Once in a great while, someone who’s emitted as much political blather as I will find that something he wrote long ago has become pertinent once again. We confront exactly that phenomenon today. Under which flimsy rationale I hereby present, as they first appeared at the old Palace Of Reason:
1. Stupid Or Evil?
January 6, 2004
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, one of the larger West Coast dailies, has printed a guest editorial by one Neal Starkman that promises to stir a lot of mud into the national political discourse. In this remarkably bilious and self-exalting piece, Mr. Starkman opines that the reason for President Bush’s generally high popularity is that Americans are stupid:
It’s not merely that some people are insufficiently intelligent to grasp the nuances of foreign policy, of constitutional law, of macroeconomics or of the variegated interplay of humans and the environment. These aren’t the people I’m referring to. The people I’m referring to cannot understand the phenomenon of cause and effect. They’re perplexed by issues comprising more than two sides. They don’t have the wherewithal to expand the sources of their information. And above all — far above all — they don’t think.
Well, it’s a step up from evil, which is left-liberals’ other explanation for conservative sympathies. But your Curmudgeon, who hasn’t encountered a liberal capable of resisting the temptation to demonize, psychologize, or denigrate conservatives in twenty years, finds it more than merely amusing.
Argument about anything is premised upon the supremacy of facts and logic, measured against a common, honorable standard of evaluation. Whether a fact is brought into play by Albert Einstein or the village idiot is supposed to make no difference. If it is verifiable and relevant, it must be admitted on an equal plane with all other facts. Whether a skein of implication is proposed by Mother Teresa or Satan, honor requires that we ignore its provenance and judge it according to its logical soundness and predictive accuracy.
Starkman, who obviously dislikes President Bush’s policies, though he never says which ones or why, would prefer that we invert that scheme and place the identities, or more precisely the allegiances, of arguers above the objective merits of their arguments. If you approve of Bush Administration policies, then by Starkman’s rubric you cannot possibly have an honorable, rationally defensible reason for doing so. You must be either stupid or evil.
What does Neal Starkman make of George Will and William F. Buckley? Of Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams? Of Frank Gaffney and Victor Davis Hanson? Surely he wouldn’t call them stupid. Indeed, if we judge by the diatribe linked above, they could give him cards and spades and still beat him hollow in any contest of intellect, erudition, or eloquence. So they must be evil.
Your Curmudgeon, himself no intellectual slouch, must be evil too. Sigh. How late in life we learn these things.
Were they judged solely on their immediate soundness, Starkman’s contentions could simply be dismissed. But let’s not be hasty. If this is to be the new left-liberal paradigm for countering the arguments of conservatives — and clearly, the Post-Intelligencer thinks it worthy of consideration at the least — it has powerful implications for the immediate future, and possibly for the longer term too.
For quite some time, left-liberals have preened themselves for their moral superiority — what Thomas Sowell calls their “vision of differential rectitude” — to those who disagree with them. On the strength of that assumed superiority, they have deemed themselves exempt from the requirements for courteous persuasion, for demonstrable results, even for candid presentation of their intentions to us benighted ones. Instead, they’ve used political power of several forms to impose their preferences on the country, have retroactively revised their goals when they failed to meet the ones they originally stated, and have increasingly turned to stealth to get their way. They have disdained to stand to account for any failure, be it practical or moral. They have shielded those of their own who’ve demonstrably exploited political privilege for personal gain, though they’ve condemned the ordinary self-interest of private citizens and have done all they could to thwart it.
Today, the consequences of the highest-profile left-liberal policies have become too obvious to conceal. The tide of sentiment against them has propelled their opponents to political dominance. But increasingly often, left-liberals disdain to argue or explain. Instead, in Starkman’s fashion, they dismiss their opponents as either stupid or evil.
How many arguments would you expect to win with tactics like those? How many converts to your convictions would you reap, if you started every pitch by castigating your targets?
Though your Curmudgeon disbelieves in left-liberal doctrines, he believes strongly that they should be argued for — that men of wit and knowledge should undertake to defend them with all the logic and evidence they can muster. This is important precisely because they are opposed to the ideas of freedom, the free market, inviolable individual rights to life and property, and a system of justice founded on objective law, objective evidence, and unbending rules of procedure. We must know how to defend these things logically. If we’re never required to do that, we will forget why they’re important, and will fail to do them justice when they’re attacked by force or guile.
There is this as well: the Starkman paradigm, which accuses conservatives of sealing themselves off from facts and theses that contradict their beliefs, whether by intention or incapacity, actually puts left-liberals in far greater danger of that pitfall. It is not possible to dismiss one’s opponents as either stupid or evil, yet still grapple with their contentions in full sincerity. If we on the Right are correct and the left-liberals are wrong — it doesn’t matter about what — the left-liberals will never learn it.
