Believe and Belong: American Politics, Religion, and Sports

Posted on May 9th, 2005 in Commentary,Politics by EngineerBoy

I consider myself an impartial observer of politics, religion, and sports. I don’t stake my belief system on any particular political party, deity, or team. I also don’t believe that my beliefs are right and other beliefs are wrong, but I do believe that my beliefs are right for me. There are certain philosophies which I categorically reject (e.g. terrorism, straight-ticket voting, designated hitters), but for the most part I am tolerant of other’s beliefs and do not think they are idiots for not seeing things my way (even though many are).

And from my lofty perch of impartiality it appears that American’s views on politics, religion, and sports are morphing into one giant pep rally. People label themselves and then adopt the trappings of their self-imposed pigeonholing. One says, “I’m a Conservative, Catholic, Red Sox fan” and you can just visualize almost all aspects of that person. How they dress. What they say. Where they live. What they eat. Whom they vote for. Which news network they watch. Etc.

Another says, “I’m a Liberal, Unitarian, soccer fan” and you can, once again, grok the gestalt of this individual.

On the one hand, I applaud people for being able to so narrowly define their views. I see good and bad most places, and can usually see the merits of both sides of an argument, and so find myself in a perpetual state of re-evaluating my personal philosophies. It’s very confusing, often tiring, but ultimately invigorating. So on the other hand, I find it difficult to understand how people can adopt a canned set of views and then go through life without constantly questioning themselves.

The World Is Grey

I’ll give you an example of a hot-button topic: capital punishment. Now, from a philosophical perspective I am both for and against capital punishment. How, you say, can you be both? Well, first of all because I reject the polarized views espoused over this issue in America. I am for capital punishment because there are times when a crime is so heinous and the proof is so incontrovertible that nothing short of execution is a fitting punishment. However, I’m also against capital punishment because the fallible nature of humans means that sometimes innocent people are executed, which is unconscionable.

I’ll use two hypothetical examples to explain. In the first, picture a man who is so angry with the boss that recently fired him that he pockets a gun and drives to his bosses house to confront him. The boss ends up shot dead, but there are no witnesses. The fired man says that they exchanged angry words and he pulled the gun, but then changed his mind and tried to leave. He then goes on to say that at that point his former boss attacked him and tried to take the gun away, and in the ensuing struggle the gun went off accidentally, killing his former boss. In this instance I wholeheartedly disagree with the death penalty, as there is no proof of what happened. Yes, he was angry, took a gun, and confronted his ex-boss. But there really is no way to know what really happened.

In the second example, a man puts on a flack jacket, loads up his car with a couple of rifles and a lot of ammo, drives to a tall building, climbs up onto the roof and begins randomly shooting (and killing) people in the streets below. This goes on for an hour, until the police can locate and corner the man, who drops his rifle and puts up his hands in surrender. In this case he is clearly the shooter, clearly premeditated, no question of identity or motive, no possible forensic or legal tricks to allow him to wriggle out of the charges. In this case the man clearly should be put to death.

However, death penalty cases are rarely so clear cut. Hence my statement that I am both for and against it. The fact that people have turned this into a Liberal vs. Conservative issue oversimplifies the complexity of the problem.

Patella Twitching

Another example is the movement afoot to “reign in activist judges” by removing lifetime appointments and/or using some other methods to make judges accountable to “the American People”. However, the entire purpose of the judiciary system in America is exactly and precisely to have judges who are NOT able to pressured politically, and who are NOT required to answer to “the will of the American People”. That’s called “checks and balances”, if one were to remember one’s GRADE SCHOOL teachings. However, a large percentage of self-described “conservatives” are backing this movement, seemingly without a second thought to the fact that it completely destroys one of the great founding principals of our country.

There is also the example of a movement afoot to implement a new tax system, such as flat-tax, national sales tax, or value-added tax (VAT). There is a hue and cry from the self-described “liberals” that such a tax would be “regressive”, meaning it would punish the poor and middle class with an unfair burden of taxes. However, the current tax system is so Byzantine and opaque that only upper-income folks can actually work the system to their advantage, meaning that the rich are always able to find loopholes in the existing system that skew reality so that it has no relation to published tax tables. A national sales tax that exempted basic necessities (medicine, rent, utilities, unprepared food, etc) would be unavoidable by all, however, and would allow lower- and middle-income folks to survive with little taxation on the basic necessities of life. The wealthier folks, however, will blithely pay the sales tax on their luxury purchases, as will criminals (who don’t file tax returns, but do buy over-the-counter goods and services). So the “regressive” argument seems like nothing more than the beating of a partisan drum for no good reason.

Team Spirit

In fact, all of the pontificating, boasting, and arguing in America today seems to me to be melding into a strange type of “Team Spirit”, where people’s political and religious personas are shaped by the “team” they choose to support, rather than on what the person actually thinks and believes. I always root for my favorite sports teams, and think they’re going to win (be right), and always look for favorable signs and trends, and disparage the opposing teams, and complain about the officiating, and feel elation or pain with each win or loss, and never think to question my devotion to the team, because they’re my team, and I love my team and support them, even when they lose (are wrong).

But I do all that because sports is, ultimately, meaningless. It is simply a pastime, an enjoyable diversion from real life. But religion and politics are important. They are a part of real life. They deserve and require deep thought and evaluation. There is no dogma that is always right or always wrong, and choosing one side without contemplation is simply taking the easy way out. However, I think that the powers-that-be are going out of their way to foment partisanship instead of critical thinking, because it’s easier to get people excited about a catchy slogan and an appealing spokesperson than it is to get them to read, evaluate, and understand a position paper or plan for dealing with real problems. It’s also easier to get people excited by pointing out the failings of their opponents and then uniting supporters against a common enemy.

But, unfortunately, our common enemy is blind faith. Faith that the people who say the things we want to hear will actually end up doing the things we want them to do. Faith that the people leading the cheers actually have the greater good as their goal. Faith that people who tell us things we don’t like to hear are wrong rather than just the bearers of unpleasant, but accurate, truths.

So remember that breaking with the status quo of your selected flock does not equate to treason. If everyone simply accepted the pontifications of their figureheads we’d still have slavery, women wouldn’t be able to vote, and nobody would be able to drink. Not even at a baseball game, and that would be positively un-American…wouldn’t it?

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