Thursday, March 20, 2008

Obama, Ben and Jerry's, and Logical Fundamentalism

Ay asks,

"Is Obama the first candidate to have his own symbol?"
No, branding with symbols certainly precedes this election. Last time around, the W with the flag was Bush's symbol. Before that, it was usually an emblematic writing of the names of those on the ticket. Perhaps, the first time a symbol was used was Lincoln who used a sketch of the Lincoln Memorial accompanied by the slogan, "We have to elect him, we already have the monument."

Soul Searcher asks,
I like Obama. I think he is the best candidate still in this thing. It is about time someone talks about hope and opportunity. That being said, does he really think he can put an end to (or really even make a dent in) partisanship in Washington? Partisanship is almost as old as this country. For example, the election at 1796 was incredibly dividing and partisan. Adams and Jefferson really did not agree on much, and they were quite nasty about it at times. Does Obama really think he'll reverse this? I haven't really been convinced that it is possible.
It depends upon what you mean by partisanship.

There has always been, will always be, and should always be partisanship. Conflicting approaches and ideals, vigorously debated is an essential feature of a healthy democracy.

That said, since the run-up to the Gingerich revolution in the early 90s, we've seen a completely different state of affairs we can call hyper-partisanship. The idea here is to not only oppose the policies of the other side, but to viciously attack, smear, and vilify the other side in an amoral scorched Earth attempt to get them to STFU. It has been effective. Not only in securing GOP victories at the ballotbox, but in completely neutering the Democratic party, creating what Michael Chabon in The Washington Post has called a "phobocracy" where Democratic positions are predicated on the thought "Oh my God, those mean Republicans might say something mean about me and take my milk money, I better just do what they say and vote to give Bush the authority to go to war and support corporate subsidies." The playground bullying got to the point where Republicans were actually holding committee meetings in the Senate without informing the Democratic members of the committee, barring them from participating.

Obama is a partisan, he is center-left traditional Democrat and his positions are in line with that. BUT what he does is to return to the old style of respectful open-minded partisanship. He is a master at finding common ground, places where liberal and conservative platforms overlap and advancing the entire nation's interests along those lines (his biggest legislative successes at the federal level, for example, were on nuclear non-proliferation with Republican hawk Dick Lugar and on governmental transparency with ultra-right-winger Tom Coburn). He is thoughtful in not taking a knee-jerk position as this article from Cass Sunstein, now a professor at Harvard Law, chronicles.

He is a thoughtful, intelligent person who will not eliminate partisanship, but I do think he, if anyone, has a chance to put a dent in the culture of closed-mindedness we suffer from. His speech on race this week, for example, was a mature, informed, extended argument intended for adults. It is different and it gives me hope, to use that overused word. Maybe I'll be disappointed yet again, but I do think he's our next best hope.

Scottie asks,
"If the definition of a fundamentalism means adhering to one's beliefs no matter any line of reasoning persuasion presented because those beliefs are inherent, (fundamental) is a society that believes reasoning and logic as necessary for their own way of living being fundamental in the fact that they must adhere to their code of logic? and...what is the best discontinued Ben & Jerry's flavor?"
Taking them in reverse order, I have spent time in the discontinued flavor graveyard at the Ben and Jerry's factory in Waterbury...or as some of us call it, Mecca. I'd have to reach back and say Wavy Gravy.

As for fundamentalism as you define it (and I think one could take issue with certain aspects of definition, but you set up a fair game), I think, sure, you could call a society that places logic and reasoning at a central place as "fundamentalist," but it would be a radically different sort of fundamentalism.

To make this difference clear, let's draw a distinction between what we could call first-order commitments and second-order commitments. First order commitments are to purported truths of the way the world is or should be. I have my picture and that's it. Nothing you can say would change it. I am committed to fundamental propositions about reality and ethics that are carved in stone.

Second-order commitments, on the other hand, are commitments to process, to ways of considering purported truths about the way the world is or how it should be. On this view, when provisional beliefs for which I had good reason turn out to be untrue, I would rethink my other commitments, my worldview would be perpetually open to debate and rational discourse. I am committed to the way we consider things and so am happy to reconsider what I think in light of interesting, thoughtful arguments I hadn't considered before. This second-order absolute commitment would thus generate a very open-minded version of fundamentalism, one that, really wouldn't worry me quite so much.

Of course, absolute unthinking adherence to these second-order commitments is worrisome, too. We should be open to third order questions which question whether our notions of logic and reason are what we think they are and whether they do what we think they do. But, then, welcome to philosophy.