Age of Janus

I’m trying to keep a clear head about the current political news from a number of directions, and that sometimes keeps me from dumping a quick rant in this space and hitting the post button. However, I also think that there isn’t much of a space left in this society for any kind of reasoned discussion of the major issues of the day among the punditry and intelligentsia.

There a few people out there who support the current administration and its policies, including its conduct of the war in Iraq, who can at least be said to have a consistent, philosophically coherent basis for that support. This is not much of a compliment, given that most of the consistent arguments for that support are repellant to me and I think to most Americans, not just “liberals”. For example, you could argue that the time has come for unrestrained executive power in the United States and that most constitutional protections and balances are outmoded luxuries. You could argue that the United States needs to act like a brutalist imperial power in order to preserve its own narrowly construed national interests, that we need the 21st Century equivalent of Roman crucifixions and punitive massacres. You could argue on behalf of a fundamentalist Christian putsch over the government and culture of the United States because of a belief that God Himself demands it. These are all consistent views that I would oppose with all my heart and mind, but at least it would make sense for someone holding them to look at the current situation and give it a thumb’s up.

Mostly, it’s something grubbier and more depressing. People who argue that perjury is a grave crime against the rule of law, until it’s their own guy getting caught. People who have two completely different standards for reasonable judgements about evidence: absurdly stringent when the political opposition seems to favor a claim, promiscuously loose when it’s a case that favors their own perspective. People who have one view of what constitutes unwholesomely “political” interference with good governance when it’s the other guys (or some “corrupt” regime in the Third World) and another view when it’s the home team.

I don’t know what to say in those kinds of conversations any longer. I can’t just keep coming back to them with faith and hope that men and women who have the capacity to think clearly and behave ethically will eventually reconcile their political commitments with some kind of consistently held standards. All I need is even a small sign that this could happen to keep thinking it’s worth it to look for a way to talk. But I’m precisely the chump that I have been accused of being if I continue to agree that (for example) perjury is indeed a serious crime, and that Bill Clinton’s perjury was a serious issue if all that gets is derisive laughter when it’s time for others to pay off their own prior declarations of serious, serious concern with that crime.

Another example. Saturday, a Marine corporal testified at a trial at Camp Pendleton that:

a) his unit and others were told to “crank up the violence”, which they took to mean increasing the frequency and ubiquity of beatings
b) he saw nothing wrong with killing a random Iraqi man and framing him as a jihadi because “of the way they live, the clans, they’re all in it together”, that the Marines he knows basically view all Iraqi men as insurgents
c) that the Marines employ a procedure that they are formally trained to use at Camp Pendleton called “dead-checking”: if they enter a house and there’s a wounded male inside the house, they kill him without any further investigation and without taking him prisoner.

I can hear the political ripostes already. The guy testifying has been accused of crimes (though he’s not on trial in this particular instance), so he’s a bad egg and atypical, plus isn’t it a good sign that there’s a trial at all? Well, maybe there’s nuances to policy that aren’t coming out in the testimony. Besides, from a certain point of view, isn’t it right to view all Iraqi men as possible insurgents? Doesn’t “dead-checking” make good military sense?

I’m not going to go into moral hysterics here. I’m simply going to suggest that if you’re engaged in a counter-insurgency with the alleged end goal of creating a stable and reasonably liberal and democratic state that brings together three different religious/ethnic groups under a single government, when it becomes clear that these kinds of actions are normal military doctrine, the conflict is over and you lost. It doesn’t matter any longer whether or not withdrawing is going to be a disaster. Of course it is going to be a disaster. The key point is that there is no way to win the conflict once even a significant proportion of your troops view the entire male population as the enemy and are capable of acting on that belief. If your troops are arbitrarily beating, framing, killing, harassing the population, it doesn’t matter if the insurgents are also killing, torturing, or abusing the population. When ordinary people are caught in between an insurgency and a counter-insurgency that both abuse them, but the latter is composed of foreigners who don’t speak the language or know the culture, then the latter lose on points, period. The only way the foreign occupier can win is by being markedly, definitively, unambiguously better than the alternative. We maybe could have been, but we’re not at this point and there’s no way to get back to that, no matter what anyone tries to do to salvage the situation.

