Anti-Rich Rhetoric

Recently, venture capitalist Tom Perkins referred to “parallels” between the demonization of the one percent in the U.S. and Nazi Germany’s war against its Jews.  “From the Occupy movement to the demonization of the rich embedded in virtually every word of our local newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, I perceive a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent.  There is outraged public reaction to the Google buses carrying technology workers from the city to the peninsula high-tech companies which employ them. We have outrage over the rising real-estate prices which these “techno geeks” can pay. We have, for example, libelous and cruel attacks in the Chronicle on our number-one celebrity, the author Danielle Steel, alleging that she is a “snob” despite the millions she has spent on our city’s homeless and mentally ill over the past decades.  This is a very dangerous drift in our American thinking.  Kristallnacht was unthinkable in 1930; I its descendant ‘progressive’ radicalism unthinkable now?”

This seems rather over-the-top, but let me play devil’s advocate.  Aren’t we always being told to be ever-vigilant against hatred and fear of the other in light of the Holocaust, that it is the height of naivete to think “it can’t happen here”?  The 99% movement is, by definition, a movement based on otherization.

Paul Krugman responds that “[e]xtreme inequality…creates a class of people who are alarmingly detached from reality…the rich are different from you and me,” which of course only fuels the otherization critique.

His next response is not at all to the point: “[E]very group finds itself facing criticism, and ends up on the losing side of policy disputes, somewhere along the way,” Krugman says, referring to tax increases on the rich and financial regulation.  But Perkins is not at all referring to policies, and does not mention the Obama administration that Krugman focuses on in his response.  He is talking about rhetoric directed against the rich.

So should “groups of people” find themselves facing criticism?  I’m not talking about people who form a political group, whose political goals are criticized (the NRA, the Center for American Progress, unions, etc.)  I’m talking about groups criticized based on identity that they create for themselves or someone else create for them (plutocrats, the 1%, the Jews, Catholics, immigrants, etc?)  I would say not, especially when the criticism is for who these people are rather than what they do (meaning, it isn’t clear what someone would do to avoid the criticism, and membership in the group itself makes one a target.) 

I also don’t think that groups who feel under siege from a majority usually take criticism, or even policy defeats, in stride or treat them as legitimate, as Krugman says (“Normal people take it in stride; even if they’re angry and bitter over political setbacks, they don’t cry persecution, compare their critics to Nazis.”)  Gay groups certainly see themselves as persecuted when a marriage vote doesn’t go their way.  Hispanics seem to see anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, as in Arizona, as pretty illegitimate.  Some black people in Krugman’s city, New York, certainly see themselves as persecuted as a result of stop-and-frisk policies.  Even unions, who form interest groups and enter the political fray, see criticism of their agendas as expressions of hostility to the working class. 

View of the Geopolitical Future From 1988

At a used book sale, I happened upon a book by Richard Nixon, written in 1988, called 1999, about his thoughts on foreign policy and the situation on the Cold War, and how to remain vigilant against every incremental advantage our worthy adversary might take in a struggle with no end in sight.

1988.  Gorbechev was on his last legs, of course.  Domestically, he was trying to save his economy with Glasnostroika and Paranosk.  Internationally he wanted the best deal he could get to get out from under the ruinous expenses of the Cold War and arms race.  Of course he was practically surrendering the Cold War and the Communist project, and hard-liners were after him, but what could the despised, beleaguered old man do?  Nothing but exit the stage after one concession too many, to become an elder statesman, and take his Nobel Peace Prize.  He didn’t know that yet, of course, but surely it was clear he lacked confidence in the strength of communism and the legitimacy of Russia’s relationship with its satellites, and was just trying to stave off collapse.  Right?  Well, here’s Nixon:

“Gorbachev is a new kind of Soviet leader.  Khrushchev tried to cover up Soviet weaknesses by bragging outrageously about Soviet superiority.  Brezhnev knew that his nuclear forces were equal to ours, but he still talked defensively by constantly insisting that the Soviet Union and the United States were equals as world powers.  Gorbachev is so confident of his strengths that he is not afraid to talk about his weaknesses.”

