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Thursday, May 26, 2005

Binary myopia

A frequent response to my essay was summed up by a reader who wrote to say: "So, you've said goodbye to the left. But you didn't say where you've gone instead. By definition, the only other alternative to staying on the left or going further left, is to head in the opposite direction. No thanks; I have no interest in hanging out with Dick Cheney and Tom Delay." It's an excellent point, and one that my essay didn't address. The piece ran right up against the word limit that the San Francisco Chronicle allows. If I could do it all over again, I would have implored my editor to let me run a little bit longer, so I could speak to the important question of "life after the left." It's a subject I intend to address soon at length, but I'm eager to offer a few thoughts straight away, since many readers raised the same point. Imagine a light switch, a classic binary system. It's got to be either on or off. You can do your best to toggle the switch in the middle, but even if the switch does seem to be at the exact midpoint, the light is going to be on, or off. Can't be on and off at the same time. Using binary logic — "two choices only" — my correspondent is correct. Leaving the left does seem to require moving right.
L ——————>———>———————————————R
But who said politics has to take place in a binary universe limited to two choices? There's another option entirely. It's called: leaving the left/right line altogether. Most people have no idea how free they are to leap off the left-right continuum at any time — free to start making political decisions unfettered by assumptions about what's consistent with fixed notions of right and left.
X ^
^
^
L ————————————————————————R
Taking that leap, escaping the gravity of the left-right baseline, doesn’t involve abandoning principal. It becomes possible to act on conviction in light of a fuller, more integral perspective. In bidding farewell to a political affiliation that no longer seems vital, it's not necessary to take out a membership card in a new ideology. What matters is knowing what you value, honoring what you knowing, and staying open to finding new allies in unexpected quarters. "X" in the graphic indicates someone who has leaped off the left/right line. I envision the post-leap environment as similar to the experience of astronauts in space: floating, able to move around in new ways. The "X" above is fixed in one place, near the centerpoint. If I knew how to use Flash technology, Person X would be seen moving back and forth from left to right — to indicate not wildly shifting political sentiments but simply the capacity to borrow from both left and right, depending on the issue. A person who has stepped off the line (interesting, how often we're told to "get back in line" and "line up") — a "transpartisan" person — might choose to gravitate more toward one pole or the other, on most issues. The main point: freedom to move beyond prescribed political categories. What I'm describing is not the same as traditional bipartisanship, which sometimes seems to be a good thing because bipartisans spend a lot of time reminding us how good and virtuous they are because they are cooperating rather than fighting. The alternative I'm describing might better be termed "transpartisanship." It's a rather awkward term, and it reminds me of Thoreau's counsel to "Beware of all activities that require new clothes." I think the same generally applies to new words. That said, the idea is fairly simple, at least conceptually. Trans means "across, over, beyond." Or we could play with "metapartisan," since the prefix meta generally indicates "more fundamental or comprehensive." But of course it's not a new word we need, but a new way of thinking. These musings aren't meant to be comprehensive, but suggestive. And my main point, to repeat, is that only in a binary political cosmos is "If not left, then right" logically necessary. For instance, one can choose to embrace ideas more commonly discussed on the right than the left these days, such as self-responsibility, while still remaining a Democrat. Especially Democrats who hope to start winning elections again.