Thursday, December 13, 2007

Red World, Blue World

A former aide to Sen. Daniel Moynihan, Joshua Brook, has written a fascinating article in the Summer 2007 World Policy Journal, called "Red World, Blue World." (Understand, WPJ staff are slightly slacker, so their summer issue did not hit the stands until December.) No, this is not Brook trying to describe which nations and groups in the world are more or less like Democrats and Republicans. Rather, he starts from the red-state/blue-state model to show how most cultures have certain character types that either fit into the blue notion of belief systems that are malleable based on facts on the ground, or red notions of strict political, cultural, or religious beliefs that are adhered to, regardless of what visible evidence may suggest.
Brook's analysis helps to explain why blue people may assume red people are lying, when in reality they are accepting their faith as a higher truth that somehow negates what happens right in front of their eyes (and notice the similarities between religious folks' "higher truth" and Leninists' "revolutionary truth.") For example, he said, Wahhabists who supported the 9/11 attacks could simultaneously say "Islam is the religion of peace" while supporting the attacks as the will of Allah, without experiencing cognitive dissonance.
Similarly, when President Bush says, "We do not torture," he is neither in traditional denial, nor lying as bald-facedly as some progressive may believe. Instead, he has internalized the belief that the U.S. is inherently the home of democracy and human rights, and therefore the government does not torture by definition, regardless of what visible evidence may tell us.
What this suggests is that red people simply cannot be swayed by facts, because they do not care about facts. The question for those of us who lean toward blue, and believe that belief systems should adapt to what our world experiences tell us, is how can we reach people when their core belief systems go terribly wrong? Will devout Christians, Jews, Muslims, Marxists, simply follow the core belief off the edge of a cliff? Are blue people so squishy in their "moral relativity" that they cannot make a case for abandoning strict faith-based belief? I don't want to be like Richard Dawkins and the militant atheists who make fun of anyone harboring strong spirituality. I want to find a way to promote militant Enlightenment thought without offending people of faith (though I still insist that blasphemy cannot and should not be a crime in any nation).
Oddly, I'll give some kudos here to the Mormon Church. When recent DNA evidence proved the Mormon belief on American Indian origins to be wrong, Church elders got together and changed the doctrine to accommodate the evidence. How many "red" people would be willing to do such a thing?


Ruth said...

Oh, this is fascinating. I've thought for years that people who follow conservative Christian beliefs follow them because of innate characteristics. For instance, in the state of Michigan, where you and I grew up, there are lots of engineer types who follow very logical ways of looking at the world. Like my father-in-law. Now one would think that maybe logic and Christianity wouldn't mix. But if you start with the fundamental belief that Christianity and the Bible are factually true, then build your logic on it, everything must stay solid and absolute. If you are a person who needs the world to be good and evil, and you don't like gays, and you don't like "others" - then following a religion that supports your views already is a comfortable thing to do. Not that they aren't challenged in other ways.

It does seem that there are these two basic groups, one evolving, and one not so much. I like to think I'm one of the ones who is adjusting my beliefs according to the facts and changes in the world. Your point that people who adjust and evolve have the challenge of helping the absolutists see the devastation of their absolute ideals/ideas is beautifully put.

I'll try to read the article sometime this weekend.

I hope your mother is doing well.

Pete said...

Loring, I'm suspicious of this analysis. It sounds like the kind of reification that people oriented toward "policy" accept when the subect of culture comes up. I'll have to take a look at the article.

Loring Wirbel said...

Well, Pete, Brook himself weighed his analysis against the "clash of civilizations" thingie and the traditional liberal/conservative axis and made some good points. It's not Western vs. Islam, or conservative vs. liberal. It's closed system vs. malleable system. How would you rank Lou Dobbs, who is a "red" person with a mix of conservative and liberal viewpoints?

Islam (except in places in the Middle East) is the most insular, and thus has the highest percentage of "red," but is not red by nature. Europe is most blue, but has definite red subcultures that cannot be suppressed. His overall conclusion is that, despite the continued upsurges of fundamentalism, there is an overall arc moving from red to blue, because (A) the scientific method works better than faith in yielding universal ways of knowing and (B) red doctrine cannot deal with multiple cultures. However, Brook warned that if a blue culture does not give reds "breathing space," they will create upsurges of conservative backlash. And he also points out that people seem to have a fundamental need for a magical being and belief system, something Daniel Dennett and others buy into, which is why the agnostic philosophers at the time of the French Revolution never made a lot of headway.

Loring Wirbel said...

Oops, Pete, in that last rant, I meant to say "Islam, except in places like Indonesia and Malaysia.." The Middle East is the most insular, obviously.

wretch said...

That the main characteristic of blue politics is open-mindedness, and of red politics is faith (often free from evidence or facts) -- that's in line with what I intuit about both.

From the moment I first saw the U.S. red/blue political breakdown on a county-by-county (rather than by the typical state-by-state basis), however, I have hated the way the red/blue political dichotomy has been framed.

On the county map, you can see blue concentrates in cities and along major rivers, and red tends to be more prominent everywhere else. Blues, it seems, either congregate to cities and greater population density, and reds tend toward more isolated living.

So my question is -- does anything Brook says address that observation?

Loring Wirbel said...

Wretch, I've never seen those maps you talk about, though Brook says that blue naturally arises in urban areas and cosmopolitan cultures, just because people gain more exposure to other cultures. And it would be an intuitive guess to say that port cities would be more blue. You wouldn't want to over-use that generalization, though.

wretch said...

Hi, Loring -- sorry to have left a comment with a mysterious tag. That's me, as in "ink-stained ____".

Brian Santo

Okay, not quite as stark as I made out, but still...