Nixon sees the same thing we do, but he doesn’t know how it ends, so he doesn’t interpret it the same way.  Gorbachev’s apparent weakness only proves his strength, like at a job interview. 

Moreover, “Gorbechev has supreme self-confidence, iron self-control, and a healthy degree of self-esteem.”  He wasn’t born to be a doormat, the nice guy who finished last, apparently.  “In the past forty years, I have had the opportunity to meet a number of great leaders—Churchill, de Gaulle, Adenauer…Gorbachev is in that league.” 

We now see Gorbechev as practically complicit in the collapse of his empire and the Communist system, so conscious of their weaknesses that he gave up without a fight.  Basically, we see Gorbechev the hardliners who perpetrated a coup against him saw him.  I had always wondered how the Soviets folded so easily, or why there wasn’t a coup against Gorbechev long before.  But it is clear that as late as 1988, it was possible to believe that his approach was a reform effort that would modernize the Soviet Union and make it a more dangerous opponent than ever.  We see history backward, of course, so what looks to us like a period of movement toward our own era will have looked like nothing of the sort at the time.

“Since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power three years ago…there have been no signs that the Soviet Union has altered its international goals….Under Gorbachev the Soviet Union’s foreign policy has been more skillful and subtle than ever before.  But it has been more aggressive, not less.  If his dramatic domestic reforms are as successful, in the twenty-first century we will confront a more prosperous, productive Soviet Union.”

“He also knows that in the last fifteen years the Soviet Union has made significant gains.  [Notes increased superiority in conventional power, achievement of superiority in land-based ICBMs, projection of power in Southeast Asia, Africa, Central America.]  Whatever its other weaknesses, communism has proven to be an effective means for winning and keeping power.  That experience serves to confirm Gorbachev’s ideological beliefs.  While he knows that the Soviet Union must address great problems, he still believes it represents the wave of the future.”

So one could see the Soviets’ problems as just like those any state faced, and expect that the state would adapt and survive as most states do, most of the time.  Nixon saw the same problems for the Soviets that we do in retrospect.

“[A]s [Gorbachev] surveys the international scene, he cannot be encouraged….

“As he looks to the west, he sees signs of political unrest in virtually every country of the Soviet bloc.  [Notes the West’s revitalized commitment to defense over the last decade.]

“As he looks to the south, the threat is already at hand: The Soviet Union is mired in a war in Afghanistan with no prospect for a quick victory….

“When Gorbachev looks beyond the regions on his immediate frontiers, he finds all his communist clients in the Third World queuing up for handouts.  They are not allies but dependencies….

“When Gorbachev looks at the battle of ideas, he sees that the communist ideology has lost its appeal.  After a visit to the Soviet Union seventy years ago, a liberal newspaper reporter, Lincoln Steffens, wrote: ‘I have seen the future and it works.’ Now we have all seen that future and it does not work….In the 1950s, many noncommunists in the Third World admired the Soviet model of economic development.  Today, no Third World government aspires to become a bureaucratic nightmare like the Soviet Union, with its jungles of red tape and its stagnant swamp of an economy.  Today, Americans who have been convicted of spying for the Soviets did it for cold, hard cash.

“Moscow’s military power is its only asset.  Great as that may be, military power cannot be sustained over the long term without matching economic power.  [Gorbachev knows he needs to reform and boost economic growth.]”

So why speak of the accumulation of client states as among the Soviets’ “significant gains” in the last 15 years, if these client states are a drag rather than a strategic asset, and if the Afghan War is clearly wearing the Soviets down?  Why should the Soviets’ military buildup be a strength if the arms race is crippling them, but not us?  Doesn’t that fact, and the Soviets’ shaky legitimacy in East Europe, obviously trump everything in the big picture?  Apparently, it isn’t obvious at the time.

