Twists and Turns of Principles

Sometime soon I’m hoping to review the book Reinventing Knowledge, which I read recently and think academic librarians might find engaging, plus I want to offer a critique of this blog post from a new blog at Inside Higher Education written my my friend and colleague Mary George. But in a few days I start teaching my writing seminar on justice, and I can’t shake the concern with political rhetoric and, for that matter, justice itself.

I guess my post on the Counter-Enlightenment had no effect, since the reactionary Yahoos left their town meetings and stormed Washington, holding up signs comparing President Obama to Hitler and other fun things. I read in one news account that someone had a sign offering Obama a "free ticket back to Kenya." One of Lincoln’s desires before the Civil War was to free the slaves and send them to Africa, and it’s interesting to see that things remain the same with some members of the party of Lincoln. From what I could tell of the news accounts, that crowd in DC was very white and male.

The white male reactionaries out there interest me, but for my purposes here I’m disregarding all the loonies and the birthers (including those in Congress) and other conspiracy theorists, since those types make up an extreme portion of any movement. From the left we have David Icke claiming that President Bush (along with Queen Elizabeth and others) is actually a shape-shifting alien reptile who is working secretly to lead us to a New World Order dominated by the reptile aliens. Some very similar theories are now being spun by the right. I guess the only difference is that David Icke propagates his theories in books and videos almost no one pays attention to, whereas Glenn Beck gets a national television show and seems to have his finger firmly on the pulse of irrational populism. But rhetorically, conceptually, and intellectually, they’re quite similar.

From a rhetorical perspective, the events of the past few months have been fascinating. The Yelling Yahoos (and admittedly some of the right who are not Yelling Yahoos) claim that their recent protests are motivated by a concern with the cost of government, the size and scope of government, freedom, and lying Presidents, at least if I’m understanding the claims correctly. These are serious issues that deserve consideration by any concerned citizen. What’s odd is how the same folks showed no such concern when a previous President lied to the American people about Iraq, led the country into an unjustified multi-trillion dollar war, increased the national debt by combining outrageous war expenses with tax cuts for the rich, and increased the scope of government though such things as nationalizing the TSA and the Patriot Act.

My counter-Enlightenment post drew an earnest (and probably non-librarian) reader who tried to persuade me that yelling mobs weren’t really yelling mobs, or that they were yelling mobs but that they were yelling for good reasons, such as their concern with the scope of government and their freedom. But it should be extremely clear to anyone with eyes to see that people who claim to be motivated by principle but who only protest when that principle is compromised by someone of an opposing political party, then they’re not really motivated by principle so much as by partisan politics. Be motivated by partisan politics if you wish, choose your beliefs based on party rather than reason or justice if you must, but please don’t try to persuade others that you’re somehow principled. For some people, freedom’s just another word for not giving a damn about anyone else.

What I find bizarre isn’t that Republicans and reactionaries and others are coming out in force in opposition to President Obama. Democrats and progressives and such came out in some force against President Bush, and sometimes in just as inane and bizarre a fashion as the birthers are attacking Obama. Leftist frothing and hyperventilation at the mention of President Bush was never a pretty sight. I don’t even find it bizarre that they try to appeal to such principles as freedom or honesty or limited government. What I find bizarre is that considering the stances of many of these same people about the War in Iraq or the Patriot Act and other shenanigans of the Bush administration that they expect anyone to take their principled stand seriously, as my earnest commenter expected me to do to his position.

One cannot support the War in Iraq and plausibly claim to be against increasing the size and cost of government or offended by lying politicians. One cannot support the Patriot Act and plausibly claim to be concerned with the scope of government. One can’t cut taxes for the rich and plausibly claim to be concerned with national debt. It doesn’t seem to me that anyone is really opposed to the bogeyman of Big Government, but only what that Big Government might do. Fight a dubious war and disregard the Constitution and human rights in the name of security? Sure, that sounds like fun!. Help poor sick people get health care? Fascist dictatorship! How seriously can we possibly take some of these people?

Democratic politics provide for a turbulent and sometimes violent atmosphere. Such has always been the case. As citizens we should argue and fight, sometimes even protest and shout, for our political beliefs. And I at least can certainly see much to criticize about President Obama’s handling of health care reform (though my criticisms would be different from the reactionaries). But it should be obvious that whatever is motivating the criticisms of the protesters, it is almost certainly not the principles that some of them claim. Appealing to principles only when they support your side doesn’t make one principled, but merely an opportunist, or perhaps what the great conservative Edmund Burke called sophisters and calculators.