It’s far better to have intelligent, well-informed opponents than stupid or ignorant ones. You have a chance of learning something from the former, and they have a chance of learning something from you. It’s far better to have opponents you respect, who respect you in equal measure, than contemptible ones who express only contempt for you. Respect is a prerequisite for every constructive form of human interaction. If not given, it cannot be returned.
2. Stupid Or Evil Redux
March 2, 2004
Your Curmudgeon’s charitable impulses — yes, yes, we all know that’s a contradiction in terms — are forever struggling against two other sets: the desire to accept what he sees at its face value, and the inclination to laugh at it. Regard the words of Neil Levy, a professor of philosophy at the University of Melbourne:
Most people believe that we have a duty to gather evidence on both sides of central moral and political controversies, in order to fulfill our epistemic responsibilities and come to hold justified cognitive attitudes on these matters. I argue, on the contrary, that to the extent to which these controversies require special expertise, we have no such duty. We are far more likely to worsen than to improve our epistemic situation by becoming better informed on these questions. I suggest we do better to embrace the views of experts who are also morally wise. I argue that this is likely to lead to more accurate beliefs about these political and moral controversies; in any case, it will avoid the incoherence and irrationality which are the likely consequence of open-minded evidence gathering.
If you’re having trouble believing that a man who sports a Ph.D. could say such a thing, you’re not alone. But there’s worse in the kettle. Regard the following, from Cornell University professor of philosophy Benjamin Hellie:
But left- and right-wing sources are not symmetrical. The goal of the right wing is to perpetuate and worsen a system in which a small number of people control obscene quantities of wealth and power at the expense of the vast majority, whereas the goal of the left wing is to distribute wealth and power more broadly. For short, the goal of the right wing is perpetuating and increasing injustice, whereas the goal of the left wing is increasing justice.
People do not like injustice. The knowledge that injustice is being done to others offends their sense of morality; the knowledge that injustice is being done to them makes them angry and resentful. Both these emotions contribute to a desire to use the political system in order to counter injustice. So it is very helpful for the right wing to achieve its goal if the existence of injustice, and the unjust effects of the policies it endorses, can be concealed.
Providing this concealment is the role of right-wing political writers. Thus, a priori, given that injustice exists and that right-wing policies are unjust, you might expect the ample use of lies, misdirection, and sophistry from these guys. (In fact, my intimate knowledge with right-wing political writing provides ample evidence that what you might expect is exactly what you get.)
By contrast, the role of left-wing political writers is to cause people to believe that there is injustice, and that right-wing policies make it worse. Given, once again, that both these points are true, all that left wing political writers need to do is report the truth.
Your Curmudgeon doesn’t normally deride the sincerely felt opinions of others. There’s no shame in differing with others, and no shame in having been wrong, provided one is willing to accept the verdict of reality once it’s delivered. However, these two gentlemen ought to hope that no one else ever reads the above statements. For what, after all, do their arguments amount to?
Because I Never Lie,
And I’m Always Right.”
(Thank you, Firesign Theater, for anticipating this need.)
Hellie’s statement goes even further, in that it ascribes evil intentions to those who disagree with this self-elevated moral and political expert. Hellie counsels his readers to assume evil motives among rightist commentators. Clearly, the man isn’t concerned about making converts to his views.
In his earlier essay on this subject, your Curmudgeon wrote that leftist doctrines ought to be argued for, and that it’s in our interests that they be represented capably. But leftists of all varieties are gradually abandoning the field of argument. The two citations presented above would have been extreme outliers two or three decades ago; today, they exemplify the rhetorical preferences of the highest-profile representatives of leftist thought.
Perhaps this is the necessary consequence of Sowell’s “vision of differential rectitude.” Leftists have assumed their moral standing to be significantly above that of others. Over the century past, they’ve had to confront an avalanche of evidence that their prescriptions are less than effective; indeed, that they’re utterly unwholesome, toxic to human life and happiness. Were they not to wall the evidence irretrievably out of bounds — were they not to dismiss all arguments against their notions presumptively, as the whisperings of Satan — the earthquakes that have toppled their political edifices would topple them from their moral pedestals as well.
So they demand to have their intellectual and moral superiority deemed unchallengeable. They exhort us to subordinate our moral and political opinions to the “experts” — care to guess who those are? — and to dismiss counter-evidence and counter-argument with prejudice. They seek to sweep their opponents from the field by disqualifying us morally, before battle can be joined.
Perhaps the height of irony is Hellie’s conclusion that “all that left wing political writers need to do is report the truth.” Clearly, if that were so, his demonization of us as conscious agents of injustice would be unnecessary, as would the campaigns of calumny the Left is conducting against anyone to the right of John Kerry.
From the standpoint of the freedom advocate, no development in political discourse could be more promising. Statements such as Levy’s and Hellie’s should receive all the publicity conservatives and libertarians can get them. They are self-damning.