                                                             ***

As to Gorbechev’s ideology, many people like to say something like the following: “Oh, he was a committed Communist, you know?  He wanted to reform the system so as to preserve it.”  Well, he wanted the Communist Party to remain in power and the Soviet Union to remain strong.  But is that an ideological commitment, or a commitment to the interests of the entities that he ran?  I’ve seen film of him telling the Estonian leadership to keep their people in line- he is willing to discuss changes, but only within the “framework of socialism.”  Well, what’s inherently non-socialist about Estonian independence?  Basically, socialism means whatever the state wants it to mean, as in China today.

In that sense, one could say, like Nixon, that Gorbechev remained confident in the future of Communism, in that he thought a nominally Communist Party would retain power in the USSR and its satellites; he was obviously not confident in strictly Communist economics.  Communism had proved itself to be “an effective means of winning and keeping power.”  Yet much of that power was based on ideological strength, and on the ability of the Soviet state to force industrialization through central planning and devote that industrial strength to its purposes.  By Gorbechev’s time, these things were no longer strengths at all.  Catchup growth had stalled out completely, and people were no longer tolerating inferior living standards for whatever reason.  Nixon sees that, but he doesn’t draw what in retrospect seem like clearly the right conclusions.

Thoughts on Cain and Abel

I recently watched a Bill Moyers panel discussion of Cain and Abel, part of Moyers’ series on Genesis. 

Panelists generally treated it as baffling that God rejected Cain’s sacrifice and accepted Abel’s, suggesting that Cain had a legitimate grievance while not condoning his murder.  They treat God as terribly cruel in rejecting Cain. 

One explanation suggested was that Cain brought the fruit of the ground, not of the tree, therefore not his best stuff.  I think this is weak. 

Genesis 4:2-4* reads as follows: “And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.  And in the process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering to the LORD.  And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof.”  So just rhythmically, Cain’s a tiller of the ground, and he gives the fruit of the ground, and that seems good.  Does “fruit of the ground” really sound like it excludes “fruit of the tree” here?  Certainly Abel’s giving his best stuff, the firstlings and moreover the fat thereof, but it isn’t clear that Cain’s giving inferior stuff.  I’m sure there’s some linguistic analysis backing that idea up, but as a layman I don’t know about it, and it seems just as likely that those who do are grasping for an explanation as that they really have the right linguistic analysis.

I instead find the explanation in later verses.  Gen. 4:6-7: “And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?  If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door.”  Then, Cain murders Abel.  So he succumbs to the sin that was lurking, allowing it to dominate him.  The problem is something inside him, relating, I think, to the motives he brings to the sacrifice, which I see as inseparable from those of the murder itself.*  Why should he be in competition with his brother for God’s favor?  If he sees things that way, were his initial motives likely to have been pure?

Those who see God’s initial rejection of Cain as baffling, or as planting the seed of murder in him, ignore verses 6-7, which in context suggest that the seeds were already there.

                                                            ***

Another question which baffled panelists was why God allowed Cain to kill Abel (more broadly, the usual why-do-bad-things-happen-to-good-people); and why God let Cain off lightly and protected him from human vengeance.  I’d suggest that God wants redemption and repentance for Cain, and so he must live on to make that moral growth possible.  If God had stopped the murder, that moral growth would not have been possible, precisely because there would be no consequences of actions and intentions.  Abel is already morally developed, so there is no need for him to continue his journey on earth.

This desire for repentance by Cain explains why God engages him in dialogue, even after the murder, rather than opting for pure vengeance: “And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother?  And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?  And he said, What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.  And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood.”

* All Biblical references are from the King James version, according to the internet: http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Genesis-Chapter-4/

** These motives need not have manifested itself in an outwardly defective sacrifice.

Interpreting Nietzsche

I read a collection of Nietzsche’s writings on truth and untruth, edited and translated, and it seemed contradictory.  Nietzsche seeks out the deeper motives of our pursuit of truth, and critiques the pursuit of truth on the grounds that it shatters the illusions we need to survive; but at other times he treats truth and knowledge as unproblematically good. 

