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Vortex of Paradox

November 16, 2004
By John Steinberg

The post-election period of introspection continues, and will last for some time. We are have not finished our wailing, or the rending of garments. As painful as it is to postmortem this debacle, we must examine the entrails. We have to understand it in order to learn from it, learn from it in order to prevent its recurrence.

I have been reading, thinking, crying, and thinking some more. I have wandered the Internet desert, and tumbled through a vortex of paradox. I have not found peace or useful answers. But I have realized something. It might be important, though I have no idea yet what to do with it.

We are a nation of altruistic assholes.

I gave my vote, my time and my money to the effort to evict George Bush from the White House. I did so despite the knowledge that my own taxes would go up if John Kerry took office. The personal cost was less important than the danger I saw, and truth to tell I felt a teeny bit virtuous about that.

And when the votes were tallied I felt betrayed, because the objects of my largesse – the people who would most benefit from the gift I tried to give – rejected it. I suspect that experience is far from unique.

We on the left tend to assume that the "moral values" voters were just plain stupid. "How can you vote for this plunderer?" we rail.

We know just how little Bush & Co. really care about the fodder units, as George the Elder called them, and how rich the rich are getting by playing bait and switch with red-state morality.

We assume the reason the great unwashed picked their own pockets was that they just didn't get it. But what if they did? What if a substantial percentage of them knew Dubya was going to hurt them economically, but felt they were acting for the common good in trying to stop abortion and gay marriage? What if they truly believe that our blue souls are worth more than their long green?

We would say they were hoodwinked, brainwashed, bamboozled. But we are their mirror image, spitting on their charity as they reject ours. If Kerry had won, my guess is they would have been as ungrateful for their improved economic well-being as I now am for mine.

And there is yet another paradoxical data point: polls tell us that a substantial number of gays voted for Bush, against their clear self-interest, because they were convinced that the war on terror was more important than the loss of their own civil liberties. From where I sit, this is perhaps the most bizarre choice in a season overflowing with them.

The ironies are overwhelming. Adam Smith's invisible hand – the belief that if each of us follows our own self interest, some aggregate maximization of welfare happens as if by magic – underpins our market-based economic and political systems. Can a free market function if it is populated by atomistic do-gooders? There are several names for systems in which decisions are made on the basis of judgments about the best interests of others, but capitalism ain't one of them.

I don't know what to make of this. On the one hand, it makes us sound like a nation of errant policy wonks, weighing the common weal from a level of objective disinterest – a picture that seems utterly at odds with reality. On the other, it provides a way to square what people say with what they do that makes them seem a lot less stupid. And it has the reassuring benefit of resting blame on a reliable human failing: all of us who voted against our narrow self-interests are, on some level, guilty of hubris.

If the logic on both sides is the same, the battle is simpler, but far more difficult. The conflict reduces to a war between competing premises. Their premise is awfully simple to explain: "What we want is God's will." Our premises are … well, not so obvious, actually, and not so simple, either. And that is a problem that we will need to solve, and soon.

I am not sure how much value there is in each of Blue and Red saying, as the clich้ villain taunts the hero in so many action films, "We are not so different, you and I." Maybe acknowledging that there are some flawed but noble motives on both sides could help in ratcheting down the level of vitriol. Maybe recognizing that there are similar thought processes driving the Reds (indeed, that there might be the any thought process driving them) could make it easier to find ways to talk, and find a way forward.

Or maybe our hubris condemns us to an eternity of paradox.

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