“Gentlemen Shall Lean to the Left”

Today, you get into a car and just drive. In the old, old days, you walked. Somewhere in between, you could, under certain circumstances, get in a stagecoach and go somewhere.

I’ve never done that (well, actually, I have, but that’s another story), but I have spent a lot of time flying around in tiny airplanes that get filled to capacity with weight in the form of humans and their luggage. When you do that, the pilots tend to weigh everything and add it up to make sure they know exactly how much there is and to not go over some limit, and they tend to put things where they want them. I’ve seen pilots ask a particularly large or small person to sit in a particular seat, for instance. The point of doing that is not only to control weight, but also to achieve balance (mainly between the front and back ends of the aircraft).

This is what it was like in the old days with the stagecoaches. In order to have wheels that would last a long time and allow a reasonably smooth ride, the wheels had to be really big. If the wheels are really big, the center of gravity is high. If the center of gravity is high, the weight has to be properly distributed.

Or the coach falls over on the first tight turn.

So sometimes, in order to maintain balance, when the stagecoach was barreling down the road with four fast horses out front, approaching the turn, the stagecoach driver or his assistant would pound on the roof to get the attention of the ladies and gentlemen inside and ask a favor of the men.

“Gentlemen, lean to the left!”

Or the right, as needed. Thusly, the center of gravity would be shifted and the stagecoach could make the turn at a reasonable speed and not fall over. (It would appear that ladies of the Victorian Era were massless.)

This, of course, is a metaphor for the political process, but not the scientific process.

In the scientific process, what is correct is correct, to the extent that we feel that certain conclusions are highly likely or even seemingly inescapable. Just because a range of opinions can exist or has existed does not mean that it should exist. If the opinions on the very wrong extreme of an issue (like, for instance, that Bigfoot DOES exist) are chopped off, the scientific process does not tumble off the road like a hapless, out-of-balance stage coach. Rather, science just heads more in the appropriate direction…down the road where there is no Bigfoot.

In politics, this is possible as well, but the pragmatic and messy truth is that there is, in fact, a range of opinions out there that includes a lot that you or I won’t like. Sometimes we don’t like them because they are philosophically different than what we think. Other times we won’t like them because they are just plain wacko-bozo wrong. Either way, the process for hacking those opinions off and letting them float free is undefined and elusive. So they tend to stick around.

Indeed, politically, it is often the case that the actual opinions don’t matter at all. What matters in a democracy or a consensus group is where the center lies (more or less). And the locus of the center is defined in large part by where the edges are. The center determines our collective direction, and the edges determine the center.

People who want to live near the center need to learn to thank those at the extremes. People who want to live to one side of the center need to form firm alliances with those on their side, moderate, semi-extreme, or very extreme.

This is why we needed a Kucinich to get an Obama. We needed a McCarthy to get a Johnson. This is why we needed an SDS, the Black Panthers and the Velvet Underground (yes, the band) to keep Nixon in line, to get important human rights reform and, eventually, Bono.

In the area of the science vs. anti-science culture wars, this is why we need a PZ Myers to get a Genie Scott. PZ Myers is the biology professor and blogger of Morris, Minnesota who is famous for having a firm anti-religion stance on science education and politics (and life in general). Genie Scott is the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, and is well known for being unapologetic about the validity of modern science, including evolutionary biology as we know it in the modern world, yet she is also known for communing with people who are are religious but still not particularly anti-science.

I’m pretty familiar with both of them as individuals, friends, colleagues, and fellow activists in science education. On a day to day basis, I see little difference between them when it comes to that area we all work together on: Science education in the K-12 classroom, and concomitant training of teachers and administrators. Also, I am aware of the fact that PZ Myers is capable of working with more “centrist” people where appropriate, and that Genie Scott is just as annoyed as anyone else when the religious right wing comes up with all the crap they come up with.

For the last several years, the conservative religious right wing has been effective in winning over the hearts and “minds” of a large percentage of the American people. They’ve even managed this in areas that make no sense. Tort reform. Health care reform. Unions. Across the United States, working class people are embracing policies in these areas that will ultimately, over the medium and long term, do them great harm.

