Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A Manor of Thy Friend's or of Thine Own

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

Not merely the source for well known titles of war movies and novels, this excerpt from John Donne's Meditation XVII is a penetrating insight into the human condition.

That is, it's a penetrating insight into how some of us view the human condition. In ruminating on my noontime political chautauquas with my CCLB and my Fellow Liberal Lunch Buddy (FLLB) [they know who they are, and they'll likely be recurring characters here at the Spleen], I've been trying sort something out: How is it that decent, well-meaning people with similar backgrounds, education, and current lifestyles can hold such diametrically opposed opinions. I like to think I'm a rational person, but I don't flatter myself that I'm noticeably smarter than my CCLB (for instance), so how does his exercise of reason lead him to conclusions that seem so unreasonable to me?

I've decided that the only explanation is that he and I -- and conservatives and liberals generally -- start reasoning from fundamentally different beginning assumptions. Before you say "Duh! That's pretty obvious!", bear with me: I don't think it really is all that obvious to most people, and I think much of the acrimony in our current political discourse springs from the failure to understand this basic principle.

Here's what I think I now understand: Conservatives are fundamentally anti-social. Now wait... I don't mean that word in its typical pejorative sense; rather, I mean that at some level they don't believe in society, at least not in the same way liberals do. An old antagonist of mine on a space bulletin board used to argue whenever I would use the word "we" in talking about the space program (e.g., "we went to the Moon"; "we've sent spacecraft to every planet but Pluto"; etc.), on the grounds that I hadn't personally participated in those activities. For a long time, I thought he was being deliberately obtuse, for no other reason than to pick fights. Actually, I still think he was doing that, but I eventually figured out there was more to it: I was saying "we" meaning humankind, or in some cases the United States, with the understanding that as a human and an American, I did participate in those activities. He was having none of it: To him, there was no such thing as society, and if you hadn't done something in your own person, you hadn't done it at all. He did not believe that "every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main," and he certainly didn't believe that "any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind."

To him... and I suspect to conservatives in general... society, as an integrated whole, does not exist, and what goes under that name is really just a collection of individuals, each ultimately responsible to (and for) him/herself alone. This is, I've come to believe, at the root of many political arguments about such issues as tax policy, public education, and government programs in general. It also may explain why conservatives consider socialism such a dirty word!

With this philosophical chasm in mind, it's easier to understand why the health care/health insurance issue has been so intractable in U.S. politics. To understand why it's so important, and get a good (if somewhat disheartening) overview of what we should -- but probably can't -- do about it, check out this article from the New York Review of Books (thanks to the Altercation blog for highlighting this). It's a long read, but well worth it if you're at all interested in public health care policy.


Unit of the Day: The sabin has nothing to do with the discoverer of the oral polio vaccine; it's a measure of sound absorption used by acoustical engineers, equal to the absorption of one square foot of a perfectly absorbing surface. Now a perfectly sound-absorbing surface sounds like a pretty useful thing, doesn't it?

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