Well, my friends, the Conclave is recently concluded as I muse here, and a “sequester” is in full swing here at home in the States. I have not been posting thoughts for quite a while, and I think it is time to toss something out there. The theme is, as is often the case, what is not said, what is not even considered when people set their opinions in stone.
When an issue is called a “third rail” in politics, this means that it is death to touch it. The allusion is to the power supply rail on a subway train. It is an essential part of the train going anywhere, it is where all of the power should be, but touch it and you are toast. So-called third rails are generally things that represent very important, but very complicated issues. Complicated. There’s the rub. They require deep thought, and worse, dispassionate thought. Dispassionate in that you must suspend your own fears and desires long enough to understand the issue. Not everybody is built for dispassionate thought. Some even consider the notion itself to be evil, because they equate dispassion with “cold blooded” and feel that allowing yourself to think dispassionately is allowing you to consider doing evil without being repulsed by it, and somehow this would lead to acting evil. The problem with this assumption is that it is the very essence of the old saying: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Without dispassionate reasoning, what is wrong with an idea is never explored, and things that are counter-intuitive but more effective are never discovered. Thinking dispassionately about something does not require giving up a passionate life. It is about suspending judgment about what appears to be right or wrong until what is right or wrong can be corroborated. For example, fear of lightning may cause you to seek refuge under a tree, but ignoring that fear to ask “is it safer under a tree?” does not mean you are not afraid, only that you have suspended your gut reaction in favor of thoughtful consideration.
But just saying “dispassionate” does not make it so. In fact, one of the reasons why thinking rationally and dispassionately has gotten a bad rap is that people who do not think dispassionately, but merely uncompassionately do, in fact, use their logic to do evil in cold blood. They are not without passion; they are just not the targets of their passion. For example, a white supremacist may appeal to some sort of logical argument as to why other people must be oppressed for the good of all. Their logic depends on the willingness of their target audience to passionately accept the argument without dispassionate consideration. As I said, not everybody is build for actual dispassionate thinking, or even build to recognize it when they see it.
Just being dispassionate, however, is not enough to think an issue through. There are religious traditions in which you are to accept the doctrine without passion. What it costs you, what apparent evil it may do, is to be blocked out from consideration, so that only the doctrine matters. This is dispassionate thought without deep thought.
I was having a discussion on consumerism and economics that are based on consumerism. It had to do with the impact of reducing consumerism through cultural change. For example, what if fewer of us chose to buy the biggest house we could afford, or chose to ignore fashion and buy clothing that was durable and would last longer? This would increase demand for durable products, but reduce the overall demand for products, which could result in unemployment among those sectors that produce cheap stuff. The same would be the case with plastic and disposable products that do such environmental damage. People go to work to make cheap environmentally friendly crap and to save the planet, it would seem we need to sacrifice all of those jobs. They don’t have the skills, or in some cases, the aptitude to get greener jobs, so what do we do? I proposed we examine the premise that there is not enough clean work for everybody. I began with the obvious case that people today in our culture are conditioned for consumerism, but if they were weaned off of that conditioning, (and my assumption would be that this would be an educational effort), and if we began to adopt a culture that valued people more than stuff (again, through education, I was thinking), there is mathematically no reason why one day we could have full employment with people working less than 20 hours per week if they were willing to wear dull clothing and live in small houses, using public transportation, etc. I was speaking in terms of the mathematical variables of hours of labor, cost of basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, and entertainment including arts. Neither you nor I can imagine that Americans would leap at the idea of living such an existence. That is not the point of the thought experiment. The point is to make sure the forces that we are inclined to blame for the state of humanity are valid. If there is plenty for all to eat, for example, but people are starving, the problem should not be blamed on lack of food, and the remedy may not be more food. If the reason why people are homeless has more to do with pressure on the real estate market than their work ethic, we should identify that, etc. However, as soon as I brought up the notion that “common sense” about market forces could be fundamentally skewed, and gave the mathematical example cited above, he immediately began rejecting the very idea that such thoughts could be entertained by anyone but a devotee of Kim Jong Il, bent on destroying all that Americans have died for. Heresy. Forbidden Thoughts. Cah-Mew-Nih-zuhm!
There is an unspoken third rail of thought that has come up in all of the talking-head commentary on the Conclave that brought this whole topic to mind. This third rail is unspoken, unseen by many, and hidden by others. There are those who flirt with it to provide cover for the fact that they will not only refuse to touch it, but will ensure that any who do are harmed by it. Flirting with it takes many forms: “the role of government”, “tolerance”, “personal responsibility” and similar phrases are used to make a show of being willing to grab that rail with both hands, but typically within the same breath, the opposite is shown. That rail of thought is the idea that we don’t have to control what people think and do to coexist with them except where what they do harms others. So one rail will say “guns don’t kill people” while also saying “Allowing gays to marry is wrong”, as if “personal responsibility” is limited to just a few things, while the other rail says “everyone should have equal opportunity” while also saying “we should outlaw transfatty acids” as if, given a choice, people will not be sufficiently responsible to choose for themselves. The third rail is the one that tells each rail to listen to itself for five minutes and see that bad thinking is bad thinking even if it sounds good to your team.
This last point brings me back to the Conclave. The talking heads, who are not paid to think, but to get you to scream at the radio or TV and stay tuned through the commercial, have been making hay over what they see as a disconnect between what American Catholics believe and what the Roman Catholic Church teaches. They called out that Americans tend to believe that contraception and gay marriage and other such things should be allowed. The talking heads were quick to point out that this “put them at odds” with the teachings of the Church. My turn to scream at the radio, because the obvious and ignored possibility is that these folks ARE AMERICAN and don’t think that the Church should be political, that the teachings of the Church are about how people should behave in the eyes of God, not about what the law should allow or not allow. The Church is not a democracy, and our Democracy is not a Church. There are those within the Church that want to rescind Vatican II, and many that could stand to see a Vatican III (not likely). But the idea that the Church might be stronger, or even better able to prepare the way for the Christ if some of the third rails of Church Doctrine were reviewed for accuracy and relevance, is itself, a third rail in the College of Cardinals.