You might call me a “progressive” because my views and preferred outcomes generally align with many people’s idea of a “progressive.”
The problem with calling oneself a “progressive” is that entails adopting a label, a label that might also carry unwanted baggage. I don’t know how many times someone has characterized me wrongly as a “progressive” only to say “… you progressives think X” (and be completely wrong)
For example: “You progressives all want to tear down people’s ability to succeed!”
Me: which people?
My favorite zen koan as a kid was this: “Shusan The Sage held up his walking stick and said, ‘This is a stick. To say anything else is foolish. To say anything more denies its essence.’ What is it?” [wc] I was in my forties when I came up with my answer, which is “let us look at the stick together.” The koan, to me, is about the problem of labeling things. As Shusan says, “to say anything more denies its essence.” You could call it a “Stick+” or a “Stick of Progress” but it’s still a stick. It might have a pointy end. Then, you could call it a “pointy stick” but it’s still a stick. Shusan’s lesson, it seems to me, is that we layer our understanding of things on top of the reality of them. Is a skeptical asshole an asshole or a skeptic? If we call them just a “skeptic” we have missed something important, same as if we just call them an “asshole.” I do not wish to allow anyone to trap me, thus. As a skeptic, and an atheist, I am comfortable sitting down with someone and having a conversation at any necessary length as to whether or not I am a “protestant atheist” or a “skeptical atheist” or whatever.
The trick to dealing with labels is to answer, “If you wish me to bear a label of your choosing, you need to define for me what that label is, first.”
That is when we look at the stick together. Does a “progressive” believe in free education through college? Does a “progressive” believe in free medical care? Does a “progressive” believe in free medical care even to people who have ruined their lungs vaping, and need a lung transplant? Does a “progressive” believe in humanitarian military interventions? Does a “progressive” notice that those seem to result in more lives blown apart than defended, sometimes? When you look at the stick together, you see it’s a stick with a bumpy and complex surface, indeed.
Recently there has been a spate of what PZ Myers calls “dictionary atheism” – attempts to restrict the use of the label “atheist” to only what is written in a typical dictionary. I.e.: “does not believe in god.” But let us look at the stick: there are consequences to not believing in god. Does an “atheist” also believe there is no afterlife? Does an “atheist” believe that, since there is no god to balance social injustice, it falls upon us to do so? The cure to “dictionary atheism” is, I am sad to say, nihilism. It is to not wear a label anyone offers you, and say, “labels are too simplistic; I want to transcend them. I have complex beliefs and the chances that any one label will neatly encapsulate all of them is effectively zero.” Let us look at the stick, together.
Nihilism got a bad name from Nietzsche, who did quite a hatchet-job on it, in order to oppose it with his own form of crypto-christianity. [See how I just applied that label on old Fred?] His “Ubermensch” is just Nietzsche’s remix of Jesus Christ without the flaws of weakness or caring what others think. Nihilism appears to me to be the end-form of skepticism; an acceptance that it is very hard to support any assertion at all, other than assertions about opinion. I do not know if Nietzsche was familiar with the writings of Sextus Empiricus on pyrrhonian skepticism, but I doubt it, simply because Nietzsche would have felt obligated to attack Sextus Empiricus, too – and good luck doing that. never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: Never go in against a Sicilian when DEATH is on the line and do not debate a pyrrhonian skeptic. I used to sometimes adopt pyrrhonian tropes but I realized that nihilism was just a little step farther: I’m not even going to waste my time hedging my bets with a lot of “… it appears to me now.” and “It seems as though…”
The important thing is that nihilism is not a chain that binds us; it’s a solvent that dissolves everything. If endless debates about labels bother you, simply demolish them all by pointing out that labels are just words we use to package concepts and – since my packaging of concepts appears to be unique to me – we can begin any discussion by searching for agreement where it exists, and outlining where we disagree, too, so we can understand each other better. Nihilism also frees us from the manipulation of loaded language: you can’t trick someone (as Sam Harris often tries to do) by saying “X is obvious” Oh, really? What is X and what is “obvious” about it? Spray a little of the universal solvent on someone else’s words and it’s obvious where the gaps are, as they sizzle and fall to pieces.
When someone calls me a “progressive” are they seeking to include me, or exclude me? It depends on how they see me, doesn’t it? So let’s just jump straight to that and be done.
I’m not a “progressive” but I believe all people ought to experience equal opportunity wherever possible.
I’m not a “progressive” but I believe that, in wealthy countries, the poorest should be supported and the military should go hungry.
I’m not a “progressive” but I believe that any political leader who stockpiles nuclear weapons has declared themselves to be the enemy of their people and ought to be hanged as a war criminal.
I’m not a “progressive” but I believe there are some things that are so heinous that we should not have to share a planet with people who believe in them. Getting rid of those people is problematic, because – and Nietzsche was right about this: “If you stare into an abyss, the abyss stares back into you.” I’d rather see nazis and white supremacists re-educated rather than elected to high office, or any office at all.
I’m not a “progressive” but I believe that who you love is your business, though you should feel free to sing your love aloud from the highest bridge. Love is rare and I celebrate yours.
I’m not a “progressive” but I believe in consent. Not just regarding sex, but that’s a great place to start. Do not reach over and grab sushi from someone else’s geta, or grab at their pussy, or manipulate them, or drug them into a coma, or use your position as a faculty-member; this is a long list, so just: don’t do it.
