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.