Tuesday, August 02, 2005

On Conviction and Action

I just read a post on my friend’s libertarian-oriented blog. I am not a libertarian, though I am all for liberty, and share some concerns about the threats to freedom in our complex, divided nation.

I heard some sociologist speaking on NPR, going through statistic after statistic to demonstrate that Americans' involvement in every kind of civic activity - local politics, service organizations, neighborhood groups, church attendance, even picnics - has decreased in the last few decades. People are just too busy, it seems, with work and television to get involved. One result of this is that we abdicate our critical reasoning skills to 'professionals' who do our thinking and decision making for us. How can democracy last in such a context?

I spent some time this summer with an old friend who is politically active on the local/state level, and he convinced me of the need to get involved in politics, as the life of the polis, our community. To be an agnostic, politically speaking, is to abdicate our moral responsibility to act for the good of our community. If my neighborhood, my town, my state, or my nation is going to pot and I’m not doing anything about it, then I have no right to complain that someone else isn’t fixing the problems.

Augie's post also reminded me of Yeat's saying, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." For democracy to be sustained, those of us who are for freedom, individualism, and the common good need conviction and passion. I just finished listening to Dr. Zhivago (unabridged) on tape. A theme of Pasternak's book, it seems to me, is the necessary complexity and richness of life in a society made up of free individuals, and the diminishing of human life in an authoritarian, ideologically and technocratically ordered society.

Still, there is something to be said for the Socratic definition of wisdom. While I do not lack conviction and strong belief, I am conscious of my limits. For example, even as I strongly opposed going to war in Iraq (and still think it was a mistake), I keep hoping to be proved wrong, hoping that good can still come out of the evil situation. Even though going to war there was a costly mistake, in terms of lives, money, and geopolitical capital, I do not follow the libertarian position (as I understand it) that we should immediately pull out and let the civil war begin. We caused the mess there, and we should do something to help stabilize the situation and then leave ASAP. (And, yes, I support our troops there, who are risking their lives obeying orders and generally trying to do the right thing in an almost impossible situation.)

Here’s a quote for today from Bertrand Russell: “When the intensity of emotional conviction subsides, a man who is in the habit of reasoning will search for logical grounds in favour of the belief which he finds in himself.” I take this as a true description of how we operate noetically. At my age, my faith, my convictions, my beliefs will not be reversed in a day by reading or experiencing something new. I will probably never become a libertarian, because the beliefs which I find in myself are different. That is not to say that my horizons are not constantly expanding by what I read or experience, but my basic convictions, my faith, my foundational beliefs, are not likely to change completely. It is unlikely that I will ever read Ayn Rand’s books – life is too short!