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The Tea Party's Sacred Cows and the Privilege of Absurdity

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The irrationality of Sacred Cows, for better or worse, changes history's direction and the configuration of human destiny.

The Tea Party believes religiously in one thing: American prosperity and power depends on fiscal (rather than social) health. In this worldview, going into default and being forced into austerity measures can actually strengthen the balance sheet, as in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, which is considered by the group more important for the long-term health of the country than short-term problems faced in the debt debate. No bull.

Recent research into seemingly intractable conflicts indicates that, for better or worse, radical movements that have attempted revolutionary changes in society do truly act on what they believe to be their sacred values -- core moral principles that resist and often clash with rational calculations. Once locked into sacred values there is a denial of the validity of opposing positions no matter how logically or empirically well-founded. Market fundamentalism -- irrational belief in the rational wisdom of the market -- is one case that Nobel laureate Danny Kahneman and financial analyst Nassim Taleb have debunked.

Congressional Tea Party holdouts against raising America's deficit ceiling behave as if any compromise on the issue would violate a sacred commitment to honor the Founding Fathers' wishes that government be as disentangled from people's personal lives (and from foreign adventures) as much as the defense of their physical safety allows. This "existential" commitment is a rebellion against "the tyranny of government," symbolized by increasing taxation. They believe their way will buck the republic's historical trend over the last 235 years toward larger government, and ultimately produce a leaner, downscaled federal authority despite almost certain immediate damage to America's economy and power.

The Tea Party's mantra of fiscal austerity, underscored by populist rejection of "scientific pinheads" (typified by the "hoax" of global climate warming), also willfully ignores a century of economic data worldwide that shows that belt-tightening in a time of high unemployment and anemic growth generally leads to higher unemployment and less growth that can readily tip into recession, and even risk depression. That, in turn, can require even greater deficit spending to prevent economic meltdown and the social and political chaos that goes with it. True, Chapter 11 proceedings can sometimes work to rehabilitate personal or company finances to economic health, as it did with General Motors because of assistance from the federal government that the Tea Party opposed. But default and downgrade is extremely unlikely to do the same for the world's largest economy or global markets unless, as with European Union assistance to Greece, China and the world's other large economies unite to bail out America -- a remote prospect.

Models of rational behavior predict many of society's patterns, such as favored strategies for maximizing profit or likelihood for criminal behavior in terms of "opportunity costs." But seemingly irrational behaviors like intractable ideological conflicts, wars and revolutions -- in which the measurable risks and costs often far outweigh immediate or likely benefits -- appear to defy such prediction. For example, historical sleuthing by sociologist Rodney Stark suggests that early Christianity spread to become the majority religion in the Roman Empire through "irrational" costly displays such as martyrdom and charity -- including risking death by caring for sick non-Christians during epidemics. Early Christians were willing to sacrifice their lives for faith in a doubtful future that their sacrifice eventually secured against all odds.

Unlike other creatures, humans form the groups to which they belong in abstract terms. Often they make their greatest exertions and sacrifices not in order to preserve their own lives or their family, but for the sake of an idea -- the conception they have formed of themselves, of "who we are." This is the "the privilege of absurdity to which no living creature is subject, but man only'" of which Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan. In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin deemed it "moral virtue," with which winning tribes are better endowed in history's spiraling competition for survival and dominance.

My research with colleagues, supported by the National Science Foundation and Department of Defense, indicates that the prospect of crippling economic burdens or huge numbers of deaths doesn't necessarily sway people from their positions on the moral virtue of going to war, or opting for revolution or resistance. In seemingly intractable situations of intergroup conflict, "sacred values" appear to operate as moral imperatives that defy the cost-benefit logic of realpolitik or the marketplace, and generate actions all out of proportion to their probable results, "because it is the right thing to do, whatever the consequences."

For example, regardless of the utilitarian calculations of terror-sponsoring organizations, our research indicates that al-Qaeda-inspired suicide terrorists appear to act as "devoted actors," who are willing to make extreme sacrifices that use a "logic of appropriateness," as terrorism analyst Bruce Hoffman puts it, rather than a calculus of probable costs and benefits. We also have suggestive evidence from neuroimaging studies designed by Gregory Berns' team at Emory University, that people tend to process sacred values in parts of the brain that are devoted to rule-bound behavior rather than utilitarian calculation of costs and benefits.

Commitment, or lack of commitment, to sacred values can be key to the success or failure of insurgent or revolutionary movements with far fewer material means than the armies or police arrayed against them (which tend to operate more on the basis of typical "rational" reward structures, such as calculated prospects of increased pay or promotion). Consider the American revolutionaries who, defying the greatest empire of the age, pledged "our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor" in the cause of "Liberty or Death," where the desired outcome was highly doubtful.