One possibility is that he was criticizing the pursuit of truth as usually understood, and evaluating it according to a higher standard of truth.  He was using concepts like “truth” and “knowledge” and “good” in different ways when he critiqued them than when he used them as his own standards.  The other possibility is that he at some point becomes inconsistent.  To understand just how he was using these terms, I read back through the book (again, a collection of his writings on truth and untruth) and marked up each use of these concepts in a paradoxical or ironic way, and used a different marking for straightforward, unquestioning uses. 

Nietzsche’s questioning the value of truth, and seeking to find what drives the quest for it, is not by itself interesting- it could just be infinitely regressive (what is driving the quest to for truth about what is driving the quest for truth?  What is driving…etc.)  The source of interest must be in the answer he finds, or in the standard by which he makes his judgments.  And what standard could you possibly find that is external to truth?  After all, there are times when N. makes truth his own standard.  Below is what I concluded from this exercise; in some cases I was able to resolve the apparent contradictions, in others I doubt whether they can be resolved.

                                                                    ***

N. held that the intellect developed to help us survive, not to reveal the truth about things.  Truth and the understanding we need to survive are different things.  The intellect simplifies reality in order to grasp it, and thus falsifies it; it categorizes things for our convenience, when for N. two leaves, for instance, are by nature radically different. 

Philosophical concepts like Plato’s forms and the “thing in itself” and “pure knowledge” stem from this same basic error, as does Occam’s Razor and so all of science.  Kant’s view that we impose time and space and cause and effect on reality fits nicely here and N. draws on it.

Obviously, philosophers have long thought that truth isn’t immediately accessible, and that people naturally make errors, and obviously philosophers have sought to transcend these errors.  N., though, treats their efforts as more systematic extensions of the lies man naturally believes.

But things become less clear.  N. writes “The ‘thing in itself’ (which would be, precisely, pure truth without consequences) is utterly unintelligible…” (On truth and lie in a non-moral sense, 1) So is N. criticizing past philosophy by tracing it to the intellect’s natural falsifying of reality?  Or is he saying there is no ‘thing in itself,’ no truth apart from consequences, so that our natural intellect doesn’t falsify after all, and all reality concerns us?  To make him consistent, it has to be the former.  Thus, there is truth without consequence, it is just unintelligible by us, and the attempt to find it is fruitless.  Knowledge means recognizing our intellect’s falsifications as falsifications, not masking their falsity by going deeper into it through doctrines of forms and the like.

But how does N. really differ from modern philosophy about the “thing in itself”?  He says we can’t know the thing in itself, only how it affects us- well, don’t Locke and Kant agree?  Insofar as he holds that the observable world is all there is, he is vulnerable to his own critique that our intellects don’t exist to reveal the truth about things.  Insofar as he holds that reality is unknowable, he is potentially vulnerable to his own critique of people who devalue this world by judging it against another- the real world versus the observable world, in this case. (The Will to Power, 586) He, too, believes in a “thing in itself” that is more real than the world we experience, or at least believes this might be the case. 

Metaphysically, what may differentiate him from Kant and others who thought about the “thing in itself” is his belief that all possible worlds exist. (ibid.) It might follow that the “thing in itself” could be anything.  Ethically, the implication is that some are some better than ours, some worse, so there is no reason to use the “other world” to criticize ours.  Kant’s mistake was to conclude that the true world is unattainable, yet still treat it as imposing obligations on us. (Twilight of the Idols)

Yet N. at times seems to reject a “thing in itself” altogether, and thus to fall vulnerable to his critique of philosophy that assumes our intellects are so structured as to comprehend truth: “[A bad, ascetic philosophy] will seek error precisely where the real vital instinct finds truth most unconditionally.  It will…disparage bodily being as illusion, likewise…the entire conceptual opposition of ‘subject’ and ‘object’ – errors, nothing but errors!  Renouncing belief in its I, denying its own ‘reality’: what a triumph! – and not just over the senses, over appearances, but a far greater kind of triumph, a violation and cruelty to reason: this lustfulness reaches its peak when the ascetic self-contempt, self-ridicule of reason decrees, ‘There is a realm of truth and being, but reason is barred from it.’”