I think the right wing has used two very powerful tools to make this happen: Simplification and spectrum packing.

Simplification is simply to eschew complexity. Listen to liberals talk. For a number of reasons, some good and some bad or annoying, liberals can’t talk about any topic without pretty quickly disagreeing with each other. This tendency comes partly from the fact that “liberal” = “smart” to no small degree, and critical thinking is generally applied in these conversations. But while dogma that is evaluated critically is better dogma (and less dogmatic!), dogma that is argued over is weak, socio-politically. Every argument within the ranks is a tool to be used from outside. You can come up with whatever argument you want, do the best job possible to fill the gaps and address the holes. If the critical evaluation of the argument is not curtailed at some point, that dogma won’t hunt. And when it comes to winning the hearts and “minds” of the American people, you won’t. You’ll have to force the change required by this higher-quality dogma down their throats, and that can only be done now and then, as in the 1930s and now, with economic depression so severe that people are more than usually willing to try things.

The second tool is spectrum packing. This simply means allowing your side of the issue to include the full range of voices. If you leave things alone, those voices will emerge. But what you have to do then is to live with them. You are not going to shut them up anyway, so fighting them won’t work. When it comes to the key issues, those voices and your own rarely disagree, so they are allies, but if you try to shut them up they won’t be.

Ken Miler, a Catholic biologist who seems to want to see his god somewhere in the mix when thinking about evolution, although he opposes the creationists with a vengeance, and radical atheist PZ Myers are on the same side and more often than not work together and agree on tactics. Yet they also argue. The fact is that if the enemy is well enough defined, and the stakes high enough, even smart liberal-minded people can avoid being stupid about their politics. They may never be as good at this as the Republicans, but they can move closer to a strategically more effective place than they are now.

They have to. Or they cease to be relevant.

So, gentlemen and ladies, please lean to the left. Or if someone else is leaning too far to the left for your taste, thank them for it, because they are keeping your ass from flying off the road.

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11 Responses to ““Gentlemen Shall Lean to the Left””

  1. October 1st, 2009 at 6:06 am

    a daughter's mother says:

    Obviously, then, to push health care reform towards a public option, we still need to have single-payer on the table. You don’t start with your compromise position.

  2. October 1st, 2009 at 11:16 am

    Miss Cellania says:

    I’ll gladly lean as far left as I can to keep both single-payer and public option on the table! I just wish I had more weight. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

  3. October 1st, 2009 at 11:24 am

    Paladin says:

    I liked the article, and it says what i’ve always said (that society in general moves on the sum of the vectors beeing applied to it), but with better wording. So why don’t you start advocating nationalization of the health industry – then a “state option” will sound great even to the insurance companies?

  4. October 1st, 2009 at 7:28 pm

    Roadtripper says:

    Let’s lean farther, and harder. Thousands of insured people die each year after being denied care. (And that’s not counting those who die due to lack of insurance.) CEO’s of health insurance companies need to be rounded up and put on trial for mass murder. Let’s see how they like that idea….

    Rt

  5. October 2nd, 2009 at 10:28 am

    Paul S. says:

    Keep in mind that this is true for both sides. I think that you’ve asked why people on the moderate right don’t condemn the more extreme fringe. I’m pretty sure that the reasons are about the same as what you describe here – to keep the government moving in the direction they want (slightly right of center), they believe that they have to cooperate with people who are more at the extreme.

  6. October 2nd, 2009 at 10:34 am

    Greg Laden says:

    Yes, but the people on the far right are very, very wrong. The people on the far left are either right or only a little wrong.

  7. October 2nd, 2009 at 10:45 am

    Paul S. says:

    Ah, but that’s an entirely subjective opinion, which depends entirely on your political beliefs. When it comes to politics, the opposite side is always wrong/terrible/insane etc.

    “…we all know that in all matters of mere opinion that [every] man is insane–just as insane as we are…we know exactly where to put our finger upon his insanity: it is where his opinion differs from ours….All Democrats are insane, but not one of them knows it. None but the Republicans. All the Republicans are insane, but only the Democrats can perceive it. The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.” — Mark Twain

  8. October 2nd, 2009 at 11:38 am

    Greg Laden says:

    Ah, but that’s an entirely subjective opinion

    It is absolutely not subjective.

