The Center is my home. But I can’t live there any more.
Re-assembling the elephant. Whenever I describe what I’m trying to do with my writing, two ideas rise to the top: First, whatever the subject, I’m trying to find the simplest explanation that is both accurate and sensible. And second, I’m trying to “re-assemble the elephant”.
That piece of my internal slang comes from The Blind Men and the Elephant: Each blind man touches a part of the elephant, and they come up with wildly incompatible descriptions. The elephant is like a wall, a spear, a snake, a tree, a fan, and a rope. Re-assembling the elephant means taking different people’s experiences seriously, and finding an underlying truth that makes sense of all their accounts.
As a dedicated elephant-assembler, I naturally view myself in the middle, between opposing worldviews. My best work builds bridges: Red Family, Blue Family (which led to magazine articles here and here), explains to liberals how the life experience of people on the religious right leads them to their very different notions of family values. Meeting at Infinity bridges the theist/atheist divide. Supporting My Troop is about the decades-long relationship between a peacenik (me) and a career Marine (my best friend from high school). Spirituality and the Humanist interprets religious language for people of a rational/scientific bent. Change in My Lifetime explains to people younger than me why racism means something different to so many whites older than me.
Defending the Center. In Terrorist Strategy 101, I went a step further. That essay didn’t just explain Bin Laden to Americans, it downgraded the Us-against-the-Terrorists framing in favor of Extremists-against-the-Center, and concluded with an exhortation to defend the Center against both Neocons and Islamists.
Most of all, we Americans need to keep a leash on our own radicals. They are not working in our interests any more than Bin Laden is working in the interests of ordinary Muslims. The extremists on both sides serve each other, not the people they claim to represent. The cycle of attack-and-reprisal strengthens radicals on both sides at the expense of those in the middle who just want to live their lives.
In the face of the next attack, be slow to embrace radical, violent, or angry solutions. The center must hold.
People who started reading the Weekly Sift recently are probably surprised that I ever thought of myself as a defender of the Center. Because although I didn’t even call myself a Democrat until the Clinton impeachment, I’ve radicalized over the last 2-3 years. Now, if I’m explaining why somebody isn’t as crazy as you think, I’m more likely to be talking about Karl Marx than Ayn Rand — or even John Boehner. Most of the bridges I’m building these days go further to the Left, not back towards the Center.
Because I’m not going back. For a long time I didn’t admit that to myself, but now I do. On special occasions I may raise a glass to the Center like a Boston Irishman remembering the Auld Sod, but I’m not going back for a long, long time. Maybe ever.
I’m a native-born Centrist in exile on the Left.
What happened? Two years ago, when I reviewed David Michaels’ Doubt is Their Product, I described it as “a radicalizing book”. Based on many examples over a period of decades, it describes the standard operating procedure of corporations — tobacco companies, asbestos companies, and even microwave popcorn companies — who realize they are killing people.
The procedure does not start with “stop killing people”. That is a last resort, an option to be taken if all else fails. More favored tactics are denial, hiding facts, manipulating research, manipulating public opinion, foot-dragging, lobbying regulators to set unreasonably low standards, and ultimately hiding behind those standards in court to avoid paying damages to victims’ heirs.
This isn’t what bad corporations do. It is standard procedure. There’s a whole industry of specialists to guide CEOs through the profit-from-killing-people process.
[The more recent Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway tells a similar story about corporate propaganda campaigns on political issues: the ozone hole, global warming, and so on.]
Since then, I have had another lens through which to view current events. Not Left vs. Right, or even Center vs. Extremists, but Corporations vs. Humans.
And that brings me back to my first self-identification. Of all my lenses, which provides the simplest view that is both accurate and sensible?
Corporations vs. Humans. More and more I believe that’s the central struggle of our time.
Bridges to nowhere. Between the corporate view and the human view, there is no bridge to be built, no elephant to re-assemble. The corporate worldview involves no subtle mystery: They see us as sheep and want to consume us. And there’s no point explaining any human worldview to corporations, because they don’t care. They can’t care. It’s not in their DNA. (I wrote this up last December in Corporations Are Sociopaths.)
