08/22/2010 08:51 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The 'Ground Zero Mosque' and the Politics of Manipulation

The Myth of Freedom -- and An Alternative to the Battle of the Mosque

Right-wing protesters are out in force, attacking the proposed "Ground Zero mosque" as an insult to American freedoms. Left-wing protesters are countering them, supporting the mosque as a symbol of our religious liberties.

But both sides being "played" -- first by political manipulators for the dominant political parties jockeying for advantage this November, and second, by the terrorists who took down the World Trade Center in the first place.

There is an alternative -- an approach that meets the legitimate concerns of both the right and left, without rewarding the demagogues pitting them against one another.

Clearly, little could be more satisfying to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden than to have Americans fighting over a mosque near their hallowed "Ground Zero." If the mosque's opponents win, al Qaeda can appeal to angry young recruits with this fresh evidence that the U.S. is the enemy of all Islam. If its supporters win, al Qaeda will no doubt point to this as evidence that they are penetrating American hearts and minds.

Of course, it is all a charade. The real play here is for votes. Strategists for both parties could care less whether a mosque is built -- they want their bases mobilized for domestic political war. The mosque is a symbol they are using to manipulate their true believers.

That raises a fundamental question: How many of our political views are genuine? How many are simply instinctive? Do we really have political freedom-of-thought, or is it largely an illusion? And what is the danger of a political process dominated by impulsive group-think?

In every aspect of our lives, most of our preferences, opinions, and choices are impulsive. Very few are the result of conscious thought and selection. Of the 10,000 activities your body is engaged in at any moment -- from taking in and letting out a breath to visually scanning your environment for relevant information -- well over 99% are entirely unconscious. Your unconscious delivers most of your choices as fait accompli: the people and faces you are attracted to and repelled by, the activities you find enticing or repellent, the ideas you find agreeable or preposterous.

Even your political opinions are mostly automatic, shaped by a chaotic mix of genes and experiences, most having nothing to do with the issues at hand. Seldom if ever do you challenge your impulse-based opinions. By "you," I don't mean someone else. I am thinking specifically of you. Even the you that is me.

The self-certainty of political activists across the spectrum is my Exhibit #1. How many are gray in their political outlook? The vast majority either defend or condemn Barack Obama, George W. Bush, liberals, conservatives, Muslims, Christians, Tea Partiers, and Fox News hosts. Yet, except for Fox News hosts, none of these groups are uniformly evil, corrupt, or wrong -- all reflect, imperfectly, underlying values that have merit.

Opponents of the mosque associate "Islamic" with "terrorists" and can't imagine how Americans could reward their enemies with territory acquired through battle. Supporters of the mosque associate it with religious freedom and tolerance, precisely those American qualities the terrorists sought to vanquish. Few are willing to consider the powerful emotions that dictate the passions of the other. They simply react.

Our hyper-distracting lifestyles make the problem worse. The more immersed we are in external stimuli -- tweets, emails, car radios, billboards, TV sets, tabloids, websites, DVDs, candy for the eyes, ears, skin, and tongue -- the less we exercise conscious choice over our opinions, political or otherwise. Like human billiard balls, we just ricochet from impulse to impulse.

The kind of "freedom" we most often express is this automatic, unconscious kind. And for some advocates of freedom -- mostly, the unconscious ideologues -- this is all they want. They believe there is wisdom in our impulses -- that society as a whole advances if we are left free to follow our impulses -- to acquire sex, food, and property, to protect our families and kill our enemies, as we desire.

There is wisdom in that. Our impulses are overwhelmingly weighted toward those activities that -- even if they impose great costs at the local and individual level -- perpetuate the species. If men are obsessively driven to plant their seed, if women are obsessively driven to acquire a powerful protector for their children, if all of us are driven to pursue sweet, salty, and fatty things to eat, then -- at least over the long term -- the species will survive and perhaps flourish.

So, viewed from this long-term perspective, freedom to follow one's impulses is a good thing - not always for the individual or his or her family, perhaps, but at least for the society and species as a whole.

But there is a different kind of freedom that I value more highly: freedom of thought and action -- and responsibility for the consequences. I have found that, to the extent I have been able to set aside certain automatic, impulsive choices, and invite my mind to more consciously weigh the options in front of me, I can make choices that are more satisfying for me, more beneficial for my family and communities, and of more lasting value to life.

That's not because my conscious choices are better than my impulsive ones. Indeed, given a choice between the two, I might choose to be controlled by my impulses, since they are time-tested and crudely effective. My conscious choices are limited by my pathetically narrow base of knowledge and experience.

