Reckless and Righteous

by NASA: One Year Crew Returns to Earth
One Year Crew Returns to Earth, image courtesy of NASA

Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, is a real hero to me. He goes where few journalists dare venture to report on atrocity and abuse. He raises uncomfortable subjects we would prefer to keep hidden or out of our consciousness. He confronts his fellow progressives on our blind spots. He challenges us not to be reckless in our language or righteous in our beliefs.

In a recent NYT article, Peter Baker discusses how carelessly the word fascism is being spouted, particularly as it relates to a current politician. According to scholars, fascism is characterized by an anti-democratic, an authoritarian state, and an ideological rigidity, It tends to be nationalistic and far right on the political spectrum. Fascists believe that liberal democracy is obsolete and regard the complete mobilization of society under a totalitarian one-party state as necessary to prepare a nation for armed conflict and to respond to economic challenges. Fascism accepts violence as a means to achieve rejuvenation.

Dr. Lawrence Britt, a political scientist who has examined the fascist regimes of Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), Suharto (Indonesia) and several Latin American regimes, found 14 defining characteristics common to each:

  1. Powerful and continuing nationalism
  2. Disdain for the recognition of human rights
  3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause
  4. Supremacy of the military
  5. Rampant sexism
  6. Controlled mass media
  7. Obsession with national security and fear
  8. Religion and government are intertwined (Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion)
  9. Corporate power is protected
  10. Labor power is suppressed
  11. Disdain for intellectuals and the Arts
  12. Obsession with crime and punishment
  13. Rampant cronyism
  14. Fraudulent elections

This list raises alarming questions about global trends. Russia, Turkey, North Korea, Egypt, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Austria, Poland, and Hungary are all moving toward or can be described as guilty on almost all the criteria. And in the United States there is increasing rhetoric on most of the 14 criteria. Even given all the inflammatory words and aggressive actions, however, we are not a fascist state and none of the candidates running for president can be described as a Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin. As frightening as this shift to fascism is, we need to exercise care in the language we use.

I am not suggesting we succumb to silence and fail to challenge ideas we don’t believe in. I am simply suggesting, as Kristof did in his challenge to liberals, that we need to remain vigilant and self aware so that we don’t engage in the same level of reckless and righteous bombast that we are hearing from all corners of the world.

Leaders in all walks of life need to follow the advice of Gurdjieff, who described great leaders as those who exercise restraint, respect, and resourcefulness. For me, the worst leaders come across as reckless and righteous. The most effective leaders are restrained, respectful, and resourceful. No matter what faults one might ascribe to President Obama, for example, he has clearly demonstrated Gurdjieff’s 3Rs of effective leadership in advancing his agenda against all odds and obstacles.

Donald Trump’s campaign, on the other hand, has engendered impassioned warnings about the rise of fascism in the United States. While I am a vociferous opponent to Trump because I see him as a narcissistic, xenophobic, misogynistic, unprepared, unqualified, and uninformed bully; I don’t see him as a fascist, and I think it’s a mistake to use reckless and righteous language to attack him.

But I use the glaring example of Trump and fascism only as a way to shed light on the larger issue of what we say, how we say it, what we do, and how we do it. The same principle is true whether we are talking about fascism or health care. Words and actions are important. I believe we need to resist using reckless and righteous language and we need to strive toward more restrained, respectful, and resourceful actions.

To be reckless means to make exaggerated or extreme statements unsupported by the facts. Fortunately, we now have the means to fact-check every speech and give it an accuracy rating. Unfortunately, a large portion of the population is not that concerned or influenced by the facts—which brings me to righteousness.

To be righteous means to believe in a philosophy or political agenda independent of the evidence supporting that agenda. Being righteous means to live in a solipsistic bubble that can’t be penetrated by any amount of information. Research doesn’t pop the bubble. New revelations don’t change minds. Historical trends don’t make us change our beliefs. We hold tightly to the beliefs that maintain our narratives, and we seek out stories that support our beliefs. After all, it’s easier and we tend to be lazy.

I have always found doubt and uncertainty to be liberating. When I’m not sure of something, it inspires me to explore more deeply so that I can understand more clearly. In order to engage in rigorous exploration, however, I need to stay open to data that may contradict my world-view. I need to be open to change my mind. Indeed, I can’t be righteous or reckless if I want to get closer to the truth.

So I want to say thank you to Nickolas Kristof, not only for his courageous and compelling reporting and the way he lives his life, but also because he challenges all of us to be less reckless and righteous. Let’s defeat Trump, but do it in a responsible and rigorous way.






Also published on Medium.

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