Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 28, September 2002

Why bother?
Why being liberal is not a lost cause


I am what most people in the United States would describe as an idealist, a progressive, a liberal, a social democrat, or worse. Consequently, the question that a few of my friends and I often ask ourselves is: why bother? Let me explain. The world some of us would like to see, and are fighting to help bring about with our actions and writings, is one in which more people will use reason to make their decisions; fundamentalist religion will be seen as silly at best, and profoundly misguided and dangerous at worst; the environment will be thought of as a real priority; war will not be possible because of a truly civilized international system of police and tribunals (you know, just like modern societies are an improvement over the law of the jungle?); and human beings will engage not in the search for profit or shallow consumerism but in the pursuit of true happiness and fulfillment. Scary, eh?

Now, the world in which we actually live is apparently characterized by rampant superstition and nonsense; fundamentalist religion is seen as a respectable, even enviable, way of life; the environment keeps taking a beating notwithstanding international conferences and political pledges; wars are been fought all over the planet and more are in the planning; and many of our society's role models are among the shallowest and meanest people one can think of.

I repeat: why bother? I mean: in order to be a liberal freethinker one has either to be a masochist or a hopeless optimist, completely out of touch with reality. We are bombarded with bad news every day and from every corner. Yes, we had eight years of Clinton, blessed be the memory of his presidency, but he wasn't really a liberal or a progressive. Rather, he was a fairly moderate Republican (yes, you read correctly), and hardly slowed down the onslaught of corporate interests and environmental catastrophe that has been the hallmark of this country's policy since Reagan. To make it even worse, now we have a president who was not elected democratically (hey, I thought that happened only in Third World countries!), who keeps showing a callous disrespect for the environment and an equally abominable close tie to big business, and of whom (for some reason) most people keep approving because he has “character” (by which they must mean that he is able to lie about his past better than Clinton did).

All of this sounds hopeless, and no matter what my friends and I write or do, it will likely not change perceptibly during our lifetime. Then again, before yielding to depression and committing suicide or, worse, going on annual pilgrimages to DisneyWorld, we should consider the idea of different temporal horizons of activism. You see, all that I have described so far happens at what I think of as the mid-time horizon, i.e., stretches of time that can be measured on the order of a human life. But there are at least two additional horizons to consider if you are as stubborn an optimist as I am.

First, there is the near-time horizon. This is the here and now, in which we can make a huge difference at the local level. Our doings and writings can touch people in countless ways. It's true: I get testimonials via email every week. Our actions can make a difference between a school board adopting a textbook that teaches the nonsense of creationism and another based on the best science available. This will affect thousands of kids, immediately! True, a protest at the local nuclear plant may go completely unnoticed; but other causes, like the No-Global movement, have made themselves heard the world over (despite the obvious irony intrinsic in such success…). Furthermore, things do change in major ways, from time to time. Let's not forget that the Soviet Union and the Berlin wall crumbled in front of our eyes after having been apparently unfaltering symbols of oppression for decades. Equally surprisingly, Nelson Mandela went from political prisoner to head of state in South Africa, and the Milosovic government in the former Yugoslavia disappeared. These things don't happen if we leave the field entirely to conservative and regressive forces.

Then there is the long-time horizon. I know most people think history is boring, but that's a pity, because they would find that things do change during the course of human history and, often enough, for the better. A few decades ago it would have been perfectly acceptable to enforce racist laws in the United States; today this is unthinkable. Not long before that, women were not allowed to vote, while now all political parties consistently court them. Slavery was sanctioned in Western countries until the 19th century, but it is now actively fought everywhere in the world. Religious fundamentalists may have a large influence on the cultural and political life of the United States and the Middle East, but that is a far cry from the absolute dominance of religious bigotry that characterized several centuries of Western history deservedly referred to as “the dark ages.” And the environment wasn't even a major issue until the second half of the 20th century. These long-term changes, like the short-term ones listed above, were made possible by the continuous action of people who kept protesting, marching and writing to further human flourishing in the broadest possible sense. Most of them saw no perceptible change for the better during their life times, but they believed it would eventually come if they kept up the struggle. They were right.

I am under no illusion that this column or anything I do will change the world, but I do know that people are positively affected by what is written and done in the here and now. And I know that it is because of my friends and colleagues who keep protesting against nonsense, greed and repression that we can conceive of a better future for humanity. Indeed, to some extent, that future has already happened. 


Next month: On intuition

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2002