                                                           ***

N.’s social contract theory is basically Hobbesian, with a different focus.  He believes we naturally lie to protect ourselves from the consequences of each other’s lies, we agree to a set of socially agreed-upon lies.  This is the origin of our belief in “truth.”  There is a Rousseau-like regret at this subduing of natural man, and giving him an erroneous, rigid concept of Truth rather than his natural spontaneity: “As a rational being he now submits his actions to the rule of abstractions: no longer does he let himself be swept away by sudden impressions, by intuitions, he first generalizes all these impressions into paler, cooler concepts…[I]n the realm of those schemata something becomes possible that could never be achieved by intuitive first impressions, namely, the construction of a pyramidal order of castes and degrees, creating a new world of laws, privileges, subordinations, and boundary demarcations, which now stands over against the other intuitive world of first impressions as the more fixed, more universal, more familiar, more human.” (ibid.)

So natural and social man are both self-deceivers, but social man is more deeply deceived, believes more in fixed truth.  Natural man is superior both by the standard of actual truth and that of life or happiness or whatever N. thinks is morally good.  We’re back to the idea that truth is inaccessible to us, because our minds are structured to see it as fixed and to falsely simplify it.

                                                              ***

So our senses and intellect falsify, and we can’t get beyond that falsification to the thing in itself.  We can transcend error enough to recognize that there is no actual reason the reality should correspond to our intellect, but not enough to know what reality actually is.  So what should we do?  Well, “[M]an as architectural genius far surpasses the bee: the latter builds with wax, which it gathers from nature; man builds with the much more delicate material of concepts, which he must first fabricate from out of himself.  In this, he is to be admired- but not on account of his drive to truth, to the pure cognition of things.”  So we should continue creating, without thinking our creation represents reality.

Art is the answer: “[W]aking man himself is clear that he is awake thanks only to the rigid and regular web of concepts and, for that reason, occasionally comes to believe that he is dreaming when that web of concepts is torn apart momentarily by art.…Owing to what myth takes to be the constant working of a miracle, the waking day of a mythically vibrant people, the ancient Greeks, for instance, is in fact more akin to dream than to the day of a sober scientific thinker.  If every tree can on occasion speak as a nymph; if a god in the disguise of a bull can abduct virgins; if the goddess Athena herself is suddenly seen, accompanied by Pisastratus, driving a beautiful team of horses through the markets of Athens—which is what every honest Athenian believed—then at every movement, just as in a dream, anything is possible, and all of nature swarms around man as if it were the masquerade of the gods…” (On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense)

Now here, Nietzsche is using “honest” to mean roughly “accepting a socially agreed upon lie,” but he seems to treat that as a good thing.  This is the kind of social “truth” that enriches life, rather than making it shadowy and abstract.  “Man himself, however, has an invincible tendency to let himself be deceived and is enchanted with happiness when the rhapsode tells him epic tales as if they were true, or when the actor in a play plays the king even more regally than he is in reality.  The intellect, that master of dissimulation, is free and discharged from its other slavish duties, so long as it can deceive without harming.” 

But N. has made clear that when the intellect is also dissimulating when it is supposedly being truthful- it is, again, just telling useful lies.  So sometimes he’s saying “hey, these things you believe are truth are actually lies, so to hell with them,” and other times he’s saying “the intellect dissimulates, and that’s a good thing- that frees it from stultifying social truths.”  Dissimulation is good when it is creative, bad when it is “slavish” or utilitarian.  But ancient Athens united the two in a brilliant synthesis: the beliefs that held society together also made possible a great culture and vibrant life.

Continuing the contrast between hearing a story or watching a play, and the slavish duties of utilitarian life, N. writes: “Everything [the intellect] does now, in contrast to its earlier deeds, involves dissimulation, just as what it did before involves distortion…Those enormous beams and planks of concepts to which man clings needily his whole life long to save himself are for the liberated intellect merely a scaffolding and plaything for its most daring feats.