But the value of conscious choice is that, when we exercise it in a relatively free society, we directly experience the consequences. We get feedback. This feedback is a teaching instrument, which leads us to refine our choices and make better ones over time. We learn, and we improve.

Some people -- in my mind, these are the ideologues of the freedom movement -- act as if this feedback is automatic, complete, and practically infallible. Their view of freedom is based on the rational thought model: We take an action, we experience the full consequences -- the gain and the pain -- and we change our behavior to maximize the gain and minimize the pain.

But this flawed view does more to undermine than to support the cause of freedom.

Our "free choices" are dominated by the influence of what I have called "Concentrated Attractors" -- signals that trigger us to default straight to sudden, impulsive decisions, bypassing any conscious decision-making processes. These attractors deliver fully-formed decisions to our conscious minds, and literally before we know it, we have already begun take the indicated actions.

For example, our impulses "know" -- based on millions of years of conditioning -- that sweet things come packed with energy and nutrients, that salty and fatty things contain proteins and minerals, that large bosoms signal a woman who can bear and nourish a child, that bulging muscles identify a man stronger and better able to protect a family or a community.

They also "know" how to immediately choose who is "us" and who is "them" -- who is a part of our tribe, and helps support us, and who is from the competing tribe, and may want to kill us.

So when parades of sugary drinks, fatty chips, salty processed foods, sexually "enhanced" women and steroid-studded men are paraded before us, the accumulated wisdom of all life on earth tells us that we should choose them.

When TV news shows in the Muslim world show New Yorkers angrily protesting a mosque -- and when American TV news shows Muslims chanting "death to America" in response -- we each impulsively know which tribe is the opposing one.

In a similar way, TV sitcoms draw our primitive brains into fictional "relationships," instead of real Friends and genuinely desperate Housewives. Tabloids lure us into detached gossip, and divert us from the dramas in our real lives. Augmented body parts and over-sized bank accounts attract men and women, despite their better judgment, to partners who don't actually offer them the fecundity, security, or integrity that they truly crave.

Everyone succumbs to concentrated attractors. Our economy, and many of our most successful companies, are founded on them. And there is nothing wrong with this -- if we understand and limit the power of these triggers.

The problem is, by concentrating the attractors only, we squeeze out most of the good stuff that used to accompany them. Sugary, fatty, and salty foods have few of the nutrients they promise. Sex and power-manipulating men and women make for shallow, underdeveloped mothers and fathers. Sitcoms don't substitute for actual friends, families, and communities.

Similarly, it's important to know that we have enemies. But it's dangerous when our true enemies harness our impulses to direct our anger toward the innocent, in a cynical drive to gain power. When millions of right and left wing ideologues can be easily manipulated -- by party strategists on the one hand, and terrorist extremists on the other -- to battle against one another in order to advance political agendas they all oppose, then the real cause of freedom suffers.

It takes enormous self-awareness and discipline to change our minds once impulse-driven decisions have been delivered to us. Any addict can testify to this: No matter how deeply they recognize the damage they are doing to themselves with food, drugs, and other self-destructive behaviors, they still "decide" to take the actions. They have to catch themselves, and change their own minds -- a process that requires practice, patience, persistence, and the support of family, friends, and the community.

In the world of political power, it takes enormous effort for each of us to set aside our group prejudices -- about Presidents Obama and Bush, about liberals and conservatives, about Christians and Muslims and Jews and even Fox News -- and make thoughtful judgments. But unless we do, we will fall prey to the manipulators that use our impulses for their own ends.

Taking choice entirely away, even from the addict, is no solution. But neither is immersing ourselves in a sea of uninterrupted triggers and temptations -- ultimately, each individual needs to have the space to develop the self-discipline to control his or her impulses, in a social and cultural environment that reinforces and rewards healthy behavior.

In other words: Concentrated Attractors should neither be banned nor blessed. They need to be forcefully counteracted, so that people learn about the consequences of their choices and are free to make them, as long as they pay for them.

In the political marketplace, that means that we need a powerful third force -- a radical centrist movement that rejects the passion but respects the wisdom behind the impulses of the right and left, and unites with either or both as necessary to advance smart, integrated decisions.

A radical centrist movement would force the mosque debate onto higher ground, by proposing an alternative: say, a Museum of Religious Tolerance and Intolerance, to support and yet transcend the genuine concerns of both the left and right.

A transpartisan "radical middle" need not gain the support of the majority. By positioning itself in the center of the political spectrum, it can provide the margin of victory, forcing candidates and causes to appeal to the sensible center, not the ideological extremes.