Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


The two-faced God is supposed to inspire us to look both back and forward at this time of year, so let's start with the backward look. This has been, shall we say, an interesting year. They say that alcoholics have to hit rock bottom before they come out of their state of denial, and that's pretty much what we did as a country. We started to face up to the cold facts about ourselves just in time, and it's a damn good thing because there was nobody out there to do an intervention on us, no matter what we had done to others.

That doesn't mean we're all the way into the action phase.* The party of denial got almost half the vote. It turns out that the basic division in U.S. society is not between differing political philosophies, interest groups, or value orientations. It's between people who believe in reality, and people who belief stuff that is not what we deep philosophers refer to as "true," i.e., actually factual or, in lay terms, corresponding to what is rather than what is not.

To be a Republican nowadays, you have to believe that the earth is 6,000 years old (allowance is made for those who push it back to 10,000), that all the flora and fauna were created in a day, and then we were made in the "image" of God, who therefore must be a guy with two arms, two legs, one nose and one wiener (presumably a big one) living somewhere up in the sky.

You also have to believe that spewing CO2 into the atmosphere does not affect the climate; that consuming arsenic in drinking water and mercury in the diet is harmless; and that when scientists say that a species is in danger of extinction, they're just making it up.

You have to believe that Saddam Hussein was the perpetrator of the Sept. 11 attack, and that he possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction™ which he either planned to use against the United States directly, by spraying anthrax over east coast cities from his fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles; or by giving nuclear weapons to Osama bin Laden. At least 30% of the country does believe this, specifically the Fox News audience and Christopher Hitchens.

You have to believe that it's in the best interest of semi-skilled workers making $40,000 a year to make sure that people making a million dollars a year pay the lowest possible taxes. Of course it's in their interest -- its Economics 101!™ And Economics 101!™ also says that the magical Free Market™ will guarantee the greatest prosperity for all if the government just makes sure not to do anything to interfere with the decisions of the mighty captains of finance and industry. Economics 101!™ is just like the Bible, which is the source of scientific understanding of nature. The Gospel According to Friedman teaches us everything we need to know about social policy. It's in the Good Book. Just believe.

Curiously, politics in Europe, Canada and elsewhere around the world are not organized along these lines. Sometimes ethnic groups, or economic or other interests vie for power, more or less overtly; sometimes factions organize on nakedly behalf of their own power, and political institutions allow them to prevail; in the liberal republics, arguments occur over values and social theories, but people generally stipulate to roughly similar sets of facts. In the United States, however, our parties inhabit different worlds.

I could go on. In one world, having everybody carry concealed, loaded pistols everywhere they go -- in schools, in church, in shopping malls, in parks, and of course at home -- makes us all safer. In the other world, guns are considered dangerous. In one world, rich people will stop investing and managing businesses if they have to pay 30% of their income in taxes instead of 25%; while poor people only work hard when they are paid very little. In the other world, most of what rich people do is useless and they get paid millions whether they succeed or fail anyway, and they certainly aren't going to stop accepting those millions if a little bit of it gets skimmed off to pay for the airports they fly in and out of and the roads their chauffeurs drive them on.

But you get the idea. Maybe the two faces of Janus have a second connotation as well.

*For those of you who aren't in the addiction biz, there's a standard model of behavior change, called the Transtheoretical Model for reasons I won't go into here, that says people may be in the pre-contemplation phase, when they aren't even thinking about kicking the junk; contemplation, where they're at least thinking about it; action, where they're really, truly trying but may relapse from time to time; and maintenance, where they're "in recovery" and living sober.

1 comment:

Jean Valjean said...

I like the comment about the Transtheoretical Model. In common parlance, the four phases are as follows:


Or: Unconscious incompetence; conscious incompetence; conscious competence; and, finally, unconscious competence. I don't know if recovery ever gets us to the fourth stage--maybe it's like an unattainable zen garden.