Why is it that poor Americans might vote against their apparent economic self-interest and pull the lever for a candidate like Mitt Romney? Jonathan Haidt, whose work explores the psychology of political and religious division, has a message for liberals: Conservatives understand how to speak to voters' moral concerns. Liberals, concludes Haidt, author of this year's The Righteous Mind, just don't get it.
A leading member of a new generation of psychologists applying the insights of evolutionary theory to morality, Haidt argues that we form political opinions not through simple reasoning but based on moral preferences humans have developed to reinforce ties to larger groups or tribes. He identifies six values that form the baseline of any moral system: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Using experiments, ethnographies, and surveys of tens of thousands of people around the world, he demonstrates that both left- and right-leaning people respond positively to the first three values, though the left-leaning place greater emphasis on care and fairness. Conservatives, meanwhile, emphasize loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Both groups value liberty but consider it threatened by different oppressors. The right wing, Haidt posits, simply has a greater number of moral taste buds. Arriving in a year marked by unprecedented political polarization in the United States and elsewhere, Haidt's book offers a psychological explanation for the partisan divide. By stepping back and dispassionately examining the deeper origin of our disunion, he also offers hope that we can achieve something more -- a wisdom that transcends brute moral emotions.
Reading list: It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein; The Mind and the Market, by Jerry Muller; The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker. Best idea: Paul Romer's charter cities. Start new cities with good norms and institutions, rather than trying to change old and corrupt ones. American decline or American renewal? Decline for a while, until we can reboot our institutions and efficiency and reduce corruption and cronyism. More Europe or less? Less. Europe does not have a strong enough shared identity to manage a union among unequals. If the weaker nations drop out, a Europe of wealthy and efficient equals can survive. To tweet or not to tweet? Tweet. It's a normal human reaction to want to share interesting and useful information. I see it as a public good.
Few issues are as contentious as Israel's policies toward the Palestinian territories, and few debates are as heated as that over the role of America's Jewish lobby in enabling those policies. Peter Beinart, former editor of the New Republic, took on both this year with his explicitly controversial new book, The Crisis of Zionism.
Heralded as "brave" by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (No. 34) and blurbed by Bill Clinton (No. 3), who called it a "deeply important book for anyone who cares about Israel," The Crisis of Zionism offers a powerful critique of both Israel's occupation of the West Bank and the American Jewish establishment's willingness to go along -- an especially pointed critique in the midst of a U.S. election year that once again saw politicians in both parties rushing headlong to profess their reflexive defense of Israeli policies. At its heart, The Crisis of Zionism is a plea to resurrect what Beinart calls the "liberal Zionist dream" -- a progressive democratic state that's also capable of safeguarding the Jewish people -- against the rise of the Israeli far right, which, aided and abetted by Jewish leaders in the United States, has slowly pushed Israel toward a de facto one-state solution.
The Crisis of Zionism not only shines a much-needed spotlight on Israel's hard-right turn, but it may also prove a bellwether for shifting American attitudes toward the Jewish state. Beinart's call for moral vigilance marks the rise of a new generation of American Jews who are unwilling to support Israel blindly. It's unclear if this cadre of young intellectuals can change this bedrock assumption of American politics, but if Beinart's book is any indication, they're going to ruffle a few feathers trying.
In September, when deadly riots swept across the globe following the release of the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims, the seriousness of the charge of "blasphemy" became starkly clear. In Egypt, for instance, there were calls for an anti-blasphemy clause in the country's new constitution, and observers were outraged when officials in Pakistan arrested a 14-year-old Christian girl under the country's blasphemy laws, widely used to persecute religious minorities. It will take people like Sana Saleem, a 25-year-old activist and blogger in Pakistan who is waging her own private campaign against government censorship, to push back.
In February, Pakistan solicited proposals for a "URL Filtering and Blocking System" -- a system reminiscent of that in authoritarian China next door that could allow the government to block unwanted websites en masse. Saleem, founder of the Karachi-based anti-censorship group Bolo Bhi, which means "speak up," decided to fight the proposal, the latest in a series of moves by Islamabad to curb free speech. Saleem reached out to executives at international companies, asking them not to participate in building Pakistan's firewall. Despite threats and offensive taunts on Twitter, Saleem and her partners eventually shamed the government into shelving the proposal. She is still fighting for an official court injunction.
As she wrote in April on her blog, Mystified Justice, "When a state embroils its citizens in an 'either you are with us or against us' argument every dissent is at risk of being equated to treason -- or in an Islamic country, blasphemy." As an increasingly networked world butts heads with the historical forces of obscurantism and discrimination, we'll need savvy activists like Saleem to defend everyone's right to free speech online -- even, or especially, if we don't like what's being said.
Reading list: The Moslems Are Coming: Encounters with a Desktop Terrorist, by Azad Essa; The New Rulers of the World, by John Pilger; Consent of the Networked, by Rebecca MacKinnon. Best idea: (Last year, but still unmatched): raiding an office used for spying on civilians, reclaiming your private data, and exposing the criminals. The Egyptian people, this one's for you. Worst idea: Pakistan advertising its plans to censor 20 million people. American decline or American renewal? #OccupyWallStreet. More Europe or less? More Europeans in Pakistan. To tweet or not to tweet? Think before you tweet.