Part III – Political Identity (what being politically identified does for us)
Identity, political or otherwise, continues to be an enduring theme in my life. Political identity as well as voter participation is of course optional. Many of us are though, invested in a political vision, and view the world through political lenses. We place politics high enough on our list of priorities to stay informed; read newspapers, watch news programs and perhaps even read political books. The influence of Politics in America has increasingly infiltrated many of our social structures; schools, churches, businesses, while awareness of who we are ethnically or through our life style distinctions are punctuated more than ever. Perhaps because access to the world at large has increased, and technology continues to bring more voices into the cultural conversation, political awareness and identity is on the increase.
My sense has always been that from out of the continuity of experience, from which I know that I am me and not another, there is an ever extending chain of events that through their effects on what I see, feel, sense and know, change the aggregate sense of self that carries me forward. Sometimes changes wrought from terrifying or painful events bring regret, and cannot be undone, calling for a reconciliation in order to bring some peace of mind. I found this to be true from both bad choices I have made in my life as well as from exposure to violent images and events, whether in life experiences, or in films or books.
To live with the knowledge of evil brings pain that cannot easily be reconciled with the desire for peace and goodness. For even when we are sometimes able to choose the good, we remain in a world frequented by evil and live in a world of ambiguity of moral effects. There is not always a clear path to the good, and certainly no absolute knowledge that what I do brings about the goodness intended without some unintended evil. Also, it is as if the weight of the collective evil can be in our hearts and spoil our peace. Although letting oneself get pulled down into darkness will never dispel evil from the world, we live much like Rilke shows us, with a foot in both worlds.
With that in my mind I come to view the spectrum of political identities for their vision and the fantasies they engender.
Perhaps too, it may be that politics has come to the foreground of American culture because we all sense, in varying degrees, the trouble our culture and our world is in. What seems to heighten our anxiety that something must be done to fix us may be the paradox of living in a world where an amazing amount of technology and information is instantly available to us. Why then, can we not fix our problems, right now? (Would you like to supersize your order m’am?)
Although there are many distinctions between political identities, just as technology and information are speeding up, they all share in an increasing sense of urgency for the implementation of our fantasy* of solutions offered for the problems as we imagine them to be. But, it seems, the more we do, the worse things get. Both ends of the political spectrum embrace the notion that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, although one side tends not to believe in a literal hell, so for them it is simply going to be the end of the world as we know it.
Either way, or anyway, what are political identities doing for us? Like a lot of ways in which we come to define ourselves; as a lover of sports, music or the arts, political identity can bring us a sense of belonging and shared experience which may lead us to fulfill a creative impulse and, or, give us a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. What differentiates political identity from other ways of engagement may lie in what propels the political impulse as well as in our experience of the engagement and to what ends that engagement serves.
Perhaps it is true that the larger the investment in a political identity the more investment in one’s cosmology there is. Cosmology here meaning the kind and amount of meaning an individual sees in his life and the lives of others and the order of the world as a whole, including a perceived absence of meaning and order.
That our cosmological views of the world have in the last few hundred years shifted from being theologically to scientifically based would not be hotly contested. Although there are variations to style and degree, how much we include God or the gods in our cosmological view to a large extent determines our political identity. Boiled down to their essence, there is the Scientific view in which there is either no god at all, or no god who directly or personally effects us, and therefore We, the People are it. Our capacity to govern, plan for the future, understand our world and how it works depends solely on scientific, economic and political knowledge. The power of politics and government are then placed entirely in our human hands. Laws are man made, hence subject to revision according to place and time, and have no ultimate claim to authority outside of ourselves.
At the theological end of the spectrum, all power and authority gets placed in the hands of God. Though there are variations among religions as to what God’s law is and how those laws should be practiced, what matters most for where on the spectrum of political identity one places oneself, is one’s teleological view of the world. The amount of control we believe God has over human and cosmological affairs directly correlates to how fixed we believe God’s law is and so determines how human law should be practiced and how much influence humans have to affect the ultimate outcome of humanity and the Cosmos.
Our view of teleology very nicely accounts for the difference in political views. It may not account for all differences, but will help us to account for differences not only between atheists who place their faith and trust solely in Science and personal knowledge, and theists who place theirs solely in God. Perhaps both extremes are equally dogmatic and therefore equally dangerous. We can see this more clearly by following the root of the ideas of both views outward to their display. I am not however arguing for the middle, a lukewarm place where we compromise for the sake of some imagined “agreeable” outcome. The point here is to simply consider the implications of the view at both ends of the spectrum where I believe the tension and polarity are amplified.
But if we are truly in a world where what matters is only matter, who cares for that world? If we place a higher value in the material world over and against the spiritual world, where all valuation occurs; love, beauty, desire, dreams, where will our hearts reside? And even if Scientific knowledge reveals every last detail to the millionth decimal point and discovers the means to control everything, from the weather to food production to human behavior, we will still have war, hunger, sloth, greed and death. For these are the woes of humankind which can only be attended to by what matters to the heart, and at root are spiritual concerns that a belief in God, or gods concerns itself with.
But, the religious view that requires us to take our battles abroad, outside to the world of strangers, instead of keeping the struggle home where the personal battle with our and other’s suffering is seen, felt and lived, is just as much of a dead end. A religious view that believes God calls us to battle, other than as an act of self-defense, invites us to never put down the sword while making the claim that we have direct knowledge from God to do His bidding.
Both of these extremes take us beyond the limits of human knowledge. Pure hubris! I would argue that there is no science that will make us love the world enough to take care of it and manage it. And I would argue that we cannot insert God into the timeline of history and call His shots for Him.
*By fantasy I do not mean to imply a falsehood, but rather acknowledge that image is primary to our knowing, and so, however true our ideas may turn out to be if and when materialized, they primarily enter us through images, notions and fantasy. If not for fantasy and imagination, no new idea would ever come forth to fruition. We mistakenly think of reality in opposition to fantasy, but reality too, is first an idea and refers to what we think of as the material world. Ideas, fantasy and imagination lack material substance, but they are the primary “stuff” of our mental world and can therefore be just as true or false as material things.