Wednesday, April 25, 2012

New terms for political science


Terms for the political demographics of the West often revolve around the triumvirate  Leftist, Centrist and Conservative (or more colloquially, "Left, Right and Center").

To this list may, of course, be added such intensifiers as "hard-core" or "radical" (for Leftist) -- in order to highlight their increasing distance from a putative Center and to characterize the directionality of that distance -- along with "far-" or "ultra-" for the Right (itself perhaps already an intensifier of the supposedly staid Conservative), along with the curiously perpendicular phenomenon of terms groping for a way to denote, and tar, the false Conservative ("neo-con" and "RINO" come quickly to mind).  For Centrist, one rarely hears any qualifiers: imagine a "radical Centrist"!  The point of the term, of course, is that it reflects an avoidance of such partisan permutations of the political process.

The Comfortably Apolitical

Today, we wish to supplement this formula with a fourth term to be added to the common triad of Left-Right-Center:

Comfortably Apolitical.

This would be a "new type" insofar as heretofore it has not, to my knowledge, been inducted into the terminology of political science; though of course, it reflects a kind of person who has likely been around as long as there have been societies.

This type reflects the paradoxical greatness of the West, for it is a peculiarly modern Western phenomenon.  This is not to say that one cannot find in Third World societies individuals who seem to exemplify it; however, to the extent that in such societies the individual remains to a sufficiently higher degree enmeshed within the family, the clan and the tribe -- which are in such societies cultural phenomena themselves enmeshed within, or dominating, sociopolitical existence -- such people rarely if ever attain the blithely insouciant indifference and individualistic freedom which their Western counterparts enjoy so commonly and relatively easily (unless they immigrate to the West and cut their familial ties; and even then, they may never quite rid their psyches of being culturally haunted).  Nor are their numbers anywhere as high and widespread as they are throughout the West.

Thus, the paradoxical greatness of the modern West has developed a society sufficiently successful, prosperous and orderly as to accommodate, and even encourage, the profusion of the lifestyle of those who blithely don't care about politics and just want to get on with enjoying their lives and doing their necessary pragmatic activities of daily living without bothering to think macrocosmically -- whether politically, religiously or philosophically -- much at all. 

Of course, various forms of mass popular entertainment help enormously in this regard, in keeping the attention of such individuals distracted from deeper and broader questions and obligations.  But, on the other hand, they are not to be so glibly slighted or mocked, as though they were clearly and automatically inferior to those others more politically educated, who lead lives more directly responsible for, and responsive to, various sociopolitical concerns, whether local, domestic, or international -- or perhaps in varying degrees, all three.

Nor are we implying that this type is exclusive to modernity.  No doubt there were plenty of comfortably apolitical individuals lounging around during the Middle Ages (not to mention the Ancient World, and on back to Ages of Bronze, Iron and Gold).  The point is that the modern West has, by degree, been the most conducive to their formation, to the general respect accorded them to lead their lives as they please without hassle, and has in turn been affected most by their presence and integration into the general society, in the negative sense (not "negative" necessarily in a bad way) that their lack of participation in politics, and their symbiotic parasitism upon the system, has real effects on ongoing political issues, decisions and movements over time.


I have often used this term, and I certainly didn't invent it.  But I do have certain uses for it that may be distinct from what may be normally assumed. 

The first thing someone may ask is: "Why not just say 'political'...?"  The reason is that in certain contexts, I want to broaden the discussion to include what may be termed the "cultural" dimension of human existence.  While in one sense, the term political should, properly, already include the social and the cultural dimensions, it may easily lend itself to a truncated sense in the mind of my reader, and so my use of sociopolitical is meant to gently nudge him or her as a reminder of the broad scope my discussion is reflecting.

Another redundancy may be detected here as well:  why distinguish between social and cultural...?  This would be as good a time as any to palpate the subtle distinctions, and relations, among the three terms -- social, cultural and political.

Social denotes an organization of people which more often than not includes multiple cultures and subcultures.  The organization may be loose, or more consciously concerted, depending on various factors; but the norm is for the latter.

The specifics of the organization of society -- its structure, content and history -- insofar as it begins to convolve laws, are what we refer to as political (and thus, were we to deepen the details of this analysis, we would introduce yet another factor, the legal dimension)Meanwhile, cultural may be loosely speaking synonymous with social, except that social could be said to be the cultural in its political dimension.  Thus any one of these three terms remains a somewhat abstract concept when treated alone, since all peoples are simultaneously and inescapable living existence in an interplay of all three modes of cultural, social, and political.  There is always a tension among these three vectors in any given society, and variation over time.  Islam perhaps reflects an ideal of the totalitarian fusion of all three more than any other society in history.

The Comfortably Irreligious

There have been times in history when a culture predominated, and in effect dictated how the society was formed and organized.  As the modern world has progressed (the modern world being chiefly a Western phenomenon, in turn superimposed upon the rest of the world in varying degrees), the trend has been toward society containing multiple cultures, and a unifying political organization keeping the society more or less coherent -- chiefly with the development of the nation-state beginning in the 17th century and increasing with each passing century.  This increasing coherence, in turn, has been dovetailed with an increasing cultivation of neutrality with respect to multiple cultures (and multiple religions, for religion is a cultural phenomenon).