As for whether this Marine is an isolated case, I guess that’s where I’m thinking it’s time to stop the coy political dancing around evidence. At this point, there’s plenty of reason to think that while this soldier’s views are articulated in extreme ways, he’s probably giving a fairly good description of ordinary practices and attitudes among many serving in Iraq. More importantly, even if such practices and beliefs are not the official doctrine or are held by a relative minority of soldiers, I think it’s safe to say that this is how many Iraqis perceive the occupation to operate.

This is not the fault of the soldiers, either. This is the consequence of a botched, unwinnable occupation that has been run with zero foresight or vision by a crew of naive idealists and swaggering bullies.

I’m willing to table potentially debatable moral arguments if that buys an honest consensus discussion about some kind of agreed-upon standards about war objectives, about when we would all know that the war wasn’t worth it or was lost, about methods, purposes, aspirations. Or about what we’re entitled to expect from our public servants in terms of their political or partisan even-handedness, their commitment to their office before their party.

I’m not saying those moral claims aren’t important to me: they’re vital. Precisely because I believe in the spread of classic liberalism–something that at least some of the backers of the war professed to support as well–I know that those moral claims can’t be tabled indefinitely. Liberalism requires the rule of law, respect for the sovereign rights of the individual, responsible and transparent government.

It’s hard for me to put those commitments aside. Why should I? What’s the good of refraining from unrestrained polemic at this point? Almost none of the supporters of the war in the public sphere or the conduct of the Bush Administration have ever been willing to commit to clear, transparently declared standards for what would represent victory and what would represent defeat, what would be a mistake and would would be a success, what government should try to do and what it should not try to do. The yardstick has been infinitely adjustable. Or it gets set way out in Absurdistan, where every political wish comes with ponies and Green Lantern-level willpower always wins the day. So what’s the point? Who would be at the political table to have that conversation honestly?

I’m going to go on calling things as I see them. If I think I was wrong about something I thought or said earlier, I’m going to say so. I’m going to be as skeptical as I can manage about my own claims and commitments. But none of that is a politics at this point: it’s just a personal aesthetic, a quirk, a habitus. It’s not a public conversation that I feel myself to be part of, with some precious, treasured exceptions.

We can’t get back to any kind of consensus politics until people who have made mistakes are prepared to admit them. Without caveats, without evasions, without double standards. That goes for the war in Iraq. It goes for attempting to turn the government of the United States into a personality cult driven entirely by the objective of structurally locking in partisan advantage for the foreseeable future. It goes for most of what has happened in the last six years.

This entry was posted in Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Age of Janus

  1. nord says:

    “People who have two completely different standards for reasonable judgements about evidence: absurdly stringent when the political opposition seems to favor a claim, promiscuously loose when it’s a case that favors their own perspective. ”

    Is it really that different this time, or is it just that our political parties now represent a somewhat more unified ideology/structure than in the past? Far fewer RINOs and DINOs, the end of Rockefeller republicans and southern conservative democrats?

    I have to admit I do love some of the double standards … getting in a debate over Libby’s vs. Clinton’s perjury is like debating whether Haverford’s or Swarthmore’s basketball team is better … sure it generates a lot of passion, but really, who cares?

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    If it comes in those terms, sure. For me, if I say, “Look, perjury is important, I agree…” at a time when I think there’s something unmistakeably political and calculated about the way that the perjurer in question is getting nailed (as I did with Clinton), then I *mean* it. I’m not interested in Clinton vs. Libby, tit-for-tat, I’m interested in the underlying question of principle. Does perjury matter, and ought it to be taken as a serious, grave matter when there’s a jury (or Congressional) finding of perjury. My answer to that is, yeah, it does matter, it is important,, because I think the legal system and truth within it matters a great deal. So when that question gets reduced to a matter of mere politics–Clinton vs. Libby–that’s bad. Because it means anyone who takes the underlying discussion about perjury itself seriously is naive. Which is what I’m thinking I’ve been on a lot of those discussions. But I seriously think it’s not just about me, that we all suffer when that happens.

    Has it always been thus? Maybe. Much as I’m willing to concede that the 50s and 60s were an unusual era in some respects, I would say that when it came to formal faith in certain kinds of institutional processes, maybe the 50s and 60s (up to ’68, at least) were an unusual moment. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking on my part, and we haven’t ever had a real moment of procedural commitment in our politics yet, ever, and may never have. Maybe it’s always been instrumental warfare.