I’m not a “progressive” but I don’t define what your idea of ‘sex’ even is. That’s up to you because it’s not my decision, unless you invite me into your process somehow.
I’m not a “progressive” but I don’t believe in fake democracies. So I’m not going to browbeat you about whether or not you should vote for one fake candidate over another.
I’m not a “progressive” but I believe in revolutions. Sometimes you need to make a bunch of aristocrats remember what fear of the mob feels like; it’s the only way to get them to stop parading around in their mega-yachts and building rape-palaces.
I’m not a “progressive” but I believe violence is not a very good solution to any but an extremely rare set of problems. I also believe we should be working to make those problems rarer and rarer.
I am not a “progressive” but sometimes I still make macaroni and put ketchup on it when I am feeling lazy.
I’m not a “progressive” but I worry that Malthus was right and in a world where we’re overheating it with carbon dioxide emissions, our planetary carrying capacity could be reduced by several billion. Unfortunately, those several billion will be mostly in poorer countries, so they will not be able to come express their anger at the Koch brothers and Exxon management, or Donald Trump, when they start to die.
I think that’s enough to illustrate my point; the surface of the stick. Perhaps you, dear reader, are a “progressive” and you noticed an item or two on my list that made you flinch. If we were trying to be “progressives” together, then one or the other of us would have to anathematize the other – to throw them out of this little Movement of The Two of us. [Aka: a waltz] I’m not saying “let’s agree to disagree, either” – that’s also manipulative language of power: “let me decide what matters between us and what does not.” I’m saying ‘let us choose our battles carefully’. Because there are some disagreements that might be resolvable and others over which we could draw knives and choose to die. Because I’m not a “progressive.” I doubt there’s such a thing.
Do not fear the nihilist, because the nihilist viewpoint is the endpoint of skepticism. Remember that when ethicists try to build systems of morality, they like to start by trying to build from nothing; i.e.: nihilism, and then build upward from there. It appears to me that most of them try to cheat and sneak unfounded assertions into the foundations of their systems; they should not fool you. Nietzsche was one of the greatest of the dealers in unfounded assertions, but damn he did it well, and he should be honored for saying the important things that needed to be said at his time: “God is Dead.” I’m not a “progressive” but that statement unlocks a lot of things we might think of as “progressive values.” If god is dead, the “divine right of kings” turns monarchs into Instagram influencers; they have no weight aside from the weight of their followers. If god is dead, then corporate fat cats are just lucky or rapacious, except for the ones that are both; we should not put them on pedestals as “philanthropists” for donating 2% of their wealth to a museum or a golf course. We should ask them why they don’t flip the numbers around and give 2% to their worthless frog-spawn and 98% to the needy? We should ask them why they still want to cut social programs for the poor, every time they claim they are “self-made” and their wealth was earned. If god is dead, we reject the main framework of the social order, which is repression. The nihilist also rejects the “cult of me” i.e.: libertarianism. If you look at libertarianism, it’s based on the same unfounded nonsense as the “gospel of wealth” and American propaganda about individual accomplishment: “don’t tax me or the real estate that I ethnically cleansed the natives off of, or the money I made by exploiting my workers.” We know, you stole it fair and square.
Being a nihilist is not just liberating; it’s tiring. Unless you want to be a Nietzschean ubermensch, you may find yourself questioning your own beliefs: how are they constructed? How do you defend your choices? Since god is dead, you must either ignore the burden of figuring things out, or shoulder it yourself. If you find yourself becoming a nihilist you may find yourself bemused by christians – they accept some dead old guys’ lies about morality, which, in itself, is incredibly lazy and probably cannot result in a set of useful ethics. And perhaps you’ll feel the same way about the “dictionary atheists.” Really, are your views so simple and circumscribed that you label yourself from a book someone else wrote? That sounds oddly familiar. The labels are everywhere, and they are all empty: oh, you’re a “humanist”? Is that like a “human supremacist?” Have you considered that other animals, our cousins, have feelings too? If you have to make your decisions based on your own other beliefs, and are seeking consistency and self-honesty, how can you walk around saying your atheism is circumscribed by a mere dictionary?
Lastly, I am not a “progressive” because I think that many who carry that banner are weak and do not understand politics. I don’t want to get into anathematizing people and throwing them off of my bandwagon but I don’t think that there is a real “progressive” on the Democrat ticket; they’re part of the machinery of oppression, they’re just waving the flags of “hope and change” as a way of suckering in votes, like Obama did. It is with regard to the Democrat party that I am most inclined to reject the label of “progressive” – those horrible manipulative jackasses have tried to suborn that label so they can use it to manipulate the other half of the ignorant American public. I mention this as a warning to those who want to use that label on themselves: look at what Donald Trump has done to the label ‘conservative’; that is your future, “progressives.”*
If you have any questions about my politics, I will answer them in the comment section. Please don’t be too rough on me about the ketchup and pasta thing. Sometimes I’m too tired to cook good food.
* Fortunately, those drums have fallen silent, but do you remember the brief attempt to trot out yet another Kennedy descendant as a Democrat candidate? In case you want a measurement of how stupid the Democrat party thinks their constituents are, that’s a yard-stick for you. The divine right of aristocratic blood is dead, damn it. Ask Fred.