Posted by Rojas @ 5:13 pm on July 30th 2011

We are not enemies.

I don’t know that I can deal anymore with the way political ideologues treat those with whom they disagree. As a democratic polity, I fear we have badly lost our way.

I’ll begin with a couple of acknowledgements. For starters: I suppose that there ARE people out there in America who desire to see their nation fail. There have been traitors in American history. There are people who think that America ought to be cut down to size, relative to other nations. As a rule these people are not deep cover agents, hiding behind a more politic mask; as a rule they tend instead to be rather open in their views; nonetheless, I will accept that there are perhaps a few people hiding amongst us who wish to plunge America into chaos in order to further some agenda of their own.

I further accept the existence of human beings who are motivated, not by a different concept of the good, but by sheer naked malice. Some people may indeed be incapable of experiencing joy except that brought them by witnessing the suffering of others.

These two types of people exist. We have reliable evidence of it. Accepting that postulate: how many of them do you yourself interact with on a daily basis?

As far as I can tell, pretty much nobody hangs around on a regular basis with people who actively strategize for the purpose of seeing America burn. I tend to conclude that, though such people exist, they are exceedingly rare. And, accordingly: if you think you have spotted such a person, you are about 99.98% likely to be wrong in your conclusion. Very likely what you have encountered is another American like yourself who is working, not towards havoc for its own sake, but towards a different concept of the good. It is possible that this concept of the good is indeed RADICALLY different from your own. It is likely that this person’s concept of the good would involve the elevation of the life circumstances of people similar to himself or herself. I’m guessing that your concept of the good would involve the same thing. I doubt that you or the other individual wishes suffering upon people different from himself for its own sake.

Odd, then, that we find words like “traitor” and “terrorist” to be so prevalent in modern American political discourse. Indeed, this week more than any previous, I see them as becoming turmoil. I used to see the terms used by people I didn’t particularly respect, like Ann Coulter or Michael Savage, generally as a means of selling books to idiots. Now I see people like Andrew Sullivan making use of the same tactic.

Evil exists. It doesn’t exist within any one particularly distinctive group of people, let alone within any particular modern American political movement. Evil is that thing lurking inside you and me which tells us that those unlike us are not fully human. Evil is what convinces us that it is acceptable to make use of that other human being as a means to our preferred ends. It tells us that the other individual lacks moral agency equivalent to our own and can therefore acceptably be compelled to take particular actions of our choosing. It tells us that we can torture. It tells us that we can initiate force. It is that force which enables us to convince ourselves that ours is the only concept of the good. And it is the force which helps us persuade ourselves that the actions of those with which we disagree must be motivated by motives more base and cruel than those which govern our own choices.

I am hearing a lot of people this week call for “compromise” while simultaneously insisting that their ideological opponents are motivated by a specific desire to destroy the American economy. What is the logic of “compromise” with such a person? Should we only destroy HALF of the economy? And, moreover, can these people possibly believe that there is any means left of engaging in dialogue after words like “terrorist” have been deployed? Compromise is a function of an environment in which people of differing opinions can engage one another with mutual respect. In the absence of respect there simply aren’t conditions in which compromise is possible. All that remains is ideological war.

I think I am done with engagements in which one side or both practices demonization.

In fact, I’ll go a step further. I think I’m done listening to commentary related to the inner motives of people other than the author himself. There exists a remarkable preponderance of American political commentators who enjoy playing armchair psychoanalyst in the absence of any training. These people think they possess a window into the brains of those with whom they disagree; indeed, the more they disagree, the more aggressively they assert the ability to decode hidden agendas. It is an assertion which reveals an utter absence of humility in the author, and an amazing contempt for the infinite variety of human experiences and motives. I barely even know why I do what I do half the damn time. I can’t fathom what it must be like to think you can fully understand what motivates others.

To these ends: I will invite our nine readers to call me out when I make assertions about the motives of others, and I am going to do the best I can to confine myself to discussion of actions and of policies rather than of their adherents. Moreover, I am going to start being an utter bastard about those who dehumanize people with whom they disagree. I’ve got no more use for people who tear apart the fabric of civic discourse because they think their personal agenda item of the moment is more important.

At 39 years old I have completely lost certainty about political issues; I am constantly bewildered and torn to the point at which I don’t think I have a discernible political ideology anymore. To the extent that I am sure of anything, it’s this: virtually every actor on the American stage is doing what they think is best for the country as a whole. Given that this is now a minority opinion, I will be defending it aggressively from this point forward.

16 Comments »

  1. How about a link, an example of one of these non- Coulter like persons, someone you normally might think hinged, who is now un? Because in the last week, you have posted this semi implied defense of the GOP strategy, an energetic complaint about liberal use of the goddamn chart, a sarcastically titled post about Obama’s presser, and repeated comments in Brads post generally defending the GOP. Fine fine fine they aren’t evil traitors out to destroy America. I stipulate. But we have a solid and unbroken 10 year history of reading about the liberal traitors at places like WND or the predictable right wing a-hole spots. I don’t tend to read Daily Kos or the standard progressive spleen venting blogs. So where is it happening that bugs you so?

