"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Guest Post: The Problem with the World...

Dennis Palumbo

Dennis Palumbo

"The problem with the world," according to philosopher Bertran Russell, "is that the stupid are cock-sure and the intelligent are full of doubt."

I thought of his comment this past week, in the wake of the depressing number of Tea Party candidates who won the GOP nominations for elective office in their respective states.

Not that any reasonable person fails to understand the average citizen's fear and frustration, the roiling emotions driving the success of the Tea Party candidates.With the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line now greater than at any time in recent years; with an ailing economy whose prognosis for recovery is, at best, sure to be long and sluggish; and with the growing divide between rich and poor, it's no wonder the average voter is filled with (in the words of another philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre) "incomprehension and rage."

Yet complex problems are never solved by sound-bites, divisive rhetoric and an unquestioning faith in simple, "common sense" solutions. Of course, voters have been routinely sold such a bill of goods for years by reactionary politicians, though nowadays this simple-minded message is reinforced by the rantings of ring-wing idealogues like Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Feeding on voters' fears, these media millionaires pad their bank accounts even as they peddle the idea that they're the champions of the common man.

Even more disturbing than the success of these Tea Party candidates and their media cheerleaders is the overt racism, homophobia and xenophobia woven throughout their "patriotic" rhetoric. For example, conservative darlings like Sarah Palin are always exhorting their followers to "take America back"---but from whom? Liberals? Non-white people? Non-Christians? People who read books? Which of us are members of the "real" America, and which are not? Does Fox News and its viewers represent the only "real" America?

If so, then forget about the economy, rising health care costs, and futile wars in the Middle East---if these jokers represent the "real" America, then we're in deeper trouble than anyone thinks!

Let me put it another way. If angry Americans out there are clamoring for "straight talk," as the Tea Party claims, permit me to provide some:

Intelligent people of all stripes, of all faiths (or lack thereof) and of all political persuations share a number of traits in common: thoughtfulness, the ability to weigh the pros and cons of difficult issues, and a fair degree of self-reflection. They understand the roots of their own ideas, the possible sources of their own prejudices. They understand nuance and the value of compromise. They recognize that in politics---as in all of life---things are never so simple and clear-cut as they seem.

For the Tea Baggers, such approaches to problem-solving are abhorrent. As even mainstream Republicans are discovering---to their chagrin---as far as the Tea Baggers are concerned, you're either with them or against them. Every issue is seen in terms of black and white. To believe differently is a sign of betrayal. To strive to reach a compromise is a sign of weakness.

Not that any of this is new. As history has repeatedly shown, when times are difficult, true thought
and statesmanship are usually thrown out the window, to be replaced by demogoguery and fundamentalism. By the demonizing of those with whom we disagree. By replacing debate with mere posturing. By discarding wisdom in favor of noise.

In other words, by being "cock-sure" and arrogant, instead of thoughtful and cautious, when dealing with difficult, complex problems. By being---in Russell's blunt phrase---stupid, instead of intelligent. And, as a corrolary, by calling anyone who disagrees "elitist."

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