This posting will be a real test. I am certain some of my readers will react angrily to its content. The test is whether you read the one after this, the one not yet written. If you do not like this, and so refuse to read any subsequent posts, you may be a single issue, litmus test person, and probably are more to the extreme wing of your party than you admit. Okay, on to the content.
Although Technological change poses a far greater real threat to our economy and widespread employment and wellbeing, Social change generates far more emotion, and threatens to tear the fabric of our generally accepted culture. No one gets as upset about robots replacing assembly workers, as some do about abortion (or anti-abortion), affirmative action, gay marriage, legalization of pot, school prayer, etc.
Why is this so? Why do people, many of whom have very little at stake personally, get so inflamed about these issues? I think the sea change in communications brought about by the internet, email, social media, blogs (like this one!) and others are not the root cause, as some say. I do believe that instant communications amplifies and makes the feelings more intense and immediate. In the absence of credible and balanced journalism, people tend to only read and watch messages that echo their prior beliefs. And credibility ratings on journalists are probably at an all-time low, for good reason.
It is clear that there is a religious divide on many of these issues. Some of the more progressive tendencies are found in those who have abandoned religion in their lives, or who have at least lessened its influence. But I think it is more than that, as well. Traditions and traditional mores have been established, because they worked, at least for some long period in the past. Whether or not they still work or work as well, depends in part on where a person lives, his/her lifestyle, what friends and neighbors believe. But many of these are beliefs, and religiously inspired or not, they are beliefs rather than ideas. The destruction or trashing of one’s beliefs is difficult to accept, and leaves one feeling adrift, unmoored.
Social change requires a change in beliefs, and that takes significant time for many people to process. In some cases, it can only happen over generations, as children absorb many of their parents’ beliefs. This argues for the status quo, or at most glacial change.
On the other hand, there are some social issues of basic fairness that cry out for addressing today, rather than allowing slow evolution. These would include economic or legal discrimination based on race, religion, or sexual orientation. Not all social issues are equal in importance.
So, what should the role of government be? Again we find the extreme wings of both parties trying to use government as a weapon to enforce their particular beliefs. A more centrist position would be to legislate that institutions act in the common good, but to avoid coercion of individuals to agree with a belief. This is slippery ground, and sometimes a politician’s best position is to fade into the woodwork, and not take a strong stand. A little less shouting about these issues would be a good thing, even if legislation proceeds slowly, and in a non-punitive way. We have fifty states which can serve as experimental laboratories, and here is a case when the Federal government can lead from behind.
The recent confrontations in Charlottesville are somewhat instructive. The Saturday Wall Street Journal had an editorial by Holman Jenkins, Jr., entitled “The Extremist Show is Just Starting”, which was illuminating. The city grew and prospered for the last 93 years despite the presence of the statue, and, according to Jenkins, there had been no strong calls to remove the statue until recently. But egged on by extreme progressives, the city decided to remove the statue. The far right wing, KKK and neo-Nazis, decided to protest. They did so legally, and within First Amendment rights. Now I find those groups odious, representing the worst of America and humankind, but they still enjoy First Amendment rights. The “antifas”, or Anti-Fascists, organized a counter-protest, to protest the protesters right to protest, and had to know there would be violence.
The African-Americans of Charlottesville, of Virginia, of the United States, are in no way better off today than they were two weeks ago, in any meaningful sense of the words “better off”. Yet the focus of politics on forcing an extreme view on the mostly uncaring center has made us all worse off. Had the energy expended by protesters, politicians, journalists and the general public been utilized instead to find solutions to serious economic or security issues, we would be better off. No one has more legal rights nor better opportunities because of the dust-up and the general outcry. I am not equating the morality (or lack thereof) of the KKK and neo-Nazis with the morality of the antifas. But social change comes more slowly, and the KKK and neo-Nazis have far fewer sympathizers than they had generations ago. Left alone, they will dwindle. Focusing on them probably helps their recruitment.
What could have been done by a Centrist philosophy, in the light of agitation to remove the statue? I’ve seen the suggestion of adding context. Perhaps a plaque at the statue, saying something like, “General Lee is a part of our history. We disagree vehemently today with his support of human slavery, but his statue can remind us of who we were, in the cause of fostering human progress towards who we want to become”.