    I just don’t care if there is a bit of hyperbole out there, because what is driving it is about 25 GOP congressmen, including at least one fucking presidential candidate, who are against raising the ceiling at all. They are willing to risk economic disaster for either their “insane” economic perspective or their “evil” personnel electoral protection. There seems to be an additional 50 or so that will not vote for any bill that includes ANY tax increase, even if it where at a 10 to 1 ratio with spending cuts and structural changes to entitlement programs. Add in most of the rest of the presidential candidates with that group, who are not evil or insane, merely possessed of a confused ideology with a frothy mixture of self aggrandisement and a willingness to risk the country’s economic security over it.

    I gave the GOP full credit for the FY11 budget tactic of waiting until zero hour: it was a strategy leading to a rational goal. But this? Something else entirely. Some progressive bloggers spewing nonsense pales, yet you only have posts for that?

    Comment by Jack — 7/30/2011 @ 8:04 pm

  2. I don’t even know where to begin with that. If it’s less than explicitly clear above, the aforementioned treason smears against progressives–“Treason”, “Liberal Fascism” and similar garbage–are a big part of what I’m pissed off about. Examples on the other side here, here, here, and here.

    You don’t care for the existing political environment. Do you figure that people walling themselves off into ideologically homogenous enclaves might have had something to do with creating it? Do you figure that additional examples of what you call “hyperbole” represent a solution?

    Once again: “compromise” cannot exist in an environment which is perceived as a battle of good vs. evil. That’s not a difference which anyone is willing to split. If we value solutions to situations like the one we’re facing now, we have to first get past this infantile Manichean approach to politics.

    Comment by Rojas — 7/30/2011 @ 9:24 pm

  3. Perhaps you will find this overly pedantic, but it seems the key difference between the conservative examples you allude to, the collected works of Coulter or Malkin as suitable examples, and the current anti-tea party links provided, is that the former is alleging actual treasonous ideology and core values, while the latter is addressing the effect and/or current tactics. Maybe you find that a difference without a distinction.

    “Do you figure that people walling themselves off into ideologically homogenous enclaves might have had something to do with creating it?”
    Yes absolutely, I totally agree that that a unfortunately large portion of the current tea party as done exactly this, while a difficult to define swath of movement conservatism has done this and more, what with birtherism and the near daily accusations of Marxism about Obama. The absurdity of these groups, when contrasted with the merely over the top accusations due to the actual, rather than imagined, actions of the GOP and its very real, as opposed to fantasy land, danger and implications.

    On this subject, what I read in your posts in comments is false equivalence.

    Comment by Jack — 7/30/2011 @ 10:01 pm

  4. I see.

    So when a teachers’ union representative walks up to me and asserts that the state GOP’s failure to increase educational funding constitutes prima facie evidence of a secret Republican plot to abolish public schooling in the state of Kansas, I should feel…how, exactly? I should excuse it in that it stems from a policy-related cause? I should take comfort that it’s not a complaint about a birth certificate?

    Do I take it that, if I’d been expressing frequent outrage about the conspiratorial babblings surrounding Obama, you’d take my concern more seriously?

    Comment by Rojas — 7/30/2011 @ 10:11 pm

  5. I wow a teacher’s union rep! I have never heard of anyone meeting a citizen with crazy partisan opinions before! I could never possibly find an anecdote from, you know, every single day of every year for the history of this country of someone saying something that crazy.

    What you can take is my observation that the sum of your posts and comments on the debt ceiling debate appears entirely focused on either directly defending the actions of the GOP/tea party or castigating the over the top rhetoric of those opposing them.

    And on a side note: whatever wackiness your unionista might express, is there in fact a segment of the Kansas tea party and GOP that actually would like to abolish public education? Cause that does in fact seem to be a tenet of more than a few libertarians, you know, those government schools and all.

    Comment by Jack — 7/30/2011 @ 10:46 pm

  6. That last paragraph comes across as rhetorical, but I actually meant it as a real question. I am curious as to how deep that well is in Kansas. One can always count on the Lew Rockwell crowd pining for an end to gov schooling, but how wide spread is that idea among state level tea partiers and the like?

    Comment by Jack — 7/30/2011 @ 10:56 pm

  7. People exist, in Kansas and elsewhere, who would like to abolish public schools (I support public schooling, for the record). Anyone who thinks that the movement is in any way likely to achieve its aims is high on something. Anyone who thinks that a lack of financing increases for the schools is evidence of membership in the movement is looking for an excuse to hate his or her political opponents.

    You note that someone says something along the lines of my union member every day. That is rather my point. I think that these assumptions about the party opposite are the root of a lot of the dysfunction in our political culture, and that the more we see them manifested, the more we ought to oppose them. Which, I suppose, I will.

    Comment by Rojas — 7/30/2011 @ 11:42 pm

  8. As an example of the sort Jack is looking for, I had a moment this morning. I listen to NPR on my commute, and have, like Rojas, been increasingly befuddled by the rhetoric. I’m not even talking about the spittle-flecked dick-swinging you might find in the blogosphere, I’m talking about just the basic language and premises’ of standard, morning-commute news programs. I don’t go quite as far as Rojas in terms of language – rather than traitors or terrorists, what always strikes me when listening to NPR or reading, say, TalkingPointsMemo.com, is what I call the “Republican as space alien” meme.