  3. withywindle says:

    Ah, my cue. First, I should thank you for a temperate exposition of your views. Doubtless there will continue to be political incommensurates involved in our respective political views. I feel an urge to reply—I will try not to be too repetitious, or touch too much on the areas clearly beyond a meeting of minds.

    1) I do think you are still engaged in some jiggering of the terms of debate. That is, you define the consistent opposition you could respect as a simpleminded advocacy for unrestrained executive power at home and brutal imperialism abroad. I can define a consistent opposition I respect as a view of the constitution as a suicide pact and feebleminded pacifism abroad. I think the second view somewhat closer to accuracy than the former, but I also think it possible to consider that a consistent and respectable opposition may share many of my principles, to differ in their emphases, to have a gravely flawed policy—indeed, a morally culpable one—but as a consequence of their prudential judgment rather than of their basic principles. If you like, although both are crucially on the wrong side of the Iraq War debate, I consider Sen. Biden no less principled than Rep. Kucinich simply because he has a more complex thought process.

    2) People are partisans who defend their own—this is a surprise? Astonishingly, I have a blog-post from a little while ago that touches on this subject. I advocate some combination of partisan advocacy and advocacy for the polis as a whole—in the case you are alluding to, the conviction of Libby should be recognized as parallel to the impeachment of Pres. Clinton, both recognized as deserved, and Libby’s guilt should no longer be contested after his conviction by twelve good men and true. This is my belief; it is not the belief of enough conservatives (and, yes, it does discredit them); but it is also the belief of people such as Andy McCarthy, who is regularly given a pulpit to announce his belief at the National Review Online (NRO)—which does in turn lend credit both to NRO and to the conservative movement writ large. Incidentally, Pres. Bush’s decision to commute rather than to pardon does also include him as a member of the camp that acknowledges Libby’s guilt.

    3) You have indeed anticipated some possible ripostes as regards your LA Times story on Iraq; I thank you for extending the courtesy. As regards your take-away point: you are of course correct that it is difficult to engage in a war where the entire population must be considered a potential enemy, you must engage in some considerable brutality to win a counter-insurgency, and you are the foreign occupier. Impossible? When I look at, say, the Philippines War, the South African War, and the Malay War, it seems to me that many of the same difficulties applied, and these wars ended with some success for the occupiers. (I recognize that these are habitually cited by pro-war rhetors of a historical bent; the recurrence to them as examples does not in itself invalidate their exemplary value.) I do also think that outlasting an enemy has greater effects on weary populations than you do—that the Iraqi silent majority will be willing to acquiesce to an American-supported government because we are persistent, just as they will be willing to acquiesce to al-Qaeda or to a Sh’ia equivalent if they are persistent. Persistence can equal brutality, but does not have to.

    Now, a major nub here is “liberal democracy”—but let us take South Africa as having ended up as a white liberal democracy under British auspices, take note of the Breaker Morant,/i> sequence, and consider that a brutal counter-insurgency does not inevitably prevent reconciliation and liberal democracy. Is such a sequence unlikely in Iraq? I fear so, and always have. I continue to believe the overwhelmingly likely alternative to establishing liberal democracy in the Muslim world will be civilizational warfare, mass bloodshed, (including much American,) and the breaking of nations, and that it is worth considerable persistence to avoid so terrible a future. But even if we cannot achieve liberal democracy in Iraq, there are other goals in mind—Iraqs we can prevent, if not Iraqs we can create; political constellations the Iraqis will not follow, even if they do not love us. We have almost certainly prevented by this point a resurgence of Baathist Iraq; we are nearly done preventing the possibility of an al Qaeda Iraq. If we leave now, we are faced with the possibility that we will have midwifed a Hezbollah Iraq. This I would take as considerably less than ideal—but since I take the instability of pre-war Iraq to have resulted in good measure from the fragility of a minority-Sunni regime, we will at least have left behind us an Iraq with one cause for foreign adventurism removed. If by no means complete success, it will also be a far distance from complete failure.

    As to American attitudes and behavior toward Iraqis—it should be noted first that I believe the context is the Sunni provinces, where indeed a vast majority of the inhabitants were hostile, but that the dynamic there is quite distinct from the dynamic in the Sh’ia provinces. (Not paradise with the Sh’ia, but universal suspicion is not quite the order of the day.) There is some difference between (rational) universal suspicion, and simply opening up fire on everyone you see. Secondly, even taking most of the accusations against Americans at face value—which I do not—it would still be difficult for Americans to come remotely close to al Qaeda barbarities. The fact that a significant number of Sunnis are now co-belligerents against al Qaeda argues very strongly that Iraqis do not regard us as morally equivalent to al Qaeda, or even close.

