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Vicious circles lead nowhere

Peter Wicks | Thursday, March 31, 2005

In his “Life of Giotto,” Vasari tells this story about the great Florentine painter: The pope wished to commission some paintings for St. Peter’s, and having heard of Giotto’s growing reputation he sent a courtier to request a sample of his work. Once the courtier had arrived in Giotto’s workshop in Florence and conveyed the pope’s wishes, Giotto took a sheet of paper and a brush dipped in red and then with a twist of his hand he drew a perfect circle.

The pope took Giotto’s perfect circle as a sign of the artist’s greatness.

In thinking rather than drawing, however, the art lies in avoiding circles.

Here is one that you may recognize:

All the people who voted for President Bush are idiots. We know they’re idiots because they voted for Bush, and he’s an idiot. We know he’s an idiot because only idiots voted for him.

Once inside the whirlpool there’s no getting out. Spend enough time at its center and it’s easy to forget that there is an outside.

I have lost track of the amount of conversations I have had – on both sides of the Atlantic – with people who have alluded to Bush’s stupidity or his “monstrous nature” as if these were established facts, like the Earth orbiting the sun.

They are aware than there are those who respect and even admire the man, but the views of such people can be safely dismissed because no-one of sound judgment could possibly reach such an erroneous conclusion.

Everything in the argument fits together, but something is wrong with the construction, as in a M.C. Escher drawing.

Immediately after the election much was made of the red state/blue state divide. There quickly followed a second wave of commentary which turned to the county map and noticed that the real split was between urban and rural voters. While more accurate in once sense, this was still at root a binary analysis, and its simplicity was not a limitation but the source of its appeal.

The popularity of the red state/blue state trope was based not on its geographical analysis, but the way it provided disappointed Democrats a convenient label for dismissing the recalcitrant inhabitants of “Jesusland” (also known as “The United State of Texas”) as beyond the scope of reasoned debate.

Op-ed writers, activists, internet pundits and a disturbing number of elected politicians took the line that while the people who voted for Bush may have been superior in number, they were so inferior morally and intellectually as to be in essence a different species.

Two days after the election, Gary Wills wrote in The New York Times that the date of Bush’s re-election could henceforth be considered the day “the Enlightenment went out,” saying, in effect, that Bush won because intelligent and tolerant Americans had been outnumbered by religious fanatics so backwards they have yet to make it to the 18th Century.

On Wills’s telling, Americans, with their “fundamentalist zeal, a rage at secularity, religious intolerance, fear of and hatred for modernity” have come to resemble the members of Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Sunni loyalists.

“It is often observed that enemies come to resemble each other,” Wills notes. Doubtless it was only the strict word limit imposed by The Times that prevented him from explaining how he has managed to avoid a similar fate.

The rule seems to be that inconsistency by the virtuous is no vice. At a recent rally in Kansas, the new Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said, “This is a struggle of good and evil. And we’re the good.” When Bush began using the language of evil to describe terrorists and authoritarian regimes this is a sign of his ideological rigidity, and the fear of moral complexity that he shares with his supporters. When Dean uses the language of evil to refer to the conservatives in the Republican Party he is just telling it like it is.

Writing off large sections of the American electorate as religious fanatics is an addictive consolation. Oliver Stone has blamed the failure of his disastrous biopic Alexander on “a raging fundamentalism in morality in the U.S.” (Sure, Oliver, whatever gets you through the night).

But the political cost to all this is very high, and while the tendency to dismiss people with whom one disagrees can be found across the political spectrum, the people who pay the highest price are those whose policy views put them in a minority.

Amongst Americans, the invasion of Iraq was popular. You can dismiss those who supported it as dopes, dupes and worse, but you won’t win converts that way.

The majority of Americans oppose gay marriage. Calling them homophobes is an effective way of shouting them down in a university or a newsroom, but if you want to change the way people vote in the privacy of the polling booth then sooner or later you are going to have to stop calling them names and actually argue with them.

Political debate is the lifeblood of democracy, and if that sounds too high-minded then there are other, purely strategic reasons to change tone.

If I were a Republican I would have popped open a bottle of champagne when Dean got the Democratic Chairmanship. Whatever campaign slogans the Democrats come up with in 2006, 2008 and beyond, right now the real message looks like it will be “Vote Democrat, you Jesus-loving morons!” And it will drive them ever deeper into the political wilderness.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in philosophy. He can be contacted at pwicks@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.