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