    4) I find a little peculiar your claim that there has been no clear statement of victory or defeat on the part of the Bush administration and its supporters. Victory is the establishment of a stable liberal democracy in Iraq. Defeat is withdrawal under enemy fire, without that objective achieved, and the consequent descent of the Middle East into a genocidal maelstrom. This seems clear to me.

    5) On national willpower: the Green-Lantern argument is, of course, a caricature. The argument is a middle-ground: that willpower is a nontrivial part of warmaking, and that it is not everything. The argument that willpower is trivial seems to me to fly in the evidence of all history. One can argue for that willpower is significant without embracing the military doctrine of Imperial Japan.

    6) “Personality cult,” as I have mentioned before, is nonsensical on a great many levels. I mentioned before that FDR is probably the only president to have had anything approaching a personality cult; the phrase is particularly odd coming after Pres. Bush’s disastrous foray into immigration reform, which aroused an overwhelming wave of political and personal opposition to the president on the part of his core supporters. To say “personality cult on selected issues” is somehow to miss the point of the phrase.

    7) And, no, I still believe the invasion of Iraq was and is correct policy, and I do not believe the Republican Party to have behaved outside the mainstream of democratic politics. I don’t feel inclined to satisfy your desire for a show-trial apology, and it is an unpleasantly Bolshevist desire on your part. Until you bring out the rats, I’m not about to say that 2 + 2 = 5.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Long reply on the counter-insurgency examples.

    Short reply on the argument that apologizing for making a mistake is the equivalent of confessing to a Stalinist show-trial. It’s called honesty, you know? And demanding that other people be honest if they want to convene some kind of consensus politics strikes me as both prudent and fair. It’s basic Prisoner’s Dilemma: if I keep making the altruistic play while the other player sends me up the river laughing all the way, I’m an idiot.

    Now if the other player has zero interest in any kind of consensus politics, and is playing for all the marbles, playing to crush any and all political opposition in as permanent a fashion as can be engineered, then there too what’s the point of conversation? That’s not conversation, that’s war. If it’s war, then the more militant voices to my left (often considerably so) are much more on target about the political moment we’re in. About the only thing they’re lacking is a meaningful idea about how to mobilize the significant plurality of people who aren’t partisans of either faction. But I think if the far right persistently plays the game with contempt for consensus and proceduralism and with the end objective of sweeping the field of anything but “internal” opposition (e.g., as on immigration policy within the Republican Party), then maybe they’ll end up mobilizing that silent majority against them. (A metaphor that I think Nixon largely got right, though maybe he didn’t understand its full implications.)

  5. withywindle says:

    Honesty involves belief; I do not believe what you believe; to demand a statement of belief on my part in those circumstances is indeed, Bolshevist.
    Furthermore, in a liberal democracy based upon difference of opinion, the likelihood of any universal consensus of values, or even acccepted facts, is most unlikely; your demand for such a consensus is tantamount to a permanent unwillingness to engage in dialogue with a permanent minority or majority of your fellow citizens. This is, I think, a self-inflicted wound on your part. At any rate, it is a tactic with a cost–you can rally your troops for civil war with such an approach (as you say), but you are indeed choosing the path of civil war. You will note, incidentally, that my blog-post mentioned above does indeed make similar points to yours as to the necessary distinction between partisan politics and civil war.

    I think the left is far more guilty than the right of departures from consensus, proceduralism, and respect for the opposition–but is this a surprise? And does it make my talking to the left useless? I have set down ideals and markers in various of my conversations here, both as means of long-term persuasion and as willing hostages to fortune that may be used against me when the time comes–so I may spread the ideals, even when I fail to live up to them. And I have, for example, given you as a warrant of my good faith my belief that Libby should now be adjudged guilty, not least on the grounds of procedural parallel with Pres. Clinton. (Since I am your only persistent interlocutor on the right right now, my example ought to bear some weight in this particular context.) To the extent your address was intended toward people such as myself, you have indeed produced a result–and I hope my address to you will produce a similar such result. And the ground of dialog is based on the fact that we (and indeed most partisans right and left) share the ideals of procedural justice and consensus, and it is never fruitless to continue to praise such ideals, with as wide an address of audience as possible.

