Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Left vs. Right vs. Who Really Cares?

George W. Bush. What hasn’t been written or said about the man? We all pretty much know he’s the President of the United States of America and that he recently won re-election to the White House, without any question regarding his victory. We also know that despite his re-election- by just 3% over the very weak Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry- Bush has managed to polarize not just the US but also of the world.

Now, before you roll your eyes and think “oh no, not another Bush-bashing wannabe who’ll just spout everything that Michael Moore and his cronies did”, this is not another Bush-bashing piece. In fact, there won’t be any Bush-bashing in this segment whatsoever. I wouldn’t have voted for him if I had the chance (being that I’m Canadian, I can’t), but that’s a personal matter. No, what I want to talk about is that polarization, and, despite joining the chorus of worried individuals who see the negative effects of polarization, I hope to maybe shed a new light on the subject. If I don’t, well, at least I’m getting this off my chest.

You see, ever since Bush came to power, the political world has been gripped by fear- to quote the New Californian Republic people, it’s “vote for me or the terrorists will win”, or “vote for me or gay rights will go down the toilet”, or- a line used frequently by Liberal leader Paul Martin in last summer’s Canadian election campaign- “vote for me or society as we know it will go down the toilet”; and, largely it works- fear motivates people, because politicians know that if you’re afraid of “the other guy” you’ll do everything in your power to make sure that they don’t win. That sentiment led Canadians to vote back the Liberals but without a majority, because it’s “anything but those American-loving Conservatives”, and the Americans to turn out in record numbers to vote in the 2004 elections. Bush- the target of many people’s rage- may have won out, but that’s because he at least came off as a leader, unlike the all-talk-no-walk “I have a plan” Kerry, and, perhaps, because his “the terrorists will win” message worked better than Kerry’s “society-as-we-know-it will crumble if he wins” message. Whatever the case, 2004 was wrapped up in such anxious rhetoric that even if none of the candidates’ messages had any teeth, people were still afraid nonetheless.

To be fair, it’s not like fear hasn’t been used before- it’s a useful propaganda tool, with probably the greatest recent example being the “us-versus-them” message used to recruit for the war effort against Germany in World War II. Even when fear isn’t the main instrument, election campaigns still have it in their bag of tricks- “if you vote for him, you will get X more years of unaccountability, which you won’t get from me”, a trick Dalton McGuinty used to near perfection in ousting the Ontario Tories from power in late 2003. However, in today’s day and age, fear becomes the only selling point, with the idea that unless you’re picking a side you can’t accomplish anything at all. Reason has all but left the discussion- it doesn’t matter if something doesn’t make sense, as long as it fits in with the pre-conceived ideologies then it’s okay.

The effects of this have been rather damaging. The right and the left, long the fringes of political thought, have become the mainstream, leaving people such as myself (normally classified as “centrist” but I don’t believe a label really suits my way of thinking) a dying breed. Ideas that could once be mixed- God and fornication, atheism and the death penalty, equal representation and fiscal restraint, etc.- are now once again separated, with many believing that if you believe in one, you can’t believe in the other. No longer do we have such a thing as a “cafeteria Catholic” who may believe firmly in God but also believes in gay marriage, or abortion or pre-marital sex, or the atheist who is an anti-abortionist and fiscally rightist. It’s always “if you believe in God you’re anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage and anti-pre-marital sex” (funny how those three things always seem to go in tandem, don’t you think?), or “if you believe in equal rights and abortion, you’ve got to have something against God.” We’ve become so obsessed with categorization that labels become badges of honour or words of intense scorn, with things like “bleeding heart liberal”, “bleeding heart conservative” (or, put it more simply, “liberal” and “conservative”), “Christian”, “Republican”, “Democrat”, “socialist”, “atheist”, and “libertarian” being overused, and to such a point where the people using the terms don’t even understand what they really mean (for starters, whoever said that “liberal” and “conservative” were political ideologies really needs to give their heads a shake- “liberal” just means “open-minded”, and “conservative” means “staying the same”. Nowhere does any of that translate to political beliefs). Never can anyone ever take bits and pieces of an idea or set of ideas and merge them with another- you’re either in “this group” or “that group”, and “if you don’t fight, they’ll change everything you’ve ever known”. True individuality- let alone tolerance and reason- have gone out the window, and it’s truly appalling.

I mean, is it wrong to go to Church yet still believe in pre-marital sex? Or to abstain yet find it incomprehensible to believe in a God? Or to believe in equal opportunity yet saying “we really need to cut taxes right about now”? Or to simply say that “well, we could really use X service, but we can’t afford it, so it has to go”? Where has the truly left-leaning Christian gone, the one who preached tolerance and the belief that if “you too believed in God your life will be better”? Have they all gone to the right or are their voices just muffled under the oppressive boot of the so-called “religious right”? Nothing clearer regarding the polarization of the world comes to my mind than the “Christian versus the world” idea, and it’s the one I know the most about and the one that probably also sickens me the most.

I’ll be honest, it bothers me when I hear- for the lack of a better word- some Christians say things like “homosexuality is a lie” or that “pre-marital sex is wrong” and then use twisted logic- using mostly what debaters call “selective reasoning” and “appeals to authority”- to back up their statements. I could go all day arguing against their sentiments, but this won’t be the place to do it. No, what really bugs me the most is these Christians’ belief that somehow, some way my way of life is completely wrong and that only their view of the world is right. As we’ve all come to know, we’re all unique, and, by extension, so too is our values and our morals. No two people are going to have exactly the same morals, so to fit a “one-size-fits-all” dichotomy is something I find to be completely irresponsible. Live your lives the way you want to, but at least have the decency to let me live mine the way I want to.