    Respect for diversity is a fundamental tenant of civilized society.

    The truth must be respected and never put aside for political purposes.

    Money is important, and powerful, and we all love money, but money should not rule the outcome of political decisions (in the sense of people taking money to vote a certain way).

    We are stewards of this earth.

    Those are a handful of non-subjective statements. Those re also statements that by and large separate the right wing and the left wing, with the right wing generally getting wrong and the left wing generally getting it right.

    The assertion that the right and left are somehow only subjectively different is the hobgoblin of the right wing, which is wrong in most areas, to use as a smokescreen (I think I’m mixing metaphors, sorry) in their nefarious activities.

    Were Hitler and Churchill only subjectively different? No. Are Bush and, say, Obama or Hillary Clinton subjectively different? No. The former in each paring pursued objectively nefarious, self serving, anti social agendas (very different ones, of course) and the latter in each pairing not so much.

    The starting point for the conversation about the left and the right is NOT that they are only subjectively different. Even intelligent right wingers are abandoning the right because they know that Rush Limbauigh, Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann are objectively whacked out and evil, and that much of the far right wing embraces them.

    Mark Twain would agree with me, and probably does but I’m not going to bother looking for the appropriate quote.

    I shall add that picking this quote with reference to the Democrats and Republicans of his day is a bit dishonest unless you note that the parties are entirely different today than they were then.

  9. October 2nd, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    Paul S. says:

    Respect for diversity is a fundamental tenant of civilized society.

    The truth must be respected and never put aside for political purposes.

    Money is important, and powerful, and we all love money, but money should not rule the outcome of political decisions (in the sense of people taking money to vote a certain way).

    We are stewards of this earth.

    Those are a handful of non-subjective statements. Those re also statements that by and large separate the right wing and the left wing, with the right wing generally getting wrong and the left wing generally getting it right.

    First of all, even though I agree with all of those statements, none of them are objective in the way that a mathematical or scientific fact is objective. Ultimately, they are still just opinions – good ones, but not something that can be proven or disproven.

    Second, I suspect that a lot of conservatives would agree with most or all of those statements, while quite a few “progressives” would disagree with one or more of them.

    Look, I know that you have strong opinions and that most people who have strong opinions tend to assume that those who have opposite opinions must be either foolish or malicious or both. I used to think more or less that way when I was really conservative, and I’ve seen or read about that way of thinking a lot on both sides of every emotionally charged political issue.

    All I’m asking is …

    Is it really all that paranoid or irrational to be worried about a vast new system of government spending that will push a government that is already horrifically deep in debt even farther into debt?

    Is it really all that paranoid or irrational for someone who is struggling to stay in business or make ends meet to not like the idea of having their taxes raised?

    Is it really all that paranoid or irrational for groups of people whose economic security and status in society have been in decline and are declining faster than ever (such as many rural whites) to fear and distrust a political party like the Democrats whose supporters are often openly hostile and contemptuous toward them?

    Far from being paranoid or irrational, I would argue that these reactions make perfect sense from the point of view of many people. Of course there are a lot of logical and strong counterarguments that can be made – but “those peoples’ fears and beliefs are just crazy/evil/racist/stupid” is NOT a counterargument at all, let alone a strong or logical one.

  10. October 3rd, 2009 at 7:04 am

    a daughter's mother says:

    I would love to think that the extremes on either side are somehow equal and the center is “best”. It seems only fair, after all. We all grew up on bell curves, so it’s easy to fall into that kind of thinking. It seemed to describe the country I grew up in, when I would have proudly described myself as a Republican.