                                                          ***

It follows from all this that when we’ve actually found truth, we have learned that the way to live is to consciously lie (because the truth is that truth and life have nothing to do with each other.)  In “The Gay Science,” N. is more explicit about the solutions to the problems he has posed.  “I awoke suddenly in the midst of this dream, but only to the consciousness that I am still dreaming and that I must go on dreaming in order not to perish….among all those dreaming, I, too, the ‘knower,’ dance my dance…one who knows is a means of drawing out the earthly dance and in this way belongs among the masters of ceremony of existence.” (The Gay Science, 54)

Similarly, “Those exceptional thinkers, such as the [Presocratic] Eleatics, who, in spite of everything, fixed and held fast to the opposites of natural errors, thought it possible also to live this opposite…they were of the belief that their knowledge was also the principle of life.  But in order to assert all this, they had to deceive themselves about their own condition: they had to credit themselves with impersonality and duration without change to misconceive the essence of knowledge…and to conceive of reason in general as a wholly free, self-originating activity.” (The Gay Science, 110)

The Gay Science returns us to the question of whether N. is saying that there is no reality beneath our perceptions, or only that such a thing is unknowable.  “What is ‘seeming’ to me now!  Certainly not the opposite of some kind of being—what could I possibly say of any such being, other than the predicates of its seeming!”  (The Gay Science, 54)  Here a lie is not only more consistent with life.  It isn’t even just that truth is beyond human limits (what could I possibly say); rather, seeming is “certainly not the opposite of some kind of being”; seeming and being are not opposites, there is no reality independent of human interpretation, is at least one way of interpreting this passage.  So a “lie” even becomes more consistent with truth itself.  It isn’t any longer that we lie to ourselves, after all, but that we create truths. 

Only, some truths are better than others.  Some truths give us what we need only for mere survival, while others facilitate a higher life, free from necessity- as, again, those of ancient Athens did.  N. routinely gives the impression, though, that his criterion for judging things is by the standard of “life,” or whether a truth is life-affirming.  Doesn’t that just yield utilitarian survival?  N. seems to have believed, though, that in the long run utilitarianism doesn’t support life.  After all, “we have art in order not to die of the turth,” and “the will would rather will nothingness than not will,” and “we love life, not because we are used to living but because we are used to loving,” and “he who has a why to live can bear almost any how,” and so forth.

Returning to the paragraph about the knower continuing his dream:  The knower sees “ that one who knows is a means of drawing out the earthly dance and in this way belongs among the masters of ceremony of existence; and that the sublime consistency and interconnectedness of all knowledge is and will be perhaps the highest means of sustaining the universality of dreaming and the understanding all these dreamers have among themselves, and so, too, even the duration of the dream.”  (Emphasis his)  But how can there be a “sublime consistency and interconnectedness of all knowledge?”  If reality is, after all, sublimely consistent and interconnected, aren’t we connected with it, too?  What is connecting things, if not some similarity, some rules of logic?  Can it still be true that subject and object, for instance, are “absolutely different” spheres, as in “On Truth and Lie in a Nonmoral Sense” (1)?  Isn’t N. returning to the idea that should for him be hateful, that all truth is one?  (“Everything simple is merely imaginary, not ‘true.’  But what is real, what is true, is neither one nor even reducible to one.”  Will to Power, 536)

                                                            ***

N. famously begins “Beyond Good and Evil” with “Suppose truth is a woman- what then?”  The answer is that dogmatic philosophers have taken the wrong approach to reach her.  Here N. more than ever indicates that he believes truth is attainable, and only wants a better route to truth than past philosophers, not to give up on truth altogether.  He wants to free us from past philosophers’ errors, like any other philosopher, really, or like Plato wanted to free us from the cave. 

