Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Net of Indra and UU Politics

There aren't many Unitarian-Universalist Republicans, but I think there should be more.

The UU Principles and Purposes cites Respect for the interdependent web of all existence. Often the part of the web of existence most emphasized is the ecological balance of the natural world and the network of our interpersonal connections, and these are certainly very important pieces. But between the cosmic and the interpersonal, lie the economic and political webs of the world, which are subject to the same types of balances, though that's often overlooked.

In fact, I find it very interesting that those who are appropriately concerned about the detrimental effects of human activity in pursuit of economic aims on the balance of the natural environment seldom acknowledge the damage to the balance of the economic system when social aims are pursued by various interventions, whether by government or other social institutions.

Certainly, the danger of overemphasizing the need to preserve the balance of the cultural/economic system is to grow complacent about injustices embedded in it--that's the most important critique of Hegelianism. But as a physician, I tend to look at complex systems like the human body. Doctors grow a certain humility about the complexity of illness and the body's response to it, so that we don't always know what the consequences of a given treatment will be--we often talk about such things in terms of probabilities of cure or side effects. We don't let the uncertainty of the effect of treatments paralyze us, but we don't pretend that there's mathematical certainty about our predictions either.

The complexity of the economy is something like the same order of complexity as the body. If injustice and poverty are like diseases of the economy, we don't always know what the side effects are or the chance for cure, but we make the best guess we can.

Along this spectrum, conservatives sometimes end up like the nervous patient who refuses minor surgery for an easily treated problem until it grows much worse--such as defunding Head Start. Liberals can seem like the scalpel-happy surgeon who see people as diseases instead of patients--eg extensive funding of job training programs that don't work.

Similar reasoning applies to government actions in the realm of culture, an example being the ongoing reassessment of the canon of Western literature. Conservatives emphasize the need for a common cultural vocabulary of symbols and ideas, while liberals point out the social damage resulting from the act of exclusion of certain texts from the canon. At stake is the very shape of our cultural environment. The challenge is to find a compromise that connects as much of the interdependent web of American society together while still producing a managable and useful canon.

A more nuanced view of the interdependent web of existence would temper both liberal and conservative camps' tendencies, and provide a framework to allow them to talk to each other better. I see no inherent reason why one should emphasize one part of the web over another--disruption of the environment causes ecological damage, and disruption of the economic/cultural web causes poverty and social strife. Indeed, UUs may be well situated to foster this kind of dialogue, since they already are used to emphasizing interdependence as an overarching concern.

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