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Politics Measures Our Pain

David Cowles

Apr 16, 2024

"So, God is not the concept by which we measure our misery; ideology is!"

John Lennon famously intoned, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” (Working Class Hero) In a New York Times column published 4/6/2024, Ross Douthart suggests that it is politics, not God, that captures the depths of each individual’s existential despair:

“The left-wing temperament is, by nature, unhappier than the moderate and conservative alternatives. The refusal of contentment is essential to radical politics; the desire to take the givens of the world and make something better out of them…”

“Nor should it be a surprise that amid the recent trend toward increasing youth unhappiness… whatever is making young people unhappier (be it smartphones, climate change, secularism or populism), the effect is magnified the further left you go.”

I agree with Douthart entirely…and not at all. Yes, one’s political ideology is an accurate indicator of one’s level of despair. But this is true at both ends of the political spectrum, not just on the left. 

Toward the middle of the spectrum, folks go about their daily lives, more or less satisfied. The overall sense of well being declines sharply as you move in either direction, beyond the ‘wide and welcoming middle’. Taken to the extreme, groups at both ends of the spectrum can end up bombing buildings. 

In his column, Douthart quotes fellow author, Ta-Nehisi Coates:

“I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice…I don’t even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos … Those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can’t guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us.”

If it’s going to be, it’s up to me! “Moderation in the pursuit of Justice is no virtue!” (Barry Goldwater - 1964) “Burn, Baby, Burn” (Marvin X – Watts 1965). “Think not that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” (Jesus of Nazareth – c. 30 CE)

Ideology makes strange bedfellows! But my chief disagreement with Douthart concerns the causal order of things. Douthart suggests that left-wingers are unhappy because they compare the world that is to the utopia it could be; obviously, the current state of affairs falls woefully short.

I, however, believe that ‘native unhappiness’ is the soil from which all political ideology springs. We’ve convinced ourselves that our political ideas are a function of serious study, careful reasoning, and the application of universally accepted values. Per Douthart, to the extent that events conform to our model, we can allow ourselves to be happy. Conversely, to the extent that they deviate from the ideal, unhappiness is inevitable. 

I suggest, on the contrary, that it is our ‘native unhappiness’ that determines our political leanings. Of course, neither Douthart nor I are wrong! The process is non-linear and recursive. 

Stan is by all accounts a miserable SOB, so no one is surprised to see him coming out of an ultra-conservative political rally. Molly, on the other hand, apparently thinks it’s 1969 again. Bedecked with tie-dye and beads (not Rosary), she is sitting-in at the downtown headquarters of a multi-national bank; no one is quite sure why

Molly and Stan are activists. Their involvement deepens their understanding of the system and sharpens their critique. Misery reinforces itself. Will one or both of them eventually resort to violence?

Question: Molly and Stan were both ‘unhappy’ college students. Why did one turn her native misery into a left-wing ideology while the other turned right? Kultcha! Who would you like to hang out with? Molly would enjoy a glass of red wine with Jean-Paul Sartre while Stan would prefer a draught beer with General Pershing. Left-wing, right-wing.

This is not to diminish the practical importance of politics or the intellectual importance of ideology. Society could not survive without them. But we also need to see them in context. Someone’s political preferences do not develop in isolation. They are one part of a ‘whole person’; and while a certain amount of dissonance is to be expected, outlier feelings tend to revert to mean over time. 

American political analysts are wringing their hands. People aren’t voting ‘the way they’re supposed to’ – a very odd expression for a so-called democracy, don’t you think? Nevertheless, our cognoscente claim they can measure a person’s best interests, politically, based on a number of socio-economic variables, such as gender, sexual preference, race or ethnicity, educational level, and household income.

Problem: no one’s voting as they should! In many cases, they are acting out of political ideologies diametrically opposed to what we have paternalistically determined to be in their best interests. And it makes us mad! Fighting mad in fact, when we’ve done all the work to determine what’s best for someone and still, they turn up their noses at us.

Why? It’s culture, stupid! As under the old English class system, no one cares what you say, they just care how you say it! Hilary Clinton is the poster child for cultural determinism. Her jaw dropping loss to Trump in 2016 sent shock waves around the world. How is it possible that a ‘beautiful person’ who spent her campaign hobnobbing with A-List celebrities lost to an orange haired bully who was recorded engaging in gross, sexual ‘locker room’ talk inside some trailer? Oops, I just answered my own question, didn’t I? 

Sidebar: Hilary Clinton may be the poster child for cultural determinism, but she is not the only one. Other candidates have failed the culture test and lost ‘sure thing’ elections. Remember Mike Dukakis? John Kerry? 

So, God is not the concept by which we measure our misery; ideology is!


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