[ Another long one. Sorry. ]
Sanity has a horizon.
Meaning: Everything you and I do seems sensible to us. Everything other people do seems sensible to them. But not everything you and I do seems sensible to others, and not everything others do seems sensible to you and I.
Everything you and I do seems sensible, of course, because it’s US, and we’re caught up in the subjective immediacy of our lives. We’re inside our own horizon, and everything inside it with us is visible, understandable and comfortable. We naturally find it hard to think of ourselves as wrong or villainous or insane. Everything we do, however weird it might seem to others, seems sane and reasonable to us. Even if we don’t know the reasons, we’re prone to automatically assume SOMEONE knows, and those reasons must be good ones.
On the other hand, other people, out past our own personal horizons of sanity, often do things that seem crazy.
For instance, there are people out there who eat insects. I don’t, and I think it’s more than a little disgusting.
But then again, I eat honey, every drop of which passes into and out of the mouths and stomachs of insects a hundred times over. The idea of doing the same thing with the oral expulsions of a cockroach or a blowfly is sickening, and there might well be people out there who would see my honeybee-vomit in just that way. I might be outside THEIR sanity horizon. But I happily added honey to my tea just this afternoon.
Large numbers of people believe in performing a certain elective surgery on babies, and they defend it heartily in every discussion, finding reasonable-sounding arguments that make it out to be completely harmless, of vast benefit to the babies, and done entirely for their welfare.
Yet to me it appears they gloss over the pain and danger and possible long-term negative effects to the helpless, choiceless victims of the surgery. To me it seems OBVIOUSLY crazy. Seems to me that unless you’re one of the people raised and immersed in a misguided society that believes in circumcision, it’s something you might have to consider for only about two seconds before you’d decide it was nutty and dangerous, almost invariably unnecessary, and even more intimately transgressive than rape.
Inside my horizon of sanity, eating bugs is not to be considered. Inside my horizon of sanity, performing surgery on babies without having a hugely good medical reason specific to each case, is darkly dumb.
But inside their horizon, eating insects and insect larva is just an everyday thing. Inside their horizon, excising a body part from a screaming baby boy is not just accepted but necessary.
I grew up in East Texas, among rodeo cowboys and country people. I assumed, without even knowing I was doing it, that everything we did was the RIGHT thing to do, and the right way to do it.
The things we ate were the RIGHT things. The boots and hats we wore were not just the right boots and hats, they were the ONLY footwear and headwear you should wear. Everything else, and everybody who wore it, was at least a little bit crazy.
I got a taste of cultural differences in school, of course, but the lessons never really hit home until I started to travel the country and meet people from other U.S. subcultures. I still remember how shocked I was, at the age of 21 and living at a California ski resort, that none of the other kids there knew what okra was.
Okra? Elongated pod thingie with a prickly dust-green exterior and pale soft seeds inside? Turns into gummy slime if you boil it, making it a good thickener for things like gumbo, but into tasty little popcorn-like tidbits if you slice it up and fry it? Yeah, that okra.
On the other hand, they ate sushi. Raw fish, fer crissakes! Mega-yuck! Except when I tried it, several years later, I discovered it’s the only food I get truly excited about. I look forward to sushi, dwelling on it for days in advance when I know I’m going to go out for it.
The edges of sanity
So why bring up this simple point about the sanity horizon?
It’s because I’m worried. I’m not sure just how to deal with it when sanity horizons are mutually exclusive, and even hateful, and you live in the society where it takes place.
For instance, inside my horizon, George W. Bush is a dull, foolish, smug little twerp thrust into an office for which he was almost totally incompetent – I called him “a 110-volt man wired up to a 220-volt office.” He screwed the pooch on the economy, on Afghanistan, on Iraq, on Katrina, on government secrecy, on torture, on so much else that it makes me shell-shocked just to think about it. I wouldn’t trust the man to run a tire store.
But inside the horizons of certain others, George W. Bush was the man who kept America safe from terrorists, a smart, honorable statesman who never told a lie, never made a mistake, and who always did the right thing. George W. Bush was not to blame for anything, anything at all, that went wrong while he was president.
There are STILL people who believe that.
Worse, inside their horizon, the fact that I don’t agree with them means I’m not only wrong, I’m evil. I’m an America-hating thug who wants to destroy everything good.
Well. You can guess how well that flies at Casa de Fox.
Even aside from personal prejudices, I happen to know I’m not all that bad. For one thing, I’m open to being corrected when I’m mistaken because I’ve learned over the course of my lifetime how wrong I can be about things. I’ve learned to accept the possibility that, no matter how strongly I feel about something, I could be mistaken about it. Which takes away some of the passionate intensity of which we should all be capable, but also allows me to THINK on those occasions when I’m automatically prone to be passionately intense.
From admitting my own mistakes, I’ve come to understand that my horizon of sanity has to be fairly broad, and fairly loose at the edges.
Openminded don’t mean easy
Of course, this is not to say anything goes inside my horizon. No, for the things I’ve actually carefully looked at, the things I’ve studied at length and then understood to be unacceptable, that horizon is razor sharp, and fairly close.
Just today I was talking about the practice of hitting a horse in the head with a board. I was raised with people who did it, just as a sort of training aid. I never did it myself, but I saw it done dozens of times, and it wasn’t the least bit remarkable.
