A Confession (of sorts) and a Radical’s Lament

Radical: Derived from the Latin radix, which literally means the root or base. In political terms it means penetrating beyond conventional explanations and getting at the root cause of a problem.

In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag puzzled over people who still express surprise about all the suffering in the world at human hands. She wrote, “No one after a certain age has the right to this kind of innocence, of superficiality, to this degree of ignorance, or amnesia.” I would amend Sontag’s indictment to include people who’ve been afforded the luxury of time, resources and access to information that allows them to grasp how the world actually works — but fail to do so.

After being criticized by an opponent for changing his mind about a firmly held opinion, the iconoclastic British political economist J. M. Keynes reputedly replied, “When information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, Sir?” Keynes voraciously pursued information, new evidence upon which to test his opinions.

Of course, we can’t know more than we’ve been exposed to and some new information is almost impenetrably complex. But that’s rarely the stumbling block on many topics. In the past I’ve harbored a host of conventional opinions. Here are only a few: Defending indefensible aspects of the former USSR, evidence-free opinions about “human nature,” staunchly defending the Democratic Party (including being president of my college’s Young Democrats), socially constructed sexist attitudes, believing the U.S. was a democracy, and being (very) tardy in recognizing that most college professors neither practice nor encourage genuine critical thinking.

I only revised my thinking after being exposed to new information, to new ways of thinking. Often it was the result of serendipitous encounters with morally-grounded, truth-seeking teachers, scholars, novelists, playwrights. artists, scientists and family members. At other times, contact with social and labor activists or exposure to another culture played a role. I’ve been grateful for whatever agents prompted this search, a practice I hope to continue for as long as I remain a sentient being.

When it comes to how our capitalist system operates, the learning curve is not a steep one. A curious, honest, and reasonably alert high school junior could easily grasp the essentials. However, it’s my sense that for many individuals this learning curve has flat-lined after flirting with some ineffectual liberal tinkering, leaving these folks “comfortably numb” and in a state of arrested political/economic development.  Is this because new information about politics and economics is too threatening? That too many previously held assumptions would be called into question?  That it might create unacceptable tension with family, friends and associates? Do the personal gains from embracing neoliberalism mandate neither extending the bounds of empathy to those victimized by domestic and global capitalism nor contemplating the possibility that this system can’t be “reformed” into a humane one?

Finally, nothing I’ve written above should be taken as a personal attack on anyone. That interpretation would be counterproductive to my desire to open a candid, long overdue conversation on this sensitive topic.

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. He can be reached at: olsong@moravian.edu. Read other articles by Gary.