    Now, there is something as to the ethics of recantation I’ve already been mulling–with the Confederate flag as an example, since it bites close to home–which I think will be a blog post over my way in the not too distant future.

    I will mention by-the-by that I will not take any call from the left for recantation and self-criticism and honesty and consensus and procedural fairness entirely seriously until, at the very least, such time as Al Sharpton is roundly condemned by every element of the Democratic party, and expelled from all positions of honor and influence in the counsels of the left. His presence, uncondemned, is a standing mockery of all such protestations.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Really brief riposte:

    The fact that Al Sharpton is symmetrical in your calculation to the political management of a war that has led to the deaths of thousands of US soldiers and the wounding of many more, not to mention serious devastation to Iraq and Iraqis, and comparable to the political conduct of the President of the United States and his closest White House advisors is pretty damning, in my view.

    I am not spending much of my time whining about Ann Coulter, loathsome as she is. You know why? She’s a sideshow, a circus freak. I might judge any individual poorly who thought she was great stuff, just as I would have a really low opinion of anyone who thought Al Sharpton was anything but a corrupt con man. But the idea that our political leadership on other side should spend even the least iota of energy complaining about or acting against either person in a time where there is serious business for the grown-ups in the room to worry about practically defines how trivializing some forms of partisan tit-for-tat have become.

  7. withywindle says:

    Al Sharpton is legally responsible for defamation of character and morally responsible for murder. That should be more than enough. It is precisely the fact that these are not matters of high policy that makes the Democratic-left silence about him so damnable–that make his presence as an unrebuked candidate for president a crying shame. And you are eliding the issues here–one is of war policy, the other is of procedural fairness and honesty. (Please recollect that you made a double-barrelled assault; my citation of Sharpton is to counter the procedural barrel, not the war-policy barrel.) If procedural fairness, honesty, and consensus mean anything, it surely is that it is not a question of balancing the weight of numbers and effects–of the end justifying the means–but that the unjust death of one man cries out for judgment in itself, with no reference to other deaths, other injustices. I mention Sharpton as a crystal clear example–you can compare him to Coulter, Libby, Bush, or what you will, but to make comparisons is precisely to avoid the point at issue, that no such prudentialist comparisons ought to be undertaken if you are advocating procedural virtues. Which, you will recollect, should be done “without caveats, without evasions, without double standards.” Comparing Sharpton to anyone else is an evasion of the point at issue. And calling Sharpton’s sins trivial, and the toleration of them, is another one.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    But they are trivial compared to the President of the United States (or his political operatives) throughly politicizing the procedural operations of the United States government from the White House itself right down to the Surgeon General’s office. Or to misconduct and mismanagement of a war that is having vast and long-term geopolitical consequences.

    I mean, we could trade off personalities all the live long day to see if we think they’re scum or not. Sharpton? Scum, yes, absolutely. Proceed down the checklist so we can get clear on all the freaks in the sideshow tent if you like. Then what? What of consequence has been decided? That we all have comparable standards for rectitude, honesty, fairness, commitment to public service, transparency? That would in fact be a good thing. Tell me which prominent contemporary Republicans or conservative you think wouldn’t make the cut and you’d be willing to say don’t belong anywhere near a respectable conservative political movement or party. I’d be fully willing to agree that Sharpton doesn’t belong within a thousand miles of any respectable liberal or left politician. I have a long list in fact of people who crop up in Democratic politics from time to time that I feel that way about.

    But seriously, all of that is first asymetrical to what the President of the United States does to a wide array of institutions. And second, I’m not sure that any political party actually can structurally prevent someone that has some kind of constituency from being some kind of presence at the table. Strom Thurmond was a loathsome artifact of a bad political era, but if people elect him, what you gonna do? The Republican Party couldn’t magically undo that, and I wouldn’t expect them to or demand that they try. I’d just expect that Republicans wouldn’t raise a glass to toast his segregationist achievements, that’s all. Just as I would expect Democratic politicians to avoid saying, “Al Sharpton is a great guy and my good friend”.

