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Saturday, October 20, 2018

Illusion, Fantasy, Religion, And The Allure Of The Impossible–Why We Fall For Progressive Idealism

Branford Pease had always considered himself a rational, objective, and thoroughly dispassionate man.  He had grown up with a a father who preached Leibniz, a mother who was a confirmed Cartesian, and an uncle who, despite a long tutelage with the Jesuits, was a freethinker in the style of Thoreau.  With this background and genetic heritage, it would seem impossible for the young Branford to have veered off the epistemological rails, but veer he did, and by the time he was thirty, he had fallen into the deep crevasse of progressive idealism. 

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There was not a reformist cause that he did not embrace.  He passionately fought for the rights of women and minorities; stood at the barricades to denounce Trumpism, the One Percent, Monsanto, and corporate cronyism.  He was convinced that a climate Armageddon would happen in our lifetime, that nuclear war was only a second away on the Doomsday Clock; that rape, sexual aggression, and abuse were endemic; and that the gender spectrum, right and just in its re-ordering of human sexuality, was still far from realization.

When challenged by less idealistic colleagues, Branford reiterated a familiar litany.  Science was settled in matters of climatology and sexual disposition.  Social science was as settled in matters of wealth and its concentration; power and its abuse; and political science clear and irrefutable concerning the abrogation of the rights of man, infectious nationalism, and ignorance of popular will.  When pressed, he resorted to tautology.  Sexism was an evil because so much of it existed.  Climate change was an inescapable reality because the oceans and air were warming.  Circuitous logic was his only logic; subjectivity when associated with a higher good was a necessary armament; and petitio principii was neither fallacious nor illogical.

It all made good sense to Bradford who, because of his Kantian upbringing, had become the poster boy for the progressive movement in his suburban community of Washington DC, but close-in enough to have been influenced by the nation’s most influential political leaders.  Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi, and Charles Schumer were as good as their neighbors; and even if they lived inside the Beltway in the most prestigious neighborhoods of Washington; and even if their multi-million dollar homes beggared the simple split-levels of Rockville and Gaithersburg where Bradford and his colleagues lived, the irony was either lost or dismissed.  The progressive movement welcomed all comers, wealthy, nouveau riche, modest, and poor.

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The progressive perimeter was tightly drawn.  No sappers had ever breached the wire, and the defense of the ramparts was inviolable. 

Heresies were common in the early centuries of the Christian era.  Arianism denied the true divinity of Jesus Christ taking various specific forms, but all agreed that Jesus Christ was created by the Father, that he had a beginning in time.  Docetism argued that Jesus' physical body was an illusion, as was his crucifixion; that is, Jesus only seemed to have a physical body and to physically die, but in reality he was incorporeal, a pure spirit, and hence could not physically die.  Nestorianism stated that Jesus Christ was a natural union between the Flesh and the Word, thus not identical, to the divine Son of God; and Tritheism postulated that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three independent and distinct divine beings as opposed to three persons of one being and one essence. 

All of these were discredited and disavowed at the Council of Nicaea when the Emperor Constantine put an end to the internecine and inter-faith squabbling that was preventing the consolidation of his empire.  Of course it took decades if not centuries for these heresies to disappear, and some, like Gnosticism, remain today.

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Modern-day progressivism is not unlike the Early Church, battling as it did against religious heresy.  It was not enough for traditional theologians of the time to affirm their conception of Christ, his divinity, and the nature of the Trinity; but to fight heresy and to defeat it.  in fact, the first two centuries of the new church were spent in doctrinal fights.  The same holds true for secular progressivism.  It is not enough to state a doctrine, core principles, a liturgy, and a prayer book.  It can only survive and prosper if it is protected from those who wish to discredit and destroy it and therefore have a clear avenue of righteousness.

Little did it matter to the prophets and apostles of the new, secular religion if received wisdom was based on assumption and presumed belief.  What was Christianity after all but hearsay and supposed parables of a holy man written down nearly a century after he was supposed to have said them?  What did accuracy, fact, and confirmation mean when the message of redemption and salvation were existential?  There are only one or two contemporary, oblique references to the historical Christ – a man who might or might not have actually lived in Palestine in Roman times – but such historical grounding has never been necessary when the Word – His word – was so transformational.   Progressives need not worry about veracity since their message is abundantly clear and evident. Men, descended from male apes, would always be as brutal, aggressive, and domineering as their animal ancestors.  It was all coded in their DNA.  The same human nature – acquisitive and territorial – would rule modern man just as it did his Paleolithic forbears.  Just as tribal warfare was de rigeur 50,000 years ago, it remains the go-to option for the aggrieved and put-upon as well as the well-to-do expansionists.

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So progressives have always thought themselves to be on solid intellectual grounds.  There could be no denying obvious truths recorded by history and no criticizing their logical applications to current events.  it does not take a logician like Descartes to see that the world needs repair, reform, and rehabilitation.

One would have thought, however, that some ray of reason would have peeked through the Bradford’s curtains, even as tightly drawn as they were.  Some logical exegesis or a simple If…Then sequence.  No science has ever been settled.  Ask Ptolemy or the blood-letters of the Middle Ages.  No political system, Churchill notwithstanding, has ever prevailed for long.  Even democracy – "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” will have its day.  Even now nationalism and imperialism are waiting impatiently in the wings.

Not so.  Bradford remained committed, hellaciously activist, and optimistic to the core.  As a young man he spent months worrying the nature of God, Christ, and the universe, and spent endless hours with the Catholic chaplain at Yale hoping for resolution.  Just like Tolstoy who wrote of his exasperating and fruitless decades-long search for meaning in A Confession, Bradford finally gave up and concluded like the Russian, “If billions of people believe and billions more have believed, why shouldn’t I?”.  Progressive beliefs and ideals were unquestionable, absolute, and true.  They always had been and always would be.  End of story.

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Bradford’s father, despite his long career in academia – and East Coast academia to boot – was a lifelong conservative, a climate skeptic, a firm believer in Hamiltonian governance by the elite, a committed free enterprise advocate, and dismissive of ‘snowflakes’, affirmative action bolstering, helpless women, and corrosive liberalism.  He challenged his son time and time again but to no avail.  Facts, data, objective observation, logical analysis, and proven hypotheses were of no use and no interest to his son.  The boy simply took matters on faith.

Of course the son stood his ground and quoted ‘statistics’ on sea level temperature gradients, genetic ‘imperatives’ for a multi-gender human nature, the destructive nature of capitalistic concentrations of wealth, and the absolute value of ‘diversity’; but his father could only shake his head in surprise and disappointment.  What had he done wrong?  How had this level-headed, sensible, intelligent boy turned out so intellectually flaccid and undisciplined?

Had Bradford’s father been a religious man, he would have understood.  True belief comes in many forms; and had he set foot in an evangelical church where the Word of God as written in the Bible is taken as undisputed, absolute truth, he would have gotten the picture.  He would have accepted his son as a wild prophet, but a serious, responsible, and faithful one nevertheless.

Since the father had never set foot in a fundamentalist church or any church for that matter, the question was moot and irrelevant.  His son had simply gone off the rails so carefully laid by him. 

And so it is for many young people who start off with the right education and direction.  Some way or how, they veer off into murky bogs and never emerge.  Religion, that’s what does it, reflected Bradford’s father after many perplexed years.  Those damn priests.

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