Intelligent leftists who aren’t quite that full of themselves should note the tremors beneath their feet. It isn’t we of the Right who are causing them; it’s their nominal comrades and fellow-travelers, who are so desperate to win the field, and so appalled by the rising wave of evidence and sentiment against them, that they’ve taken to shouting moral denunciations against those who differ with them. Were they to gain power, re-education camps for us benighted ones would probably be Public Policy Priority One.
One final thought: the Levy / Hellie species of leftist is the sort that one can never persuade of anything. To such a mind, we are not respectable participants in an intellectual debate about politics, morals, and society; we are the enemy, precisely because we differ with him. Effort devoted to convincing him of anything is effort wasted. Worse, it can leave the freedom advocate weary, disheartened, and wondering why he bothers, a net loss for all concerned.
3. Stupid Or Evil: Judgment Day
May 2, 2004
Your Curmudgeon has written before — indeed, he’s done so twice — about the proclivity of the political Left for classifying its opponents as “stupid or evil.” He who possesses a mature self-regard, leavened with enough humility to allow that he could still be wrong, tends to bridle at such statements, especially when the objective evidence speaks otherwise. But the main point here is not the accuracy nor the completeness of the partition; it’s about the natural tendency of those convinced of their correctness to categorize their adversaries rather than to stick to the subject at hand.
Your Curmudgeon has a personal interest in this matter, having been intimately involved in politics for many years and in many ways. He’s seen this tendency at close range on many occasions. Indeed, he’s surrendered to it now and again himself.
Why can’t we “stick to the subject at hand?” Why are we so inclined to diagnose our opponents, rather than simply conceding their right to be wrong? Wouldn’t the latter approach go better with the concession that, as unlikely as it might seem, we might be the ones in error?
The matter comes to mind today because of two recent posts, the first by psychologist Pat Santy:
In a world where the Democratic Party leadership was anchored to reality, the debate with Republicans would be how to fight the war on terror better; and the American public would not be constantly subjected to the constant whining–by Kerry and others of his gormless ilk– about how we shouldn’t have gone to Iraq in the first place. Or the increasingly petulant demands to simply cut and run because everything is not going perfectly.
The proponents of doom and gloom in the reality-based community insist that it is Bush who is in denial (or people like me), even as they twist and turn every major victory in the war into more evidence in their own minds that we are losing. Instead of national rejoicing at the death of one of the enemy’s leaders; as we recommit ourselves to the fight, we instead witness the spectacle of Democrats pushing for surrender.
My patience with this kind of political denial, and the concomitant paranoid delusional system promulgated by the left, ended on 9/11. Their political insanity has become a threat that no rational person can afford to ignore because they put not only themselves in danger, but everyone else in this country.
Mark Alger, a Curmudgeonly favorite, provided this rejoinder:
…Pat’s diagnosis of the Left as mentally infirm is — in my not-so-very-humble opinion — itself a species of denial which refuses to impute evil motives to evil acts. We are unwilling to credit that the opposition could simply be a bad person — or civility demands that we not say so in polite company. So we try to explain away their illogic, their perfidy, their constant attacking the hull of the Lifeboat of the Nation with an auger as some kind of mental disease and accept that the evil they do as an unfortunate by-product of what — face it — isn’t really their fault.
And, nice and smart as Pat is, I have to call b******t.
We have to face facts, here, people. The Left knows exactly what it’s doing. The long-established — scorn quotes — “progressive” program for humanity has been carefully lain decades ago, its effects and by-products not only well known, but clear desiderata. Socialism isn’t an accidental byproduct of good — albeit mistaken — intentions, people; it’s the end of a long, patient, deliberate march toward exactly that goal.
There is truth in both these observations…but not the whole truth.
All human characteristics exist in a distribution. Only those that unite us as a species are anywhere near to uniformly distributed. Those that distinguish us as individuals are a different subject.
Though many traits factor into one’s relations with others, the ones most pertinent to political discourse are:
In fact, those traits are the ones that will most strongly color one’s relations with others on any subject where men can disagree. For man of good will Smith — remember Smith? — to hold opinions with justifiable confidence, he must first perceive the world around him with some degree of accuracy. He must form applicable generalizations about how it works, and compare the predictions of his theses to the verdicts of history. Assuming his predictions are satisfied, he can vent on the subject with a moderate assurance. But he must remember always that a truly exhaustive verification of any theory is inherently impossible — that no matter how many confirmations his idea might gather, there could still be a contradiction lurking in the shadows that will bring his whole edifice crashing down around him.
When Smith confronts Jones, a dissenter to his concept, those four traits will be reinvoked:
- “Has Jones accurately perceived the data? Is it possible that he has, but that I haven’t?”