There’s no hope for reasoned discussion until the true principles of the disagreement are laid bare, and until the public dialog is no longer driven by Yahoos. Somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen.

9 thoughts on “Twists and Turns of Principles

  1. “Fight a dubious war and disregard the Constitution and human rights in the name of security? Sure, that sounds like fun!. Help poor sick people get health care? Fascist dictatorship! How seriously can we possibly take some of these people?”
    Hasn’t the primacy of national security – understood as gov’t protecting the people from outside threats – always been one of the planks of conservativism? Like, the first principle? And hadn’t politicians been warning of Iraq’s capabilites going back into the 90s (i.e. everyone believed this). And didn’t economically challenged Germany start to eliminate its own “life unworthy of life” before it started attacking people? And if so, so why are you so surprised by all of this?
    Not defending the crap that you mention, just asking some tough questions.

  2. Nathan, I think I take issue only with the “everyone believed this.” I never believed Iraq was a threat against the United States, and the reason I didn’t is because absolutely no credible evidence was offered to persuade me. In the months leading up to Iraq, what I noticed wasn’t an attempt to prove Iraq a threat, but that the reasons for invading Iraq kept changing. It seemed to me at the time, and in hindsight seems even more obvious, that President Bush just wanted to invade Iraq and kept coming up with reasons until one of them (the WMD hypothesis) stuck with a gullible public. The “evidence” presented to the public was pathetic, and it turns out there was a reason for that. There was so serious evidence and there were no WMDs.

  3. Wayne,
    I think that is probably correct, but only note that several influential politicians on both side of the isle thought that it was true going back to the late 90s. In other words, if he was “lying” just because he acted on that belief when he did, than everyone else was also.

  4. Perhaps “lying” was overly narrow. For example, I would include putting pressure on intelligence services to provide only intelligence that supported the pre-determined claim that Iraq was a danger as “lying” of a sort, or at least a prelude to the misinformation given to the public and to the politicians. I think back also to Colin Powell’s performance at the UN, which even he seems to regret, as part of the overall lie. I can’t say about the motivations of any of the actors in this drama, but it seemed reasonably clear to me then, and even more clear in hindsight, that the Bush and Cheney wanted to go to war with Iraq, and that the “intelligence” provided was all skewed to make that war more credible and justified. If pressed, I would add in the ancillary claims that should have been considered absurd (such as the war would be quick and easy or that it would pay for itself with oil revenues) as approaching lies. They were unjustified statements meant to bolster a weak case for war. They weren’t true, and one would have to be fairly gullible to believe them. Did Bush or Cheney believe them?
    But I’m willing to offer a painful set of choices. The politicians who claimed they were voting for war because of WMDs or the threat of Iraq were either lying or naive and gullible or afraid of standing against what passed for majority opinion at the time because it might risk their political futures.

  5. Perhaps “lying” was overly narrow….I can’t say about the motivations of any of the actors in this drama, but it seemed reasonably clear to me…
    Yeah – seems pretty weak Wayne. You may very well be right. But again, I think “lying” is over the top.
    “The politicians who claimed they were voting for war because of WMDs or the threat of Iraq were either lying or naive and gullible or afraid of standing against what passed for majority opinion at the time because it might risk their political futures…”
    I think Bush believed it was true (maybe you mean “stupid”) If the politicians were afraid to stand against majority opinion than they were lying, weren’t they?
    By the way, I’ve heard many times now that Buckley is dead and conservativism is out of ideas. Who is the really brilliant liberal thinker of the day (or, are there so dang many of them that its not worth thinking about?) : )

