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!


  1. I have excerpted and commented on your post here: http://independentcountry.blogspot.com/2005/08/get-them-to-think.html.

    Also, do you think you'll stick with "Lemonholm" for a while? This blog's gone through a heck of a lot of name changes and I won't waste my time changing my blog template link name if you're just going to up and change it again tomorrow. :)

  2. Jim - thanks for the comments. If we did pull out of Iraq, it might put a damper on the insurgency - then they'd be killing other Muslims exclusively, rather than us foreign infidels. Would insurgents travel to Iraq in droves just to kill Shiites? I wish they could just divide up the country into three parts and be done with it, but that will probably not happen.

    I like what you wrote: "Coalitions are not built by alienating people who disagree with us on many issues, but rather by building alliances around the issues with which we agree." Rather than having litmus tests of doctrinal purity, it seems best for political movements to clearly articulate positions and build bridges with like minded people.

    I think I'll stick with "Lemonholm." We have the benefit of a unique name, so I think I'll use it. I just don't want to be pegged by a blog name. 'Progressive Lutheran' seemed kind of pretentious after awhile - I'll let readers decide if I am progressive or regressive or whatever. Since it is just a publishing venue for me and not a forum for the Progressive Lutherans of the World, 'Lemonholm' seems best.

  3. I believe that it is very likely that Iraq will split up into three countries eventually. Whether it is a peaceful or violent transition, I do not know. If you look at the experience in the former Yugoslavia, Tito kept that country together for 40 years and smashed all Serbian and Croatian national expression with an iron fist. However, when the iron fist left, the old animosity between the nationalities quickly reemerged. No matter how long the US remains in Iraq, once it leaves old animosities will come back to the surface. Violence and coercion can delay Civil war, but it cannot make them like each other. If they are determined to hate and kill each other, they will do it.

    I completely agree with both you and Jim about forming the discussion around our commonality. We both identify many of the same problems and have the same goals, so our discussion becomes how is the best way to reach that goal. Our values are not different just our means to attain achieve those values.

    One more thing, as I read you response to my post, I realized that I failed to express an important take on the Socratic Paradox. I believe that when we admit that we know we know nothing, this wisdom should motivate us to continue to expand our horizons. Since we still do not know everything, we need to keep examining our lives and the world around us. It does not mean we lose faith in ourselves, but instead keep our mind open to new ideas and points of view.

    I will go ahead and change the name of you link on my blog.

  4. Eric -
    I am not libertarian either, but i am struggling with my concept of what a religion is and whether science qualifies as a non-theologic religion. I do believe that there is more to life that what science and reason can explain. I cannot fathom how science and religion managed to return full circle to the time of gallileo and tyco brahe.

    i live in a poor rural community that really has managed to escape the world since i've been here. It is a unique situation - it is probably what i get for being me. I had a religious episode in college that scared the bejeebers out of me and have been wondering recently if i may not have been right after all back then. Everybody convinced me that i had a mental lapse and now i wonder.