Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Commentary: What Woke Me Up

by Eric Schechter
Until spring 2006 I was among the Great Sleeping Masses, not paying much attention to the state of the world. Much of political rhetoric is intended to confuse, and certainly I was confused. Indeed, part of what attracted me to mathematics decades ago was its clear, objective procedure for determining truth. In math you don't have to be persuasive -- you just have to be right.

But by spring 2006 I was starting to realize that the most important questions in our lives are not mathematically precise ones. Understanding begins begins when we accept schematics in place of precision, like road maps in place of photographs. We seek a collection of overlapping oversimplifications; the good ones are those offering insights that make sense to us.

I was awakened by the near-simultaneous occurrence of many things. Some were purely personal, e.g., finishing a 7-year book project and a 23-year marriage, and discovering Alternet on my new cellphone. Some were revelations in the world news -- e.g., of the White House's enormous lies about Iraq and global warming. War is a terrible thing that you should never enter without a really good, clear reason; and science is the closest thing to objective truth that humans can get. To lie about either is blasphemous.

My fog began to dissipate when I ran across linguist George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant. (I think Lakoff's subsequent books are even better, and his Thinking Points is available for free download.) Lakoff distinguishes between progressive and conservative in fairly simple terms, in a somewhat neutral tone, but he doesn't hide the fact that he's a progressive. I quickly saw that I am too, but I don't feel at all neutral about it; the errors of the conservatives are hurting many people and killing our ecosystem.

We are engaged in a great contest of ideas about economics and human nature. Conservative propagandists have captured most of the mass communications media, but progressives still hope to win through person to person enlightenment. That includes you. Discuss these ideas with everyone.


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