Dark Energy

Political disagreements, such as those that have been taking place lately in comment threads here at waka waka waka, exhibit a property not unlike that ascribed by astrophysicists to the hypothetical “dark energy” that is thought to permeate the cosmos: they exert a mysterious repulsive force.

Two people may begin such a discussion with a great many convergent assumptions, opinions, and beliefs, but as soon as one party embraces a viewpoint that the other sees as belonging to the opposite side of an ideological divide, he feels compelled to rebut. The second party, having been publicly contradicted, and with, therefore, his reputation at stake, must defend his ground, casting a wide net to gather any factual, scholarly, or anecdotal support for his position. The process repeats itself reiteratively as the repulsive force increases, with both interlocutors soon finding themselves arguing positions that are built more and more on only the subset of their beliefs and opinions that stand in diametrical opposition to those being argued by the other side. In this way two people who might generally agree quite closely about many aspects of the matter at hand soon find themselves shouting across an apparently unbridgeable gulf.

The whole business reminds me of the “basins of attraction” that are a well-known feature of chaos theory. One might also model it as two basketballs sitting close together along the top of a mountain ridge; push them slightly apart, and they might very soon end up in widely separated valleys below.

Regarding Iraq, Muslim fanaticism, and so forth, I think there is room for broad agreement on a number of items:

  • There are, indisputably, many Muslims who, focusing on the harshest and most simplistic aspects of that religion’s teachings, are implacably committed to the downfall of the secular West, by any means available, including the deliberate slaughter of innocent civilians.
  • There are, of course, also many Muslims who do not feel this way. The obligation of these moderate parties to address the excesses of their virulent coreligionists is an active topic.
  • The history of Western foreign policy is not unblemished; there have been many examples of cozying up to dictators, nasty back-room dealings, and betrayals in support of proximate economic and geopolitical goals. There are certainly good reasons why those who suffered under the Shah or Saddam might distrust the US.
  • There is a long and sanguinary history of struggle between Islam and the West; the two cultures have clashed and grappled with one another for over a thousand years. I think that most people would also agree that there are irreconcilable incompatibilities between a fundamentalist Islamic worldview and that of the secular West.
  • The reaction of Western people and nations to the efforts of our Muslim enemies has been mixed, and runs the full gamut of available responses. There have been examples of craven appeasement, as well as honest, public, and self-critical examination of our own numerous cultural and foreign-policy shortcomings. There has been deliberate and inflammatory provocation, as well as courageous defense of, and adherence to, the core principles of secular democracy.
  • Without question, Europe is undergoing a major demographic transformation, the result of a tremendous increase in the number of socially unassimilated Muslims, that if continued will have a profound effect on its cultural identity. Some view this as an unwelcome trend. Others may not. That it is happening is indisputable.
  • The decision to prosecute the war in Iraq was neither patently unjustifiable, nor was it the only morally defensible choice. It was one approach to resolving a tremendously complex and difficult situation, and there are compelling arguments for and against the decision that was made. Should we have left Saddam in power? Some say that we ought to have. I have, after much reflection and study, and one very moving encounter with a victim of Saddam’s evil regime, expressed a contrary opinion, but reasonable people, and experts of all stripes, have disagreed all along about whether the decision was the “right” one, and will continue to do so, for the rest of our lives. History, presumably, will judge. It is, obviously, best not to go to war if circumstances do not strongly impel one to do so. War is generally a “bad thing”.
  • One thing about which there appears to be broad consensus is that the postwar administration of Iraq has been horribly bungled. I agree.
  • It is very difficult to see how best to move forward in Iraq, and there have been many on both sides of the political spectrum who have sought to gain political advantage though blatant pandering, shameless fearmongering, and strident polemicism, when what we need instead is reasoned statesmanship and sound, impartial judgment, neither of which appears to be in abundant supply.

My aim in pointing out this common effect of political discourse (and I am as susceptible to it as anyone) is that by being more aware of it, we might improve our prospects for productive, mutually enlightening discussion of challenging topics.

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