Tag Archives: fundamentalism

On ‘We Aren’t in Vegas Anymore’

Ross Douthat of the NYT had an interesting column this AM, ostensibly about the value of taking social policies only to some rational balancing point of benefits and risks, rather than insisting upon one extreme ( total prohibition) or the other ( total laissez-faire permission). While his argument made great sense, it deserves to be expanded, particularly in relation to some of the issues often associated with what is lumped together as the political ‘right.’

What Douthat says about the inevitability of some gambling always existing, and therefor the preferability of reasonable limits and regulation rather than either total prohibition or complete lack of regulation – bet anywhere, anytime, on anything, at any stakes – is well taken. He neglected, though, the logical extension of this argument to some very comparable similar issues; prostitution, for example, or abortion, both of which have been around at least since biblical times despite every effort to universalize their prohibition.

Even positive issues such as freedom of speech are most-effectively handled by a society and legality which do not permit their most extreme expressions (yelling fire in a football stadium being the classic one; intentional libel for financial gain another, or defending one’s castle with a bank of automated machine-gun emplacements). Yet another salient reference would be to freedom of religion, where the reasonable desire to worship without persecution has been stretched into the supposed-right to run businesses and corporations in ways that discriminate and limit the freedom of their employees or their customers. The Citizens United campaign finance decision suggests this list could go on, and on.

What Mr. Douthat was actually – and correctly – warning of is the danger of fundamentalism in any realm.

Whether coming from the supposed ‘left’ (permitting pornography, legalizing marijuana) or the ‘right’ (striking down Roe v. Wade, refusing to put a same-sex statuette on top of a wedding cake), taking any social proposition to its logical extreme is never a good way to make law or public policy, especially in an aspiring democracy which aims to cultivate internal peace and comity.

These Truths, Jill Lepore

It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate book for this time (summer 2020 – the lead-up to The Trump Election) and place (anywhere, USA). Lepore employs her awesome knowledge of US history to remind us who we are and enlighten us as to who, what and where we come from. 

This she does with all the drama and detail of an excellent novel, using individuals and their words to illustrate each minute point of disagreement, argument and compromise.  And it is that last which sticks in this reader’s mind; how our constitution and form of government, rather than being the immaculate perfection suggested by those who laud them in defense of their own (usually reactionary) purposes, are and always have been the flawed result of a process that not only pressured, but actually required persons of principle to accept results which complied only partly to their principles.

Another eye -opener is the limited role which rigid principles have played in our history.  Had all the persons alive during the founding refused to compromise on their principles, there would quite simply be no USA.  Perhaps a miscellany of separate states (with some still slave-owning up to the present?), perhaps some component of a prolonged British Empire, or perhaps something even more strange to us – a continent divided horizontally somewhere near the Mason Dixon line into an  enormous Mexico and equally expansive Canada.  This thread illuminates also the role of fundamentalism in elevating disagreements to become fights and, not in- frequently, wars.  Lepore cites many different sorts of fundamentalism – religious, capitalist, democratic, constitutional, etc., considering how they often interrelate and how our current state of technical evolution has enhanced them and so lead us into the legislative paralysis we are currently experiencing.

Another oh-so timely note: without overtly linking herself to the BLM movement or 1619 project, the author’s contention on race is unmissable: that distinctions on the fallacious basis of skin color and the dominance of wealthy property owners over a more-populous slaving/working  class are as intrinsic to our background as is the love of democracy and equality, if not even more so.

No brief description can do this effort justice, just as any less-expansive book would fail to do its subject justice.  Fascinating and depressing, These Truths can also remind us that turmoil such as we are living through today is no stranger to the USA, any more than it is a stranger to all the nations, cultures and civilizations humans have spawned and discarded over the millennia.

All of which places These Truths is very high on the list of most valuable volumes I’ve read in years.