Political Half Truth

half brain1The current political dilemma lies less in the problems themselves than in the people who appraise them.  As with all living organisms, the ills in social systems are complex, interwoven, and multilayered.  Just as a psychiatrist might prescribe drugs for one patient and therapy for another, one social problem might be best approached from the conservative and another from the liberal mindset, or both.  Yet the sad fact is that knowing a person’s opinion on one issue usually enables a close prediction of their opinion on most other issues.  There’s a truth behind the old saw: “Never discuss politics or religion”; in both cases, most minds are narrowly closed.

An informed and responsible approach to any social issue requires an ability to hold polar biases in balance.  The situation parallels—perhaps even reflects—the two hemispheres of the brain.  Each has its specialized functions and consequent failings.  Roughly, the left side of the brain deciphers the text of experience (analytical) while the right side provides the larger meaning or context (gestalt).  The one is literal and focused on means, the other metaphoric and concerned with ends.  Both are vital to normal mental function.  Damage to the left hemisphere, for example, can mean problems with speech and logic, while damage to the right causes problems with perception and attention.  In a classic experiment, patients were asked to redraw from memory what they saw after studying a large H made up entirely of small A’s.  Patients with right hemisphere damage often simply drew scattered A’s over the page, while those with left damage just drew a large H with no A’s.  Like those with hemisphere damage, the doctrinaire liberal (inclined toward the A’s) or dogmatic conservative (disposed toward the H) personify the proverbial sound of one hand clapping. 

An intelligent approach to social issues requires a balanced mind—one able to apply the values of both political left and right as specialized tools rather than adopting one or the other as ideological orthodoxy.  The result resembles the juxtaposition of two eyes, or two ears, or two brain hemispheres―depth vision, stereophonic sound, or three-dimensional consciousness.  But sadly, ideologies, conscious or unconscious, political or religious, seem the default state of the psyche. 

The liberal notion that existing social institutions are mechanical—pure scaffolding to be restructured and rearranged whenever transient ills seem to invite it—can be tempered by the conservative notion that institutions are organic, that they must have sanctity to the degree that allows the chance to evolve and heal themselves.  On the other hand, the somewhat paranoid conservative tendency to believe that a depersonalized structure of unyielding laws and procedures is necessary to contain the evil inherent in human nature can be tempered by the somewhat naïve liberal belief that people are inherently good and that flexibility is invariably the just course.

The polar positions generate a paradox.  Both the private citizen and government are valued at both ends of the political spectrum.  As Louis Hartz first observed in Liberalism in America, left and right in mainstream America are the left and right faces of classical liberalism (as opposed to the conservatism and radicalism epitomized in the French Revolution).  The highest value on the American right is the nineteenth-century classic liberal belief in individual freedom (Locke, Mill, Jefferson); the highest value on the American left is the twentieth-century liberal belief in individual security (sometimes called New Deal or “corporate” liberalism).  But there can be no individual freedom without the collective imposition of limits that preserve that freedom and give it a context of meaning; and there can be no individual security without imposing limits on the collective’s capacity to violate rights. 

One might conclude that the right fears government while the left fears unrestricted individualism.  Yet the right believes in a society of laws to protect not only individual freedom but the traditions seen as its historical context, while the left believes in a society of individuals open to reforming change and would bend the rules to defend the sacred rights of the most errant individual.  At the extremes are the radicals and the reactionaries, perhaps in many ways psychologically identical.  I once had a friend who shifted literally overnight from his ideal of becoming a virgin assault paratrooper defending his country to being a conscientious objector studying sculpture in Paris.

In spite of the obvious paradox, the tendency of most people is to cling to one side or the other of this ideological spectrum.  Sadder still is the fact that this mindset extends beyond the political to religious dogma, anti-science orthodoxies, and uninformed certainties on a vast variety of topics.  That an opinion on any one of those topics is usually a good predictor of opinions across the entire spectrum is confirmation that the roots of the dichotomy go much deeper than politics or religion.

Yet the political spectrum seems archetypal.  There is a childlike naiveté at the core of the liberal mentality, a world where evil is not inherent in human nature, no one is faulted for his own fate, and the risk-free society eludes us only for lack of lowest-common-denominator education, fiat money, and committees of honest men.  Having risen with the urban-industrial middle class, liberalism has suffered from its own success.  The belief in equal opportunity has become a protest against unequal results.  What began as a reaction against artificial pockets of wealth culminated in the denial that character and intelligence need correlate with well-being.  And the bold social conscience that once stood against the evils of industrialization became a pathological crusade to neutralize every conceivable stroke of ill-fortune.  Confusing people with livestock—creatures to be doctored and fed—the liberal agenda has degenerated to a quest for animal comfort.  The result is the cultural and educational catastrophe in which we now live, with its twin banes of the multicultural and politically correct.

The political right, on the other hand, has grown increasingly reactionary, fundamentalist, and anti-scientific, due in part to its preoccupation with the reality of evil and consequent frailty of human institutions.  There is a cynical paranoia that disposes of uncomfortable facts with conspiracy theories and simplistic psychologies―the assumption, if not self-projection, that all contrary opinion is materially motivated, that all opposing idealism, social conscience, or alleged concern for truth is finally disingenuous.*

At this point in history, the most compelling ideal for us all would seem to be the transforming of half minds into whole minds.


*The polarity reflects two fundamental kinds of intelligence―roughly, realists and idealists, correlating in many ways, perhaps, with thinking and feeling.  As with all such heuristic polarities, real people are a blend of both, yet imbalances make the types a reality.  At one extreme is a logical, linear, analytical, reductionist approach more concerned with means than with ends, such that means can become ends in themselves―wealth, power, or status.  At the other extreme is a wholistic approach that perceives the world as a complex network of interrelated and overlapping systems, such that the ends may seem, out of frustration or ignorance, to justify the means.

The irony is that each type attempts to achieve its vision of the world through a mental style more natural to its opposite type.  In describing his theory of psychological types, Jung observed that the locus of greatest meaning for each type was projected onto the world of its diametric opposite; thus, thinking types would see feeling as the highest realm (thus prone to sentimentality), while feeling types revere thinking (and thus misuse it); intuitives overvalue the sensate, the sensate intuition.  Johann Strauss dreamt of writing marches, while John Phillip Sousa longed to write waltzes.  Likewise, the political left often pursues idealistic ends through unrealistic means, while the right often applies idealistic means to unrealistic ends.

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