Guinea Pig Politics

     “No politics” is the rule in some prisons.
     Politics in U.S. prisons has a different meaning than politics on the outside.
     Or perhaps not.
     Prison politics means that black inmates are allowed to talk only to black inmates, Mexicans only to Mexicans, and white people only to white people.
     In a prison with no politics, any inmate can talk to any other one.
     How nice: a place with no politics.
     U.S. politics today is becoming indistinguishable from prison politics.
     Not solely along racial lines, but along multiplying fractures. Right-wing Republicans talk only to right-wing Republicans, unless it’s to holler at someone else. Gun-lovers talk to gun-lovers, right-to-lifers to right-to-lifers, immigrant-bashers to immigrant-bashers, and on and on.
     It makes me long for those long-ago days in the 1570s, when Michel de Montaigne wrote: “No belief offends me, no matter what contrast it offers with my own.” Montaigne was ahead of his time – and ahead of ours.
     Politics is partly a matter of belief, but religious and political beliefs are, or should be, different. When they combine, they become violent and dangerous.
     While Montaigne was writing his “Essays,” a top adviser to the king of Spain exemplified this in a letter to Philip II: “Politics should have no foundation but the will of God, and what is not of God is of the devil.”
     During the 1570s – the decade of the St. Bartholomew Massacre – Protestants burned Catholics, Catholics burned Protestants, both burned Anabaptists. And so on.
     “Demonologists” declared there were so many witches around that “legal tidiness and normal procedures” would be counterproductive – so they just burned them.
     By the way, 369 years ago today, on Jan. 10, 1645, Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud was beheaded for not being Catholic. Or for not being Catholic enough. Or for something. At any rate, he was beheaded.
     Religions claim access to immutable, unchanging knowledge.
     There is no such thing as an immutable, unchanging political knowledge. Democracy, freedom, justice, equality, liberty, slavery, socialism, the vote – all of those things change, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, in politics.
     Politics is the art of compromise. It is a manner of allowing human beings to live together without killing one another, without blood.
     Neither politics nor religion has access to truth, in the sense that 2 + 2 = 4.
     That they do not have access to this sort of truth does not make politics, or religion, evil.
     It is evil, however, for Person A, or Political Party A, to injure other people because they do not see truth the way A sees it.
     The entire progress of Western government, and religion, to the extent that such progress exists at all, is not that we have gained access to more or greater truths – it is that we have managed to prevent people from killing one another, in large numbers, because of the way they think.
     U.S. politics today, however, is regressing into the political state of barbarism. Politicians, and the people who support them, seem to think it’s not enough to prevail, but that people who think otherwise must be punished.
     Need I rehearse a history of what thinking like that brought the world, in the past century alone?
     No, I need not.
     Religions, Edward Gibbon wrote, are all regarded “by the philosopher as equally false, and by the magistrate as equally useful.”
     Let us have political debate, by all means. But let us leave religion, and religiously based “truths” out of it.
     The religious tinge that is coming to dominate U.S. politics is not just obnoxious, and dishonest, it is dangerous. It should be suffocated. And the only ones who can do it are not the lawmakers, who profit from smashing our society into smaller and smaller bits, it is us – the subjects of their experiment.

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