- “Has Jones penetrated to an implication of my idea that I failed to see? Is it possible that testing that implication might provide the counterexample that would prove me wrong?”
- “Does Jones know more about this than I? Is he aware of a prior case where this idea was weighed in the scales of reality and found wanting?”
- “Am I truly open to the possibility that I’ve erred, or have I made my concept into an article of faith?”
Now, in the first three of the above assessments, Smith may legitimately entertain the possibility that Jones is perceptually, intellectually, or educationally deficient. Let’s imagine that Smith does reach one of the above conclusions. What can he do about it?
- He can present Jones with his own perceptions of the world, and invite Jones to “look where he’s pointing,” in the hope that Jones will then see what Smith has seen.
- He can attempt to lead Jones down the trails of implication that he’s followed but Jones hasn’t.
- He can direct Jones’s attention to sources of data on the subject with which Jones is unfamiliar.
- He can abandon the dispute as not worth pursuing: “You have a right to your opinion.”
- He can diagnose a flaw in Jones that has rendered him incapable of learning the facts as they really are, reasoning from them to the truth, or conceding that he’s maintained a wrong position.
Allow your Curmudgeon to be clear on one critical point: there are many flawed persons in the world. Some are quite clearly evil, insane, or irremediably mentally deficient. But not all persons who disagree with Smith will deserve to be adjudged thus. A man of good will with an adequate store of humility will refrain from reaching such a verdict until it’s beyond all reasonable doubt.
Political movements are internally heterodynamic. Different persons commit themselves to the same movement for different reasons. For some, it’s an intellectual thing: the concepts strike them as important and sound. For others, it’s an emotional response to the plight of others. For yet a third group, it’s their psyches’ cry to involve themselves in something, somehow. And for a fourth group, it’s the desire to gain and wield power.
The liberty movement, with which your Curmudgeon was once overtly involved and the majority of whose ideals he still shares, is not an exception. The power struggles at the pinnacle of such organizations as the Libertarian Party would seem completely familiar to a visitor from a more conventional group such as the Democrats or the Republicans. But wandering through the ranks, one can easily find representatives of the other three motivational clusters: those intellectually excited by the ideas of individual freedom; those whose hearts ache for all the oppressed of the world; and those who desperately need to be involved in something, lest their lives lack all “meaning.” These orientations and their intensities are distributed non-uniformly throughout the human species, a condition likely to persist until the Second Coming.
Nobel laureate Friedrich Hayek, in his book The Road To Serfdom, observed in a striking chapter titled “Why The Worst Get On Top” that the drive for power, and the subordination of all other priorities to it, is a critical advantage in the quest for organizational altitude and the authority over others that accompanies it. Leo Tolstoy phrased the matter even more succinctly:
In order to obtain and hold power, a man must love it. Thus the effort to get it is not likely to be coupled with goodness, but with the opposite qualities of pride, cunning, and cruelty.
Thus, we may expect to find evil men — those interested solely in power over others — disproportionately represented near the pinnacle of a political movement, where strategies are formulated, tactics are dictated, and the fruits of victory are carved up for distribution. But by inescapable implication, we will find evil men to be under-represented among the rank and file. Those well separated from the pinnacle, however wrong we might think them, are more likely to be moved by some “wholesome” (according to their lights) desire.
Yes, some will be certifiable — but how many? Aren’t genuinely delusional persons fairly rare in the common run of Man? While they might concentrate to a greater degree in extreme movements, ought we not to exercise restraint about such a diagnosis, as long as they exhibit the fundamental survival traits that constitute basic self-sufficiency?
This subject is inexhaustible. It touches on sanity, epistemology, virtue, and matters of good and evil, all of which are conceptual candle flames to this Curmudgeonly moth. But one must end an essay somewhere, and the time is drawing near when your Curmudgeon must mount his Cub Cadet 1022 and attack the Vietnam simulation his lawn has become.
Enlightened self-interest would dictate that one strive to look as far ahead for the consequences of one’s actions as his intellect and knowledge will permit. Indeed, one of the great faults of the Left has been an unwillingness to peer forward thus. But we of the Right are just as susceptible to the temptation, and in no direction more hazardously than this: we are becoming all too prone to demonizing our opponents wholesale, as they have done to us for lo! these many moons.
Your Curmudgeon is no angel made flesh. He’s done it too.
Let us concede that among our adversaries there are evil, delusional, and mentally and educationally deficient persons. But let us also concede that the great majority are not of those stripes, that we have among us a scattering just as flawed, and that the political discourse would best be served by assuming benevolence and competence in our debating partners as long as humanly possible. After all, to adjudge others as flawed beyond repair is, among other things, a self-exculpation for failing to carry the day. That alone ought to make us suspicious of our own motives for doing it.
Lay not that flattering unction to your soul, that not your trespass but my ruling speaks. — Hamlet, Act III, scene iv.