Since indeed an important part of culture historically has been religion, the modern evolution of politics has seen the development and strengthening of a separation of religion and state, insofar as any single religion may be seen to dominate the organization of any given society. Since the human field of multiple societies has always contained multiple cultures and multiple religions, the modern West came to the conclusion that no single religion should dominate, for that would be unfair to the competing religions which co-exist.  This principle has been expanded more recently to include innumerable people who are either lax in their religion, or who have fallen away from its practice to one degree or another.  These would include the hard-core atheist on one end of the spectrum, to what may be termed, on the other end, the Comfortably Irreligious -- about whose formation and growth observations may be made similar to those we made above about its cousin, the Comfortably Apolitical. 

This category may include a whole motley aggregation of agnostics, atheists lite, lapsed Catholics, lapsed Christians in general, and those sorta-kinda Christians who may go to church twice a year (on Easter and Christmas, plus a wedding and/or funeral or two in between) -- all of whom share roughly the same attitude about religion: more or less pleasantly thoughtless indifference, unless cornered by an inquisitive pollster or neighbor or friend rudely demanding answers about "religion" and "what they believe" -- at which point the indifference may acquire some degree of annoyance and then avoidance, since the whole point of being Comfortably Irreligious is to remain as comfortable in their comfort zone as feasible, avoiding talking or thinking too much about the issue in their daily life.  (To avoid the threat of discomfort to their comfort zone, when pressed such a person might just blurt out responses that may sound superficially religious, agnostic or atheistic (depending on the stance of the questioner) -- just to get the inquisitors off their back.)  A subcategory in this regard worth noting is the "I'm spiritual I'm not religious" person who is comfortably indifferent to religion, but who may well un-self-reflectively (because of historical illiteracy and modern prejudices against religion) pursue one or another spiritual path calculated to appease a mildly gnawing existential need in the pit of his otherwise unexamined psyche.  (Needless to say -- or, alas, perhaps there is need to say -- the very specious distinction of spiritual and religious is itself a red flag signalling an illiteracy about the history of religion & philosophy.)


Finally, as we hinted above, a word may be said about laws.  The legal dimension of existence is the nuts and bolts, so to speak, or the very nerves and muscles of a society's organization (which, as we noted, is its political dimension).  A society cannot be organized without laws. And the sphere of laws, meanwhile, may be seen to extend from the physical -- their physical enforcement which includes physical punishment of those who break or resist them -- to the metaphysical: their moral underpinnings, which reach back in history into the realms of philosophy and theology.  

Thus, there is some complex tissue of contiguity between society, through its political organization structured by laws which themselves derive much of their noetic substance from philosophy and theology and not merely -- pace the materialist atheists -- from inanimate and animate matter (electricity and chemicals in human brains).  This unavoidable contiguity sets up a tension between the concerns of modern secularism, by which a separation of religion and state has become deemed to be an indispensable feature of optimal order and fairness among humans, and the claims of the religious, who rightfully point out the historical provenance of all human laws in various religions, even if some of those same religious people may seem oblivious to the problem of the multiplicity of concrete expressions of that provenance in the field of multiple cultures and religions -- a problem that has been, not without flaws (for nothing in this life is perfect), worked out through the paradigm of the "neutral umbrella" of modern secularism.

In the modern West, this latter problem has dwindled to a relatively mature (if sometimes annoying) field of discussions between individuals or groups with religious concerns, on the one hand, and those who reflect and/or represent the dominant secularism of the age, whose own values are massively respected in laws (and massively reflected in popular culture).  In the Muslim world, however -- which, increasingly, is interpenetrating into the Western world through immigration and aggressive (as well as slyly clever) Islamopologetics, and through the West's PC MC "respect" for Islam -- this latter problem has never been adequately worked out.  In fact, the worldwide trend among Muslims seems to be toward a revival of a particularly and substantively Islamic resistance to the modus vivendi achieved in this regard by the modern West.  

This modus vivendi, by institutionalizing a neutral umbrella which accommodates various differing cultures -- thus respecting their difference but not tolerating among any one of them any supremacist agenda they may harbor in terms of forcing their meaning of life upon others through laws or sedition -- has done more than any other time in history to accommodate the growing, amorphously abounding numbers of the Comfortably Irreligious and make them feel comfortable in society, rather than ill at ease (or worse), as they would under a more theocratic shadow. (Indeed, this modern secularist accommodation in terms of pop culture (movies, tv, celebrities, light journalism (think NPR podcasts and the like), music, and various vulgarized middle- and high-brow arbiters of the Arts) has become so rich and broad and massive, it is no longer the Comfortably Irreligious who feel ill at ease being themselves, but rather those who choose to be more unapologetically religious, embarrassed to admit that, for example, they may go skulking off to Branson, Missouri just to experience some wholesome Christian-friendly entertainment amid the seas-to-shining-seas of godless pop culture all around them, promoted out in the spanking sunshine of American, and Western, culture.)

Insofar as the Islamic revival resists joining the rest of humanity on its ongoing adventure of modernity, we have not so much a "clash of civilizations" as -- as George Will aptly pointed out years ago -- a clash of epochs.  And, for all the flaws and ills of Modern (Western) Progress, the answer to its defects is not the application of some Regress, according to the Fall of the Arabic Spring under Islamic Savings Time setting the clock back a millennium to a Winter of a Dark Ages all over again.

Further Reading:

Secularism: The Neutral Umbrella

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