Op-ed: Extremely Dysfunctional

By Jim Morrison

Originally published on Advocate.com December 13 2012 4:14 AM ET

The other day a friend posted a comment to me on Facebook: “Jim, don’t be one of those atheists who calls all religion fairy tales.” He was responding to something I said in an episode of the show I host on Here! TV called For & Against. The topic was the separation of church and state.

“Keep your 3,000-year-old, oft-translated fantasy book out of my government,” I said.

For the record, I don't believe all religion is fairy tales and fantasy. And, whether or not I’m an atheist just isn’t relevant to my citizenship, or participation in my country’s political life. That was (hyperbolically), the very point I was trying to make.

My friend was also making an important point, which I’ve thought more and more about these days, especially after the U.N. General Assembly voted to grant Palestine non-member observer state status (with the U.S. vote opposing).

My point was that rigid, extreme thinking has become so devastatingly pervasive. Extremism and rigidity have taken over how we think about policy, politics, and who we elect to represent us. It has prevented us from effectively governing ourselves domestically and from fulfilling the important historic role of America as a leader among nations. It’s like a virus infecting a computer, leading to a devastating crash.

And it’s not just in one area: it’s infecting our Middle East policy, abortion, the so-called “fiscal cliff” negotiations, taxation, health care, and so on.

Ideological rigidity is characterized by the inability to hold an ideological position while also compromising because you recognize and accept political reality — which is critical in governing. Rigidity makes "perfect" the enemy of "good." In the end, we get neither.

First, the Palestine vote is a perfect example of strategic rigidity, and how we fail to advance our policies both at home and abroad. We knew the General Assembly — where the U.S. has little power and isn’t very popular — would pass the measure. So voting "no" wasn’t going to prevent Palestine from getting that statehood recognition. But a "yes" vote would likely produce a negative reaction from Jewish-American voters and the Israeli government. Aside from how cynical that is, it’s the all-too-political calculation our elected leaders make in our policy toward Israel.

The United States is Israel’s strongest ally, as we should be. Our goal should be to advance the security and prosperity of Israel, just as it should be to encourage a successful Palestinian state alongside Israel. The problem is: our continued rigid adherence to a strategy that just isn’t working is now undermining both policy goals. Our extreme inability to eschew strategies that aren’t working is costing us critical influence in the region, and that will not help us achieve our goals.

It's clear that the U.S. is the only player with enough influence on Israel to produce results. The thing is, though, we haven’t. Under Benjamin Netanyahu, settlements have increased, and Israel hasn’t had meaningful talks since he took office. By voting against the Palestinians, we punish the very forces we should instead be empowering — the very group with whom Israel can find a real partner for peace.

What has the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas received in reward for not firing missiles into Israel? For working to build a more prosperous and peaceful West Bank? For pursuing its goals diplomatically at the U.N.? For hinting, however cagily, that the cherished “right of return” just might be negotiable at some level? What is the reward?

More settlements and a stern "no!" at the United Nations.

Indeed Israel is now using the settlements as a punitive measure, among others, in response to the U.N. vote. And our influence goes unwielded. The United States rigidly sticksto the same old playbook, and it’s failing us more than ever before. When Israeli leaders and politicians like former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert come out and support the Palestinians, and we don’t pay attention, it’s clear we’re stuck reading from an out-of-date script.

A second problem is ideological extremism. We’re caught in rigid, extremist thinking. Our inability to eschew all-or-nothing adherence to rigid ideology prevents us from effectively governing ourselves. Republicans are ready to hold 98% of the country hostage for the tax rates of fewer than 2% of us. That's extremism. It’s OK to be ideologically opposed to higher taxes, or even to the notion of federal taxation itself, and then to ultimately compromise and vote for a tax increase. Just like it’s not cognitive dissonance to be pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, the fact is, it’s reality.

That’s how things used to get done in this country. It’s the whole reason for the two-party system. It’s that very American — yes cliché — notion that Americans are pragmatists: it’s better to compromise and get something done, to move forward with some policy improvement, rather than sacrifice it all at the altar of ideological purity and get nothing. We all have firm positions. I was and remain angry that President Obama didn’t fight for and get the public option for health insurance. But would it have been better to toss the whole Affordable Care Act in the trash just for that? No. And politically that’s what it was adding up to.

Marriage equality is another example. I happen to think the fight for marriage equality has often eclipsed what I consider more important issues, but that doesn’t mean I won’t fight for it with the people who think it is critical.

I think we’re a hyper-militarized society, but that will never make me refuse to stand up for my fellow LGBT citizens who want and deserve the right to serve. I know so many lefty gays who have no desire to get married. I share that view. But the rigid knee-jerk extremist ideologues take it a step further. They loudly refuse to join the fight for marriage equality. They’ll unload on you with diatribes about the patriarchal institution of marriage, how we should instead be fighting to end it or change it or refusing to have any part in it. In the end they’re no better than the extremists arguing to preserve the “tradition” of marriage. They can’t see beyond their rigid ideological (religious) agenda. Yes, I want these ideologues to be out there making their points, adding to the discussion.

But I don’t want them in charge.

Both of these groups of people just end up being the same in my book. The gay anti-marriage activists and the American Taliban-ers trying to impose religion on everyone are rigid adherents to their own “theologies” without consideration of the diverse polity as a whole. It’s just not how good governing has, or will, get done in this country. It’s high time we remind ourselves of that, pull over, and get these people out of the driver’s seat. Listen to them, sure, but don’t give them the keys.

In 1964 Barry Goldwater said, “Extremism, in the defense of liberty, is no vice.”  I don’t know if it’s a vice, but what I do know is that it’s destroying our very ability to succeed as a cohesive nation. And that extremism is no defense of liberty; it will be its ultimate destruction.  

JIM MORRISON is the host of Here! TV's For and Against.