No reasonable study of human history up to the time of the American Revolution would have supported the outlandish Declaration of Independence that "we are endowed by our Creator" with "inalienable rights" including "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Slavery, cannibalism, infanticide, racism and the subordination of women are vastly more prevalent across cultures and over the course of history. It wasn't inevitable or even reasonable that conceptions of freedom and equality should emerge, much less prevail among genetic strangers. These, when combined with faith and imagination, were originally legitimized by their transcendent "sacredness."

The decision of the American colonies to unite in a Declaration of Independence from Great Britain was never a slam dunk. As late as May 1776, notes historian William Hogeland, support for separation was still largely restricted to "Boston extremists," egged on by the likes of Samuel and John Adams in popular and raucous town meetings, and backed by a few well-heeled Virginians, like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Only when Pennsylvania's property-less artisans and laborers were convinced that by siding with the "extremists" they could obtain political rights and position did the populous mid-Atlantic colonies follow and move for independence.

In 1776, Americans had the highest material standard of living in the world but resented control by a distant power that many felt did not fairly represent them. Britain sent the largest naval armada of the 18th century (30,000 men) against New York (20,000 inhabitants), and initially bloodied Washington's army to a pulp. At the end of the year, revolutionary forces were starving, and the remnants were beginning to return to their homes. Eye-witness reports of the day indicate that Washington saved the fledgling republic with an evidently sincere appeal to a higher moral calling: "You will render that service to the cause of liberty which you can probably never do under any other circumstances."

As Osama Hamdan, the ranking Hamas politburo member for external affairs, put it to me in Damascus: "George Washington was fighting the strongest military in the world, beyond all reason. That's what we're doing. Exactly." And our research indicates that Hamas supporters and Israeli settlers alike do truly believe that they will win provided they do not surrender, or even negotiate, sacred principles like the right of return of their people to their ancestral homes and land or having Jerusalem as their national capital.

Yet, risking one's life in commitment to a different set of sacred, transcendental principles is also a sentiment of many young Muslims in Tunisia, Egypt and across the Arab world. In self-conscious alignment with Martin Luther King and his followers, they preach non-violence as a sacred principle of the "Arab Spring" to achieve ends of the sort epitomized in America's Declaration of Independence and Yemen's Youth Revolutionary Council call for: "basic human rights, equality, justice, freedom of speech, freedom of demonstration, and freedom of dreams!" The outcome of their struggle is far from certain, however, in part because others oppose them who are strongly committed to theocracy and the sacred value of religious law.

Because people hold sacred values to be absolute and inviolable, any symbolic "concession" must not appear to violate or weaken one's own sacred values. Doing so would likely be seen as forsaking core personal and social identity. How then to "negotiate" an end to conflict where sacred values clash?

My research with psychologists Jeremy Ginges, Douglas Medin and colleagues on the Israel-Palestine conflict and the nuclear standoff with Iran indicates that offers of material incentives or disincentives ("carrots or sticks") often backfire, as does name-calling. Fortunately, other research with political scientist Robert Axelrod also hints at a more optimistic course through "reframing." For example, Jerusalem may be religiously considered to be less a place than a portal to heaven, so that open access to the portal rather than strict territorial control is sufficient here on earth.

The opportunities for reframing issues that involve sacred values arise from the fact that their core content is often open-textured, especially if they involve religious values, which survive in time and spread in space because they are readily reinterpretable in ways that are sensitive to changing contexts. What often makes values incompatible is the way they are applied to the here and now. While values can be held firmly, their application depends a good deal on how they are understood, and what they are taken to imply, and the interpretations and applications of sacred values are not always fixed and inflexible

Take the biblical commandment "Thou shalt not kill." Many U.S. conservatives believe it warrants both an antiabortion agenda and capital punishment, whereas many U.S. liberals consider this commandment to warrant abolition of capital punishment and a pro-choice agenda. American leaders who seek election or to govern from the center must learn to finesse seemingly contrary interpretations of sacred values in creative ways.

Even for Tea Party adherents the bottom-line principle of "cut and cap," which explicitly precludes any tax increase, could be reframed to allow selective "tax reform" and "closing of tax loopholes" to increase tax revenue without apparent contradiction. Indeed, freshmen congressional Republicans have been holding prayer sessions to help work through the possibilities without forsaking the sacred value of fiscal responsibility for the sake of the nation's children. (So far Providence still seems to countenance "no compromise," but most allow that that they may not be privy to His final intent). In sacred conflicts, careful attention to reframing, rewording and reinterpretation can be fruitful avenues for conflict resolution. These are not just "word games" but surprisingly effective ways to end seemingly intractable conflicts.

Over the long-run, however, it is irrational commitment to improbable dreams that got us out of the caves, made civilizations possible, propelled competition and cooperation among larger and larger groups of genetic strangers, and created the concept of Rights. It's the willingness of at least some to give their full measure of devotion to the imaginary that makes the imaginary real, a waking dream -- and for others, a waking nightmare. It is humankind's sacred privilege in an otherwise uncaring universe.

Scott Atran, an anthropologist at France's National Center for Scientific Research, the University of Michigan and John Jay College, is the author of Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood and the (Un)Making of Terrorists.