o The ongoing and apparently interminable kabuki drama of gun rights

 The Supreme Court, in its 2008 DC v. Heller decision and the subsequent 2010 McDonald v. Chicago decision, rendered essentially moot the question of whether the late Chief Justice Burger was right in his assertion that the right of individual gun ownership is a “fraud”. That ship has already sailed, especially in light of the fact that McDonald declared that individual gun ownership, contra Chief Justice Burger, is not only not a fraud, but a fundamental right warranting the incorporation of the Second Amendment against the States. This does not mean that no restrictions whatsoever may be placed on gun ownership, only that such restrictions must be statutory, not constitutional, and subject to the usual “compelling interest” / “least restrictive means” limitations for qualifying all fundamental rights. The point, though, is that the gun-rights bubble, one of the longest-standing of many, results from the single value of gun ownership overwhelming all other considerations we apply routinely to all other rights, without exception, in the Bill of Rights, the “privileges or immunities” clause, and all the other “rights-centric” language in the Constitution. (For example, "free exercise” of religion is also a fundamental right, but that does not exempt, e.g., child sacrifice and polygamy from civil-law prohibitions.) Inside the gun-rights bubble, the exclusive emphasis placed on the individual right to own a gun, with no restrictions or limitations or qualifications of any kind whatsoever, renders the Second Amendment a historical and constitutional abnormality. If courts interpreted the Constitution according to this gun-bubble pattern, falsely yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater would be protected speech, Schenck v. the United States and Mr. Justice Holmes notwithstanding.

44543795_charlton_heston_nra466apBut -- lest I be accused of being less than even-handed -- I must take a page from the Fox News manual and, in the interest of being "fair and balanced" ... ahem! ... give some examples of bubbles on the Left.

o The reluctance to criticize Muslim societies and cultures for practices that, in any Western -- especially Christian --  context, would provoke justified outrage

The recent and still-simmering controversy, on an episode of Real Time, between Bill Maher and Sam Harris, on the one hand, and Ben Affleck and Nicholas Kristof, on the other is, by now, a classic example of the bubble inhabited by many -- not all, obviously, but many -- progressives who grant Islam a pass for many of its practices, e.g., the subjugation of women, especially brutal methods of criminal punishment, etc., that, in a non-Muslim setting, would provoke revulsion. In fact, I addressed this issue in a "Skeptics Collection" column in January of this year, in answer to a Nicholas Kristof New York Times column on "The Diversity of Islam" in which Kristof responded to the controversy on Maher's TV show. In all fairness, it should be noted in most explicit terms that progressives who inhabit this particular bubble take up residence there from the most honorable of motives:  they want to avoid even the appearance of religious and cultural prejudice, especially in light of the West's historically imperialistic practices vis a vis the Muslim world. Fair enough. But this is yet another case of one value, praiseworthy as far as it goes, suppressing and marginalizing other values no less worthy of respect -- in this case, criticism of cultural practices that are, in any culture, destructive and retrograde. For example, any culture -- Muslim, Christian, or Fundamentalist Druid -- that practices the subjugation of women and sexual-orientation minorities or that settles scientific / empirical issues by recourse to religious dogma chooses pathology over health to the degree that it engages in such practices. But on a perhaps deeper level, I strongly suspect that there is an additional incentive for (some, not all) progressives to inhabit this bubble:  fear that any cultural critique of Islam as a religious ideology may be construed as a personal critique of Muslims as people. This fear was palpable on Real Time. I recall both Affleck and Kristof repeatedly chastising Maher and Harris for personal animus against Muslims, quite apart from their (Maher's and Harris's) critique of Muslim culture and politics. Affleck and Kristof seemed unable to effect a separation between person and ideology.


o Resistance to allowing others to express opinions unpalatable to many progressives

I would argue that this inability or unwillingness to separate ideology from person largely accounts for some recent and bizarre instances of opposition to academic freedom on some college campuses -- of all places!  For example, Ayaan Hirsi Ali recently spoke critically about Islam at a Yale convocation, but only after stridently vocal protests from the Yale Muslim student association ... and also from ex-Muslims and atheists (!!!!) at Yale. In May of 2014, Rutgers rescinded an invitation to Condoleezza Rice to speak, based on protests from student groups about Rice's participation in the Bush Administration's policy toward Iraq. The students demanded a degree of lock-step regimentation of discourse seldom seen outside of the Stalinist Soviet Union and Falangist Spain c. 1940. Contrast that with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaking at Columbia University and even more so with the recent speech by Bernie Sanders -- of all people! -- at a student convocation at fundamentalist Liberty University -- of all places!  This is not a violation of the First Amendment -- after all, Rice and Ali could speak at any number of alternative fora -- but it is a betrayal of the core purpose of the university as a preserve for the free exchange of ideas and opinions. The bitter irony, of course, is that virtually every student-protest movement traces its ideological DNA back to Mario Savio and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of the 60s -- a case of the apple landing very far indeed from the tree. But then Savio & Co. really did believe in a free exchange of views -- that is what free speech is, after all -- unhampered by litmus tests inside an ideological bubble.

And speaking of colleges / universities, perhaps the most critical aspect of this problem of bubble formation is that even colleges and universities are beginning to succumb to the practice of emphasizing the single value of professional training over broad liberal-arts education, and in the process of aiding and abetting the formation of an academic bubble, not providing students with a way to critique all such.

James R. Cowles



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