  6. “I think Bush believed it was true (maybe you mean “stupid”) If the politicians were afraid to stand against majority opinion than they were lying, weren’t they?”
    I will dispute neither statement.
    “Who is the really brilliant liberal thinker of the day (or, are there so dang many of them that its not worth thinking about?)”
    Ha! I have to admit I’m coming to the conclusion that the conservative intellectual tradition (chronicled by George Nash in The Conservative Intellectual Tradition in America, for example) is in pretty poor shape, if not actually dead. Right-wing politics never die, but the stuff that seems most popular these days doesn’t seem “conservative” so much as purely reactionary and intellectually bankrupt. I’m thinking of the WND or Fox people, and even the WSJ to the extent that it became a partisan hack for the Bush administration rather than a serious voice of any conservative principles. What liberals and leftists often don’t know is that there is a formative body of actual conservative ideas (see Mark Lilla’s recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on Berkeley’s new center for studying right-wing movements for a accurate criticism of that knowledge gap). There was a movement to make conservatism intellectually serious that bypassed academia. It seems with the rise of power the importance of thought has diminished. Power tends to corrupt, I suppose.
    I don’t think that’s the case anymore. There are plenty of intelligent conservatives around, but they’re being drowned out by the yahoos. Buckley and the NR band were able to make the Birchers seem like the lunatic fringe they were and are. I don’t see who among the conservatives will be able to do that for the Birthers, for example. When any politician starts bringing up Hitler or communism we know we’re in the presence of ignorance if not downright idiocy. Unlike some critics, I don’t think the country is any more ideologically polarized than it’s ever been, and we have considerably less violence and seething anger than in the 1960s, but we’re maybe going through a period where extremists and yahoos have more effect than ever because of cable and the Internet.
    As for brilliant liberal thinkers, there are plenty, but they tend to be academics. There could be many reasons for this, but one is probably that the right has dominated national politics for most of the last 40 years, and also that academia attracts the most intellectual people. Who would I put in that rank? Stretching the concept of “liberal” to include those more or less left, or at least not conservative, I would include a number of people. Consider that I’m not ranking or saying I agree with them, here are some I would put on a list of brilliant political philosophers more or less liberal: Michael Sandel, Amartya Sen, Michael Walzer, Ronald Dworkin, Jurgen Habermas, and maybe Martha Nussbaum, among the living. Among the recently deceased, I would add John Rawls of course, as well as Brian Barry and Susan Moller Okin. Outside of F.A. Hayek, Robert Nozick, and Michael Oakeshott (all dead and all more or less libertarian), conservatives have no figures of comparable stature to Rawls or Habermas.
    There are some brilliant conservative political philosophers around, the most interesting as far as I’m concerned being Roger Scruton and John Kekes, but I would also add in Robert George and John Finnis from the natural law camp. The serious conservative philosophers of the past couple of decades seem only to have found political clout in areas of bioethics (abortion, stem-cell research, and the like), which is probably only because they happen to coincide in this respect with Evangelical Christian thought.
    I would throw the question back, and ask, aside from the handful of conservatives I’ve mentioned, are there any who have done work comparable to that of Rawls, Sandel, Sen, Dworkin, or Habermas? From what I have seen, the scope and rigor just isn’t there for the most part. And as for their having any effect on politics, it would be negligible.

  7. Wayne,
    Thanks for the response. I always appreciate your intelligence and willingness to share. I’m not sure I have much of value in responding to your question. I’d love to be able to spend more time learning and reading, but unfortunately, as a librarian (hopelessly unable to focus on one area) and father of 3 (soon to be 4) my time for this is lacking.
    But I try to pick up whatever I can whenever I can.
    Thanks much,

  8. I find just being a father of one is a lot of work!
    On this particular issue, I have the advantage of teaching a freshman writing seminar every fall focused on political philosophy, and I have not only read but taught many of the philosophers, both liberal and conservative, that I mention above. Fifteen years ago I got tired of the uncritical left, and began a journey to understand political positions of several sides as deeply as I could, or at least to understand what justifications people could have for holding beliefs I found completely mistaken. Turns out that’s a journey that never ends, especially as my own beliefs have shifted and formed over the years. But in doing that I tried to find the most intelligent and rigorous thinkers I could from every side, and to read widely rather than rely on one or a few thinkers.
    As a result, the thing I resist most in politics is an absolute sense of truth, and I especially resist any group who believes they are absolutely right about all political issues and who reject compromise. In politics there are no proofs; there are more or less reasonable justifications and better or worse arguments. Yahoos of the left or right disturb me because they tend to be true believers, and inflexible dogmatism in politics allows no results that benefit or even consider the common good. What’s more, it makes politics as the art of the possible less likely, and that’s something thoughtful conservatives should find disturbing as well.

  9. Wayne,
    Well, I confess I do believe that there are some issues one simply ought not compromise on… this does not mean that if I don’t get my way in the democratic process that I’m ready to throw democracy out though… unless free speech is totally silenced.
    Hey, I thought you might appreciate this:
    And here is one of my favorite conservative blogger’s response to it (he pointed me to the article). Interesting I thought that his questions resembled mine to yours:
    I must say Wayne, when I read stuff like this:
    …the “far right” seems to sane to me.
    Hey – don’t forget to read Palin’s new book. (actually Lynn Vincent is a pretty penetrating writer so this should be interesting) : )

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