Just so you know this isn’t just some off-the-wall joke I’m making, I’m serious. These guys would actually hit a horse in the head with a 2×4. Broad daylight, in public, in view of children and adults alike. There would be blood. The tied-up horse would react just as you’d think he would, with stark terror. And nobody said anything about it, or even looked away.
But to see somebody do that today would fill me with rage. Today, just remembering it makes me angry. Hitting a horse in the head with a board is not just crazy, not just counterproductive, it’s damned evil, and any person who does it might just deserve himself to be hit in the head with a board. Possibly repeatedly, and for some time.
So my own horizon of sanity is loose at some of the edges, but crystal clear and hard at others, depending on whether I’ve really looked at and thought about any specific issue along that edge.
Beyond the beyond
I think it’s important to consider where your horizon of sanity lies. To examine and refine it throughout your life. To broaden it when you find you’ve been ignorant and provincial, but to harden and sharpen it where you’ve carefully examined an issue and discovered something better than the status quo.
But to do that, to gain the perspective and worldliness that will allow you to examine and evaluate your own horizon, the one you likely learned from your home culture, you have to do three things:
1) Travel (visit some other culture or subculture, even if only through books).
2) Pay attention (watch what they do and how they do it).
3) Think and evaluate (consider what you see with an open mind and try to figure out if what they do differently from what you do either harms or helps them).
But there’s a first step that has to come before any of that. You have to be willing to believe that you might be wrong about something. Or at least not perfectly, infallibly right about everything.
And there’s the problem with the right wing in America. The Glenn Beck fans, the Rush Limbaugh dittoheads, the rage-puppets of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, the book buyers and readers of Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter … they just don’t seem willing to do that. In their minds, they’re never wrong. Never.
But then again, just how big a problem can that be? Considering recent elections and polling numbers, we’re all pretty sure their numbers are dwindling.
That’s not necessarily a comforting thought, though, because there’s a reverse effect, a process of distillation, going on at the same time.
For instance: There were those of us who had zero commitment to conservatism, and we never got into it.
There were those who had some commitment to it, and they got in and stayed in for a while before quitting. Maybe sometime late in Bush’s first term, they figured out they’d made a mistake, and they dropped out. Some of them might have even publicly admitted it: “I used to be a Bush supporter, but … damn! No more.”
There were those who had more commitment to it, and they stayed in longer before figuring out they’d made a mistake. Few of these admitted it publicly, it seems to me — mostly they dropped out by simply shutting up.
Then there were those who had even greater commitment, the ardent diehards who stayed in despite any and all evidence that they might have been wrong.
At some point (it seems to me), if you were able to change your mind at all, you saw what was happening and you simply gave up and admitted you were wrong about Bush.
So all along the way, as it became more and more difficult to believe in Bush, people dropped out. The longer things went, the harder it was to stay supportive of Bush and his fellow travelers.
But this is the same as saying that, as each year passed, progressively greater levels of commitment were required to stay involved. Which meant that the remaining supporters became more and more defiant of any contrary voice or argument, more and more able to ignore outside input or independent evidence, more and more exclusive and cloistered within their own shrinking group.
The total amount of crazy might be lessening, but the crazy that remains is getting more and more concentrated. It’s like finding fewer and fewer poisonous snakes in your garden, but finding that the few left are more poisonous than ever.
That right wingers could support George W. Bush in his first term was in some ways understandable. That they could support the eminently unready Sarah Palin was just … scary.
The wingers are getting more and more angry, more and more suspicious of every word and idea from outside their little clique. Their horizon of sanity has contracted and hardened, so that it begins to seem to them that people outside their horizon are not just wrong, but evil. Not just dumb, but hateful. Not just dismissive of their values, but directly and maliciously attempting to destroy them. If you’re not with them, it’s not just that you’re against them — you are rabid, demonic ninja assassins on steroids, out to destroy them and everything they hold dear.
In plain sight
And I’m not just saying this stuff, not just guessing it, not just attempting to scapegoat others with my own psychological backwash. If you listen to conservative radio or TV for half a day, you’ll hear this stuff for yourself. Liberals want to destroy America. Obama is a Muslim socialist, not even born in this country and thus illegally elected, here to take away all our guns and establish a world government where we’ll all be virtual slaves. Atheists want to destroy Christianity (well, hey, sure we do, but that’s not reason enough to dislike us) and undermine the foundations of America. Gays want to destroy the sanctity of marriage and turn all our children into limp-wristed, America-hating queers.
There’s even an objective measure of the phenomenon: Gun sales and concealed-carry applications have skyrocketed since President Obama got elected.
So just how serious can it all be, considering that even I believe the number of strong conservatives is shrinking? In light of the fact that the process is selecting for a progressively stupider, angrier crowd among those who remain conservatives, I think it can be pretty serious. The snakes in the American garden are becoming more poisonous.
Making it worse, they have a very loud, very visible cadre of religious and political evangelists of conservatism egging them on, feeding them more and more and more deadly rage, encouraging them to feel even more betrayed and disenfranchised, giving them daily justifications and support for … whatever it is they’ll do when they finally get fed up.
Worse still, the conservative (and evangelical Christian) horizon of sanity has contracted and hardened until it seems like there’s no way to reach the people still inside it. Nothing gets inside that isn’t already inside, and what’s inside gets progressively hotter and denser until it seems it’s on the verge of pinching off into its own little universe of crazy.
Like I say, it worries me. I wonder just what comes next.
And I wonder, with this cop shooting in Pittsburgh but also with other stories that have surfaced here and there since President Obama took office, if we’re already starting to see it.