  9. withywindle says:

    Your expectations have notably failed, since every Democratic politician does indeed raise their glass at every relevant instance; I think this failure ought to have some consequence more than a shrug of the shoulder. Again, the mere act of comparison on your part is hostile to the spirit of procedural fairness, which should have no such considerations in mind. Every time you compare Sharpton to the presidency, you are making a consequentialist argument–which is legitimate, but which you ought not to conflate, as I believe you have been persistently, with your proceduralist argument. The very act of comparison, and smuggling in of consequentialism, undermines your claim to authority that rests upon a procedural ideal.

    As for examples, beside Libby–which I have already given you, please note–I do think the expulsion of Sen. Lott from Majority Leader status was a good example of Republican housecleaning, and I disapprove of his return to a position in the Senate Republican hierarchy. Sen. Vitter’s recent scandal presents a very good reason for Louisiana voters not to vote for him. I am in the process of swallowing my unease perforce, but Mayor Giuliani’s deeply undemocratic and unconstitutional attempt to grab a third term as mayor, sans election, provides a compelling reason for Americans never to vote for him for president. Rep. Paul’s shifty dances on the fringes of racism and anti-Semitism are deeply noxious and worthy of condemnation. FYI.

    Now–and this is to shift arguments–sadly, we are not in agreement either as to the facts of the matter as to whether the Bush administration has departed from democratic procedural norms. The difference, however, is that you seem to take my understanding and interpretation of the facts as in some manner fundamentally illegitimate, whereas I take your understanding and interpretation of the facts as incommensurate–heck, wrong!–but legitimate. These incommensurabilities I take to be the warp and woof of a pluralist, democratic polity, and the inevitable context for pluralist, democratic debate.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    I think that’s the issue driving this post. At some point, I take those differences, on some issues and in the face of what seem to me to be plain empirical facts, to “break” the range of good, healthy pluralisms one would expect in a democracy, and to slide into something that is either more cynical or morally uglier.

    Let’s take an issue like, “does the government need to provide or subsidize low-cost housing for poorer citizens in some communities?” (federal, state or local government). If that kind of issue is on the table, I can readily accept and be interested in a range of initial principled statements that runs from, “that is philosophically never the role of government, under any circumstance” to “government has a responsibility to secure the right of all citizens to shelter”. I can see the reasoning behind almost any of those statements of principle. I’m much more inclined to the libertarian end of that scale for a lot of reasons, both philosophical and pragmatic.

    So then if we proceed past that to evaluate, “Were the housing projects of the Great Society successful?” there is a wide range of things that I’m prepared to hear. “No, and that’s because the entire idea violated principle”, “No, because they weren’t adequately funded from the outset”, “No, because they were conceptually flawed”, “No, because they were part of a white scheme to marginalize poor urban blacks”. Some of those statements will strike me as false, some well-meaning but wrong, some basically on the money, but all have a place at the table. Someone who says, “Failed? They didn’t fail: we just didn’t make enough of them, we need more money for housing NOW, the Great Society’s housing policies were spectacular and it only went wrong when the Great Satan Reagan defunded them”, on the other hand, is doing the political equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and humming real loud. Either they really believe that–and therefore I question their judgement–or they don’t believe it but they believe it’s bad to show political weakness by endorsing any potentially conservative position. In which case, they’re engaging in political bad faith, and breaking any hope of a deliberative consensus politics.

    When someone looks at this White House and says, “I don’t see any untoward or unusual degree of politicization of the operations of the federal government, or any novel use of the resources of the federal government for the narrowly political advantage of this particular President and his party”, that’s the same thing to me as saying, “Cabrini-Green was great until the Reagan Administration defunded the Great Society”. I understand that people may believe this to be true, but I have no choice but to think that they’re either not paying attention or that they’re calculatedly lying to me. Something at that moment “breaks” for me and we step beyond the range of what strikes me as healthy pluralism.

    A pluralistic society should contain the widest possible range of political opinion, but not all of that range should figure in the deliberative process within the public sphere. If we’re talking about what to do about global warming, I take for granted that there is someone out there who thinks it’s caused by aliens, someone out there who thinks “The Day After Tomorrow” was a documentary, someone out there who welcomes a climatic apocalypse because it will end human domination of Gaia, someone out there who thinks global warming is a good way to achieve white supremacy over tropical peoples. A good pluralist society makes it possible for that range to exist. But it wouldn’t be a good thing if every time we considered the question, “What is to be done”, we felt obligated to sit down at a deliberative table with seats laid out for all of those individuals.