    However, in this country right now the center has been shoved so far to the right that yesterday’s moderates are today’s radical leftists. The far right is being sustained by hate, fear-mongering, lies, and corruption. Even the leaders fail to condemn extreme behaviors, and in fact parrot the latest lying talking point as if it were truth. 30 years ago we as a nation would have been deeply shocked to our core about a movement wishing to assassinate our president and encouraged by powerful voices on TV and radio with an national audience. We are so off-kilter and so constantly bombarded by that kind of message that most of us can’t see it for what it is any more. When “birthers” get treated as if their willful ignorance is valuable news instead of getting laughed off the news agenda, things are badly askew. When greed, lies, and hate promulgated by the right are shrugged off as “well, both sides are doing it” and more lies are told to make it seem as if that were so, we lose our tools to help us find what is true.

    Our “liberal” media hasn’t presented a liberal idea fairly for 20 years. Call it what it is: corporatist media. (Remember the lesson from Watergate: Follow the money!) The old value of “equal time” morphed into presenting two opposing sides of a story without any evaluation of the relative merits of either. It would be as if stories describing the space station’s latest progress were “balanced” in each presentation by someone else insisting that the earth was flat. That is obviously ridiculous, but we just can’t see the same extreme when it’s political. What we are fed is neither fair nor balanced, and it’s time to stop pretending it is.

    “crazy/evil/racist/stupid is NOT a counterargument…” WTF? Of course it is! Part of the skill behind the radical right’s message is to have us collectively so confused that we can no longer discern what is crazy/evil/racist/stupid and unwilling to call it out when we do see it. What’s going on right now is all of crazy/evil/racist/stupid. The scary part is that it seems to be working so well.

  11. October 3rd, 2009 at 8:22 am

    Greg Laden says:

    Paul, I don’t a tree that scientific objectivity is what you seem to be implying that it is, but we assume for a moment that it is, I don’t see the relevance. We would have this thing called science and there is a scientific objectivity and some other stuff that is not science does not have that property. Similarly, we could define some legal term like the principle of estoppal and say what is it ans then as how politics or morality or social normalcy or whatever fits, find it does not, and thus cut politics, morality or social normalcy free from any rational measurement. So, in short, I reject the premise that there is a standard of reasoning that comes specifically from math or science that is relevant to this question. Science does not own the word objectivity.

    The fact that many conservatives would agree with most of these statements is exactly what makes the current conservative movements (and this is not entirely new) of contrived and politically motivated ignorance and manipulation of base motives and feelings for the ultimate purpose of power and monetary gain even sicker and more objectionable . Also, there is no need, and in my statement I was clear about this, for there to be a perfect unison between right = wrong and left = right. But there is a HUGE bias, a HUGE difference in how the normative conservative/fundy/republican acts that is irrational, objectionable, wrong, think headed, stupid, and obnoxious. Objectively. Obviously.

    Look, I know that you have strong opinions and that most people who have strong opinions tend to assume that those who have opposite opinions must be either foolish or malicious or both.

    Sorry, this straw man won’t hunt. I do not have strong opinions that lead me to then assume that those who are different are wrong . The specific characters I’m speaking of were wrong before I got to the party, I’ve seen that they are wrong, and they remain wrong, and they are so wrong that my opinion about their wrongness has grown. Grown strong.

    I used to think more or less that way when I was really conservative, and I’ve seen or read about that way of thinking a lot on both sides of every emotionally charged political issue.

    Your implication that your thinking on this has evolved beyond mine is incorrect. I’m glad to see you are less conservative now. You seem like a smart guy. Eventually, you will become less and less conservative as long as you stay smart!!!

    Regarding your first point: Our economy is like a whopping big honey bee hive full of honey. The health care industry is like a honey badger that is eating all the honey. It is time to shoot the honey badger.

    Regarding your second point: The fallacy of taxation to which you refer has been disproven, so yes, that is irrational. But, even if tha was not the case, the fact that individuals or small groups of individuals can’t engage in private business because the cost of health care is so high should concern you if you still have conservative leanings. In short, rejecting effective health care reform because of the samo-samo arguments makes you pretty much a minion of the health care industry. And we have had enough of that. People who want health care reform should be the ones screaming at the town hall meetings!

    “those peoples’ fears and beliefs are just crazy/evil/racist/stupid” is NOT a counterargument at all, let alone a strong or logical one.

    Not really a counter argument, just an observation.

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