The world is subtle... and that's why it's beautiful

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
July 9 2010 7:30 AM

The world is subtle... and that's why it's beautiful

Any time I post my political thoughts on this blog, inevitably someone in the comments or on Twitter will accuse me of being a far-left nut. I typically ignore people like that, because it's clear to me that they are not capable of understanding what I've actually written, and in their mind, and in these hyperpartisan times, anyone who isn't a far-right neocon must perforce be some sort of commie or socialist.

In reality, my own thinking on political and social issues is more subtle. I am in many ways an individual libertarian (I think people should have far more personal freedom than they do in this country), a social liberal (I think one of the many roles of government is to help those who cannot help themselves, and to do what individuals and corporations cannot do or cannot be trusted to do), and a governmental conservative (in the actual sense of the old party; I want a government that is big enough to do what it needs to do and no bigger).

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  


I also understand that ideas sometimes have boundaries in practice.

Freedoms are tricky things. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. The old adage saying "Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose" is wrong and dumb; in fact the act of swinging your fist at all is a threat. I want a government that'll help when it's needed, but won't when it's not, because I know that a lot of people will take advantage of a government that is set up to help them.

I know our economy should have the freedom it needs to grow. But I also know it needs to be regulated because people are greedy, and people with nearly unlimited power and resources will sometimes spectacularly abuse that power to the detriment of the country and the planet.

I loathe the idea of killing, but I know that there are bad guys out there, and we need a strong military to keep them at bay.

I hate paying taxes. But I love our highway system, clean water, and space exploration.

I think that people have the right to defend themselves, their family, their property... and that's why they have the right to bear arms. But I also know that many people aren't wise enough and emotionally stable enough to own a gun, and that's why I don't think everyone has the right to bear every arm.

I think that everyone has the right to speak their mind. But I think many loud voices right now belong to hateful, mean, bigoted, small-minded hypocrites who will say anything to get themselves noticed or to push their agenda. I also know they all have the right, the freedom to say the terrible things they do. But I have the right -- and we all have the duty -- to counter their speech with our own voices.

So what do we do?

We need to teach people to think. To understand that there are balances in life, nuances, corollaries to decisions.

When I watch TV news, read political opinions online, and listen to our politicians, what I hear are low resolution ideas, chunky things that this way or that way, no in-between, with big thick impenetrable borders around each part.

But when I look around I see things being rich, diverse, subtle, poetic, minuscule, vast. I don't subscribe to any particular ism, but look over the issues as they come, dig into my personal values and unholster my critical thinking, and come to each conclusion one at a time -- though based on previous experience. Conclusions are not independent of one another.

The world I see is gloriously complex. It's layered, with subtleties interacting with other subtleties, forcing decisions to be more difficult for me to make but more important once made, making the path more treacherous for me to walk but more satisfying to me once the journey is underway, making the view more of a struggle for me to understand but more awe-inspiring and world-changing once I do understand it.

The world I see is not black and white. No amount of shouting, no amount of name-calling, no amount of insults, no amount of spin, lies, distortion, sniping, negativity, or propaganda will change that.

Here's how they see things:


Here's how things really are:


The decision is yours. Which world do you want to live in?

Image credit: T.A. Rector/University of Alaska Anchorage, H. Schweiker/WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF


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