However, at the same time, it also bothers me to hear, time and time again, repeated attacks against Christians and Christianity itself, with the mostly ignorant attitude that the religion itself is inherently wrong and that it and its members “all” believe the same things and are out to “convert the world” into a single moral mind frame (usually rightist), when nothing could be further from the truth. It’s true that some Christians “do” have that kind of intolerant attitude, and, believe me I think that’s reprehensible. However, that far from describes ALL Christians, or even Christianity itself. Most Christians I have come across are actually fairly tolerant and believe at their core the same things that many people do anyway- respect, tolerance and equality of all, and are actually quite nice people. In fact, there are those- such as myself- who classify themselves as Christian but don’t necessarily agree with everything the Church tells them, based largely on semantics. In fact, it may surprise a lot of people, but I actually think Christianity is a leftist religion, because at its core it preaches tolerance, respect and equality, which are hallmarks of the left. It is true that, in a modern interpretation (mostly, and I emphasize, created by men), some forms of Christianity (not all) have developed some rightist qualities, like pro-life, but to categorize it as rightist because of a few fringe values I believe is wrong, with the erroneous categorization coming as a result of the Church’s own poor portrayal of their religion (this I realized at World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, which was all about love and respect and not about something like pro-life). To be a Christian, one simply has to have a faith in Jesus Christ, God, Mary and the Holy Spirit, and to follow the quite logical Golden Rule- “do unto others as you would unto them” (Matthew 7:12). That’s it. One can add other beliefs if they like or follow any other kind of established Christian Codes like Catholicism, but as long as the above basics are covered, then that’s all one needs to be a Christian. Besides, no matter what way you go on any kind of debate, I’m sure that Jesus Himself would preach respect and tolerance, and certainly would not approve of the forceful evangelicalism that many of today’s Christian leaders profess. My main point is that Christianity isn’t about pro-life and pro-abstinence- it’s about love, respect, equality and tolerance. Wouldn’t you agree that’s what we should all be about anyway?

This, of course, is not to say that the so-called “Christian right” is wrong and that only a leftist point of view is the way to go- far from it, actually. While some rightist Christians need to learn to respect others’ way of life, the left itself also needs to learn the same lessons, in particular with one of the biggest issues of today’s time, gay marriage. Now, I’m a supporter of the cause (even though I’m not gay), but I believe the way the left is going about implementing it the rightists has every right to complain. For example, earlier this year, when Canada tabled legislation that would legalize gay marriage, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler’s only reasoning behind the change was “it’s in the Charter, stupid”. To Cotler- exemplifying an attitude that is common on both sides of the political spectrum- anyone who doesn’t see gay marriage as a noble improvement must have something wrong with them. Denying people rights? How could they? Now, I don’t agree with the Christian right’s reasoning on the matter, but Cotler’s attitude is far from the right approach if he wants to convince the right to accept gay marriage. Yet the left- like the right- don’t seem to understand that the most successful of changes are gradual and usually involve compromises on both sides of the argument. Something like gay marriage- which would be a radical change for society to accept- is not something I believe that can be brought in now, at least not in its current form. What way it could be brought in, I don’t know (I think it’s really an argument over the use of the word “marriage”- very few people opposed to the idea also oppose the idea of extending gays and lesbians the same rights that heterosexual couples have- but right now that’s just a gander), but I certainly know that as long as the left adopts this “righteous” attitude about gay marriage they certainly won’t sell it. Much like the Christian right who insist that I change my lifestyle, insisting that they accept gay marriage- or any other leftist initiative that the right opposes- only creates more alienation and brings you no closer to resolving the issue, which is what should be happening anyway.

One last point before I conclude: there once was a time when politicians literally bent over backwards to appease just about everyone they could. A left-leaning politician would, say, tell a college audience that the politician intend on working hard to lower their tuitions, maybe even eliminating them entirely, while telling a Church congregation that is facing bankruptcy that the politician intends on preserving their Church and upholding their right to practice their faith in the nation. Very rarely- if ever- did a politician ever address the so-called “hot-button issues” such as abortion, because if they addressed it they would lose a significant number of votes, and, thus, most were content with simply letting their citizens decide for themselves how they wanted to live their lives. However, ever since George W. Bush, an ardent Christian, came to power in the US, ethics and morals have become the main political issues, making many believe it’s the politicians right to dictate the way that people live. This shift in thinking- away from the matters that really affect the nation, such as the economy- is a slippery slope that could have dire consequences in the future. Of course, the US has always been a little “morally upright” before (it just never became “front and centre” like it is now), but if politicians cannot be seen as representing everybody, then what will become of our democracies?

Perhaps I am a bit of a dreamer in thinking about a day where Christians and atheists could again hold hands together as one, and could at last put aside their differences and work together for this world. However, I don’t believe it is impossible. When September 11th occurred, the whole world stood together in arms, and for a week anyway we put aside our differences to collectively mourn, and decide that something just had to be done about the attacks. I don’t believe that we’ve gone about that the right way, but at least for that week anyway nothing else mattered. It may be sad that we needed a tragedy to realize all our petty problems are just that- petty- but if we are able to do it, why can’t we do it again? Fundamentally we are all the same, and we don’t need to be “a part of a group” to feel needed. Division just leads to tension, with polarization just breeding more polarization. It’s time that we as a society again become tolerant and accepting and quit dividing each other, for as long as believes they have to fight then that will be all they will do. We’re not “liberals” or “Christians” or “socialists” or “conservatives”- we’re humans, and it’s about time we realized that.