Speaking of Plato, “the worst, the most protracted and most dangerous of all errors hitherto was a dogmatic error, namely, Plato’s invention of pure spirit and of the Good in itself.  Now that it has been overcome, however, now that Europe breathes free of this incubus and might at least enjoy a healthier—sleep, we, whose task is precisely to be awake, are the heirs of all the strength fostered by the struggle against this error.”  This contrasts with The Gay Science, quoted above, where the knower only awakes to the understanding that he is still dreaming, and must dream. 

 

 

Freedom of Speech and Religion

Aside

Salon’s Brian Beutler weighs in on the Duck Dynasty kerfuffle:

“If you write about politics for a living, and you were bored by the ‘Duck Dynasty’ story, or wrote it off like you might write off a gaffe or some other creation of the outrage industry, you’re in the wrong line of work. Phil Robertson’s comments about gay and black people and social welfare — and the way they pierced public consciousness — explain more about our country’s political culture than almost anything else that happened all year.”  Beutler implies that the outrage machine and our political culture are mutually exclusive, but the outrage machine is a huge part of our political culture.

Beutler claims that Robertson’s comments were “ugly and wrong,” saying other writers have already supplied the proof of this claim.

He also says the comments “don’t fly in most of America.  If Robertson were, say, running for Senate in Missouri as a Republican, the GOP would have disowned him immediately. But Robertson isn’t a politician. He’s not a mouthpiece for a political party that needs to maintain a national brand identity. Rather, his remarks reflect the views of an American cultural subset the GOP depends on for its survival. His suspension made him a tribune of modern conservatism. Thus, conservative Republicans (not just opportunists like Sarah Palin, but party standard-bearers) felt impelled to rally to his side without actually echoing anything Robertson said.”  Beutler’s account does not explain how the GOP base could let it get away with disowning a Senate candidate but not a cultural figure.  Yet it assumes that this is somehow a paradoxical state of affairs. 

The explanation, though, is that party bases accept that the goal in politics is to get the best deal you can, meaning it is necessary to field candidates with broad appeal and prioritize political goals.  In the non-political realm, they want to be able to express their ideas, free of the constraints of politics power struggle.  When their ideological opponents extend the power struggle to the cultural sphere, it is natural that they should fight back- they are fighting for a country where it is permissible to believe certain things, even if these ideas do not become policy.  For example, many of Brian Beutler’s progressive friends, and possibly Beutler himself, support a single payer insurance program.  But they accept the need for the Democratic Party to field candidates who do not support single payer.  However, if a pundit on CNN argued for single payer health care, and the Tea Party launched an effort to boycott, Beutler would likely strongly oppose this boycott, and try to put pressure in the opposite direction.  Also, the Democratic Party in 2004 did not run candidates who went to foreign countries and said they were embarrassed by George W. Bush, but most progressives strongly denounced the campaign to boycott the Dixie Chicks and delegitimize such expression as unpatriotic.

                                                                                                                                                          ***

Progressives often note that the First Amendment does not apply to A&E’s (since reversed) suspension of the Duck Emperor, arguing that businesses can fire who they want and private organizations can bring whatever pressure they want.  (The roles were reversed in the case of the Dixie Chicks.)  The narrow argument is a bit of an awkward one for progressives, who tend to argue that an unfettered, “formally” free market leaves people vulnerable to concentrated economic power.  Probably no progressives (and very few conservatives) want companies to be allowed to fire people from their job for political organization or expression off the job. 

That being said, I don’t think the government should have forced A&E to rehire the Duck Founder, or forced radio stations to play Dixie Chicks music.  Rather, just as the Duck Patriarch is free to express his views, and GLAAD is free to use its economic clout to delegitimizes such expression, I am free to deplore and condemn their doing so.  I may value a culture of free expression and openness (not just a political regime founded on these ideas) just as strongly as GLAAD or the duck guy do their views about sex. I accept that there is only a very narrow range of things politicians can say, but I don’t want those rules for all of society.

