Striving to Be Twice Born in a World of Partisan Ideology

It has been clear to me for a long time now that my existence on an ideological landscape divided between conservatives and progressives (the latter of whom are mistakenly called “liberals”) makes my politics confusing to a lot of folks. I am neither a conservative nor a progressive and so my opinions do not align with these standpoints in anything remotely resembling a lockstep fashion. Nor am I a Republican or a Democrat. That’s probably the greater problem since it they can’t count on me for a vote.

The assumption made based on my long-held criticisms of conservatism and the Republican Party, on racism, sexism, and so on, as well as my status as a sociologist, is that I am a Democrat and a progressive. But I am a libertarian socialist whose values run extremely liberal on most things (except economic matters), while my method for grasping the social world is Marxist. In fact, I am an orthodox Marxist, which is more liberal than progressive (an understanding that Neo-Marxism obscures). In other words, I am a humanist who believes in individualism and a set of universal rights associated with species being that may be ascertained through scientific work. I do not subscribe the paradoxical cultural Marxist view that truth is relative and that free speech is a weapon of oppression (a la Marcuse). To the extent that I see imagined communities, I see them as expressions of alienation.

Since my worldview is shaped by these principles and not partisan ideologies, I come to opinions reached not on whether the arguments align with conservative or progressive ideologies or the platforms of the Republican or Democrat parties, but whether they are consistent with my values (democratic, humanist, liberal, rationalist, republican, and secularist) and the dictates of scientific reasoning (which I regard as tied to my values). If you listen to or read my arguments and find yourself wondering why I would express some view in light of other views I have expressed, or not express attitudes you think that I should, for example daily public loathing of Donald Trump, it may be because you are determining the appropriateness of opinions on ideological and partisan grounds rather than through the method I use to arrive at my opinions. You don’t have to use my method, of course. But, by the same token, I don’t have to use your’s.

I am not saying I’m infallible. I have publicly confessed my errors many times. I was wrong to downplay the threat of Islam to humanity in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I was ignorant of the terrors intrinsic Islam. I was too religiously tolerant. More crucially, I suffered on account of peer pressure from an ideological desire to express an absurd level of religious tolerance. I am not proud of this. I am also not proud of failing to appreciate aspects of rational Christianity for its fostering of rationalism and secularism. I regret portraying American in a negative light, for accepting and sometimes even adding to the narrative used by progressives to delegitimize the greatest republic in world history. I regret casting votes for Al Gore and John Kerry. I wish I had cast those votes from another candidate or not cast them at all. At the same time, I have never regretted never voting for Republicans.

Long ago, the American pragmatist William James differentiated between the “once born” and the “twice born.” James was a theologian, so the terminology is especially provocative. He described the once born as having a childlike faith in their opinions. Not just faith in the religious sphere. Adherence to any worldview without reason. (I would add to this class those apologists who use their intellect to keep themselves from doubting.) Once born practice is, in essence, thinking out of reflex (or an act of rationalization). Once born persons enjoy a simple, uncomplicated worldview, one that does not cause them much anxiety. Indeed, their certainty in the convictions cushions the pains of the actual world—a world of uncertainty.

The twice born, on the other hand, may believe exactly what they would have believed had they not been born again, but they do so only after rationally examining their convictions, finding rational justification for them, and obtaining a fuller understanding of them. At the same time, the critical examination of belief causes them to give up many of their convictions, and this can be a great source of angst and anxiety. Twice born people are more likely to be unhappy and dissatisfied. But they are also less likely to be zealots and bigots (remember—bigotry is the attitude of expressing an unjustified certainty in one’s own opinion). 

I am not always consistent in my striving to be a twice born person. As I said, I am not infallible. But admitting this is part of becoming ever more reasonable in my thinking. It is ironic that those who accuse others of arrogance are often the epitome of the accusation. They don’t know how to regard free thinking and self-critical people. This is the corruption of partisan ideology on human cognition. Ideology conditions people to believe what is expected from those with whom they identify and to resist deviating from the party line. The method doesn’t check claims against anything but the Manual of Correct Thinking. The consistency partisans seek is not the practice of adjusting consciousness to the world via a rigorous method, but rather by aligning one’s opinions with a ideological checklist. This accounts for most people. So those of us who are not part of the frame become an enigma. And people strongly dislike things they cannot understand from the frame they’ve been given.

Being a Democrats or a Republican is a lot like being a religious fundamentalist. And I’m an atheist.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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