The point of bridge-building is that people can change their minds. Humans can be a defensive, xenophobic species, but we also are driven to understand each other. Once you understand someone else’s experiences, it’s hard not to sympathize. And once you sympathize, it’s natural to look for ways we can live together and all get some of what we want.
Humans can be hard-hearted, self-interested, and downright evil. But history tells remarkable stories of people who change their minds. Slave-owners and slave-traders may become abolitionists. Male chauvinists may fight for their daughters’ rights. Warriors become peacemakers. Tyrants become liberators. It’s rare, but it happens. No human is so far gone that you can be 100% sure they’ll never change.
But corporations respond only to carrots and sticks, not to new sympathies, new evidence, or new moral understanding. When the tobacco companies figured out that smoking killed people, they defended their profits by arguing that it didn’t. Ditto today for fossil-fuel companies and global warming. Gathering evidence to convince them is a waste of time.
Arguing with humans. Someone is bound to point out to me that all actual arguments are between humans. The TV talking heads, newspaper columnists, politicians, think-tank intellectuals — they’re all people, not corporations. Their minds could change.
But more and more, those people are just tongues. If they say the wrong words, new tongues will say the right words. A corporate-funded politician repeats a sound-bite written by a corporate-sponsored pundit based on the research of an academic at a corporate-endowed think tank. None of those people have any real influence on the message. If you changed their minds, you might convince them to quit their jobs. But you would not change the message, because the message does not come from people.
And so we hear nonsense like this: Defending a House appropriations bill that guts environmental protection (banning the Bureau of Land Management from adding to protected wilderness areas, the Fish and Wildlife Service from naming new endangered plant and animal species, etc. — all regardless of any new events or research) Idaho Republican Mike Simpson said on Tuesday: “Many of us think that the overregulation from E.P.A. is at the heart of our stalled economy.”
Not the mortgage companies who loaned money to people with no assets or income, not the investment banks who packaged those loans into deceptively marketed collateralized debt obligations, not Moody’s and S&P who AAA-rated the toxic CDOs, not the unregulated credit-default swap market that built towers of speculative side-bets on each toxic CDO, and not George W. Bush or Alan Greenspan who failed to regulate any of it. The E-frigging-PA.
This idea enters the public debate not because it makes sense to Rep. Simpson or anybody else — that’s irrelevant — but because the EPA hurts the profits of polluting corporations who spend money on lobbying, electioneering, and other propaganda. No matter what evidence you assemble in its favor, the EPA will still hurt those profits, so it will still be blamed for whatever problem people are currently worried about.
What’s destroying America, he says, is not crazy right-wingers. (We’ve always had them.) What’s comparatively recent and more dangerous is the media’s “cult of balance”. No matter what positions the two parties take, they will be covered as if they were equally extreme and irresponsible.
What all this means is that there is no penalty for extremism; no way for most voters, who get their information on the fly rather than doing careful study of the issues, to understand what’s really going on.
Standing in the middle, seeing reason (or blame) on both sides — that makes sense when you’re arguing with public-spirited fellow citizens who happen to disagree with you. It doesn’t make sense when the driving force behind an argument is a corporation.
Logic will not convince the Ford dealer than you don’t need a new truck; at some point you just have to leave. Similarly, we can’t persuade corporations not to consume us. We have to take their power away. That won’t be a conversation, it will be a fight.
The Left is not totally free of corporate corruption, but it is the only remaining place to fight from. The Right is completely co-opted. Its frames, sound bites, ideologies, and pseudo-facts are corporately generated and would collapse without the media/academic infrastructure that corporate money buys. And to be in the Center is to collaborate, to pretend that the corporate how-to-serve-man cookbook is a viable plan for the future.
The Center is my homeland, the Jerusalem I will always hope to return to. But for the foreseeable future it is occupied territory, and I refuse to collaborate. So I will stay here, in exile on the Left.