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To return to Beutler: “Republicans are getting extremely good at defending the right’s cultural revanchism* on fictitious Constitutional grounds rather than on the merits.”  In the case of the Duck Dynasty row, Beutler is correct that there is no Constitutional ground for opposing GLAAD’s bullying.  However, again, there is nothing paradoxical in not endorsing an idea (not defending it on “the merits”), while nevertheless supporting cultural tolerance of its expression.  Moreover, there is a distinction to be made between a position being wrong on the merits and its being unpopular or treated as illegitimate- something Beutler likely recognizes in the case of the Dixie Chicks.  For that matter, GLAAD’s right to denounce Phil Robertson and threaten to boycott A&E is not contingent on their being right on the merits, any more than Robertson’s right to speech is dependent on his being correct on the merits.  The merits really have nothing to do with the question.

Beutler continues on the theme of defending unpopular positions on “fictitious Constitutional grounds”: “In addition to Robertson, they also support private companies fighting [the contraception mandate]—not because they have a problem with birth control mind you but because something something religious freedom.”  Or, in other words, because of religious freedom.  The contraception issue, unlike the duck dynasty kerfuffle, involves government force.  In linking the two, Beutler is himself equating government force with private enforcement of norms.  This goes against the argument strongly distinguishing private efforts to punish and silence speech some people don’t like from government censorship, which is the whole premise of the progressive defense of GLAAD.

Beutler also equates opposition to forcing a private company to provide contraception with opposition to contraception itself- meaning, if I understand him correctly, opposition to a woman’s right to use contraception at all.  This obliterates any distinction between economic and political power, whereas, again, the defense of GLAAD’s attempt to silence Robinson as consistent with free speech requires making this distinction strongly.

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More broadly, Beutler’s and progressives’ support for the contraception mandate abolishes the concept of government neutrality on moral questions, or in other words of tolerance.  If we distinguish between morally opposing contraception on one hand, and opposition to forcing A to pay for contraception for B on the other, people can act on different moral views and still coexist peacefully.  If we reject that distinction, government has to impose one moral concept on the entire country.

Indeed, Beutler quite casually does away with the entire liberal tradition of religious toleration.  “If certain religious objectors should be exempt from the contraception mandate then other religious objectors should be allowed to ignore other laws…And that obviously would invite chaos.”  Luther and Calvin had no doubt that there would be chaos if a single moral theory didn’t dominate a society; nor did Mohammed.  In some form or another, people throughout history have believed religious freedom is incompatible with order.  A few centuries ago in a small part of the world, as a result of enormous intellectual and political effort, people began to demonstrate that this wasn’t true. 

One might object at this point that Beutler isn’t saying that religious freedom is incompatible with order, but that exempting people from laws on religious grounds is incompatible with order.  But one can easily resolve this by not imposing the sort of laws that people have religious objections to.  The question is whether this approach is compatible with social order.  Again, people have been with Beutler on this question for the vast majority of history, but the modern liberal tradition demonstrates otherwise.  Beutler acts as if this entire tradition just hasn’t happened.

Now, obviously, the government has to ban, for instance, human sacrifice.  The liberal project is about basing the state on the minimum moral claims consistent with order and a certain amount of justice.**  But Beutler would throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

Even where a liberal regime doesn’t refrain from imposing a law in the first place, it can in fact grant religious objections without creating chaos.  America has a tradition of allowing conscientious objections to military service, and of giving Catholic priests immunity from revealing what was said to them in confession.  The Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to allow many such exemptions, including allowing some Indians to use illegal drugs for religious reasons.

* According to Wikipedia, “Revanchism is a term used since the 1870s to describe a political manifestation of the will to reverse territorial losses incurred by a country.”  Obviously, Beutler is using the phrase to refer to conservative attempts to reclaim culture war ground.  Yet it isn’t clear that Phil Robertson was trying to fight the culture war- he was expressing his own views, but not trying to make them dominant, the way GLAAD does.  Note also that GLAAD ultimately lost its fight, so it may be GLAAD that is now fighting for ground it lost, or that it never had.

** Usually it is conservatives making this point as an offensive argument, whereas here I am making it as a concession to Beutler.  The whole concept of being personally opposed to abortion as the taking of human life, but supporting its legality, obviously falls apart on Beutler’s theory.