  11. withywindle says:

    And who is to judge what is the acceptable range of discourse and belief? Any answer is irreducibly authoritarian. No, moonbats, wingnuts, and psychos all must be included–because the judgment of moonbattery and wingnuttery is not reliable, and cannot be freed from the taint of human mental limitation and partiality. And as a case in point, I suspect that you have excluded a minimum of 30% of the population–the hard core of Bush supporters, who presumably will fail most of your standards–from your preconditions for deliberation. And if it is less?–do you have an acceptable limit to those you would exclude? Only 10%? Only 5%? 1%? Any answer begins to take you down the road of authoritarian exclusion and compulsion. I do think I should recommend again to you at this point Bryan Garsten’s Saving Persuasion, which makes this point well.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    It’s not about authoritarianism–this is not an enforced exclusion. I’m saying that this is about what I think the preconditions for consensus politics are, about what the responsibilities of people who want to participate in the central deliberative engines of the public sphere ought to be.

    As a historian and cultural observer, I’m interested in everything that people believe and do. As a person involved in political conversations and the action of politics, I’m not interested in everything that people believe and do. It’s not possible to listen to and equally consider all views in a political sense, so pragmatically, one listens to those which are either held by the largest numbers of people or seem to have the best fit to the facts as they are known. Moreover, I’m unfashionable enough to think that some things are more true and other things are less true, and that we can in fact know the difference, if not as a matter of absolutes then as a matter of probability. I’m not obligated to invest nearly so much patience and care in a political sense in views that strike me as being very far from the truth.

    I am not obligated to have conversations with anyone and everyone, or to regard with equal seriousness the contributions of everyone to our national conversation. You would be taking an unusual detour into cultural relativism if you suddenly declared your personal desire to seriously hear from, listen to, and value all possible views and ideas in deciding what is to be done. I await with baited breath an account of your serious, patient engagement with Satanist views of American policy, or your advocacy that elected representative undertake this task.

    In fact, your last comment is a pretty good demonstration of something that has struck me with increasing force in the last six years: the most postmodernist political faction on the landscape in the United States today are actually conservatives.

  13. withywindle says:

    What I think is at issue is not that you take the time to address particularly every strain of belief, but whether your address is aimed universally or, explicitly or implicitly, to exclude some set of possible auditors. The rhetoric of the public sphere is constituted by the universality of its address; to limit your audience is to create a community that is less than a public. The norm, therefore, should be an address that aspires toward a universal audience. Your address cannot do so effectively, persuasively, unless you also aspire to be a universal auditor. Practically, you cannot listen to every single strand–and, frankly, there will always be priorities. But the deliberate exclusion of whole categories from those to whom you will listen fatally impairs your capabilty of universal address, and hence your capability to help constitute the public sphere.

    As for postmodernism–I do take my rhetorical tack (as do most rhetoricists) as an attempt to thread the needle between the authoritarian implications of sovereign reason and the epistemological tapioca of postmodernism. If you like, I take myself crucially to be on the side of the Enlightenment in my recognition of the existence of objective standards and facts, but to prescribe a different method by which to prescribe we approach them and apply them. There are indeed convergences between conservatives and postmodernists, although that can be overstated–the opposition to the authoritarian ambitions of the Enlightenment is what they have in common, but that is by no means necessarily the most important attribute of either group. As for the meeting-place of rhetoric and postmodernism, I believe it lies in hermeneutics, somewhere between Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jean-Francois Lyotard, perhaps hovering around Paul Ricouer. (I could be wrong–these are deep intellectual waters, and I really barely know the names.)

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree that in what I or you say to others, there shouldn’t be a limit condition that’s set on purpose. There may be a limit condition that’s part of the encoding of our speech: our vocabulary, our points of reference, our medium for communication. But in what I respond to dialogically? There are all sorts of limits, and I’d rather set some of them consciously.

    I’m curious about how you reconcile some of what you’re saying here with the notion that anyone who might potentially vote for a Democratic candidate should demand the total exclusion of Al Sharpton from any political or public venue.

  15. withywindle says:

    I think the demand of exclusion of Al Sharpton from Democrat-affiliated events is itself a message with a universal audience. Including to Sharpton, for whom it should be a call for repentance.

Comments are closed.