    The first segment was about the debt ceiling, and included interviews with Claire McCaskill and some Republican congressmen. In Sen. McCaskill’s interview, she praised the new compromise bill being floated now, but worried that House Republicans won’t get behind it because, in her words, it takes “ending Medicare” off the table. The host thought this was a good point, and asked the Republican congressman whether House Republicans will support anything less than ending Medicare. To which he replied, somewhat incredulously, “I’m not aware that ‘ending Medicare’ was ever on the table, and I can’t think of a single House Republican who has ever advocated that.” The host thought he was being pedantic, and said “okay fine, not ending, but gutting, certainly.” Of course the conversation didn’t go this way, but even if a Republican (like, for instance, me) WERE to advocate “gutting” Medicare (and would that more did), I feel like a great many mainstream commentators would read that not as a position of “this system doesn’t work and is bankrupting us so I would propose scrapping it in favor of more market-oriented approaches to find a better delivery mechanism for senior health care”, but rather would read it as some kind of Heath Ledger’s Joker’s desire to just see the world burn. There is just so little empathy and, as Rojas says, trust that the people across the table from you actually want what’s best for America too and do not, in fact, just hate seniors and want poor people to die convulsing in the streets. But I honestly think for a lot of mainstream commentators, that thought simply does not occur to them on a regular basis.

    Besides the things that Rojas points out, there is another huge downside to this: namely, that most of what government does – indeed most everything in the political realm generally – gets accepted unquestioningly. Meaning, we foreclose on our civic imaginations and choose instead to just lock the terms of the debate into a gnawing around the edges – instead of a question of how best to provide seniors with health care, we limit our debate to whether to marginally increase or marginally decrease Medicare. It simply does not occur to us, most of the time, to step back and wonder about the function and structure of Medicare itself. Or, for instance, we get a massive health care overhaul because of whole system is seen, rightly, as failing in key and fundamental ways, and instead of a reordering of that system in key and fundamental ways, or rethinking the structure and function, we get what amounts to a package of subsidies and vouchers. Instead, what we get is an idiotic debate that amounts to, on the surface, whether you are “for” health care, or against it (as under the Republicans in the oughts, you were either for freedom/the troops/security, or not).

    The second segment on NPR this morning was about a new organization that brings corporate leaders to the table of the legislative process, sitting them in a room with congressmen to talk about the nuts and bolts of business legislation. Can’t remember the name of the organization, but it sounded mostly like a town hall kind of process that invites business leaders specifically. Anyway, as you might imagine, the host read this as letting Big Business write laws directly, and interviewed the current chair (a congressman from the South) to talk about it. And the crux of the questioning amounted to “but what about the people?” And it was kind of a funny conversation, because the terms of the debate were so skewed from the word go. The congressman said “…uh, who exactly do you think corporations are? 90% of working people in my district are corporations in some form or another. That’s what a corporation is, just a bunch of people together trying to make money.” “Exactly, it’s all about the money, for the corporations.” “By ‘make money’, I don’t mean CEO bonuses, I mean, like, people working for a living so they can eat.” “Well yes congressmen, but you don’t have a lobby group for voters.” “What exactly do you think a congressman is?” the guy replied. “Democracy is a lobby group for voters.”

    And that conversation stayed at that level, with the host insisting that Corporations was some other class of person – an evil person looking out for the bottom line – and totally distinct from People, those who, I guess, live to be exploited by corporations. Again, this wasn’t a Marxist literary theory reading of The Jungle, this was a host on a mainstream daytime radio news program who was pretty certain the congressman in front of him was some Manchurian candidate taking orders from Big Business, whereas the congressman thought he was on to talk about a program that has representatives meeting with reps from the business who employ 90% of the people in their district to hear their thoughts on how they’ll be impacted by legislation.

    I’m rambling now, but my point is I think we have dropped into this level where the two sides are just coming from such fundamentally different places and each are certain that the other exists only, and solely, to screw him. It’s almost comical to listen to.

    Comment by Brad — 8/1/2011 @ 10:13 am

  9. Heh, Peter Sunderman gives Rojas another entry.

    For the vigilant apocalypse watchers, Robert Greenstein, a budget analyst at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is warning that John Boehner’s proposed debt plan “could well produce the greatest increase in poverty and hardship produced by any law in modern U.S. history,” which he apparently believes is the terrifying likely consequence of cutting government so much that federal discretionary spending only rises from $1.034 trillion to $1.234 trillion over the next decade.

    Comment by Brad — 8/1/2011 @ 10:20 am

  10. Actually that’s emphatically NOT what I’m talking about. He makes an assertion about the consequences of the law. I have no problem with that kind of argument (although I think this one in particular is not likely to be accurate). My problem is with assertions about the motives of the law’s creators.

    Hyperbole about the effects of policy is a different discussion. And I could hardly be a high school debate coach if THAT offended me…

    Comment by Rojas — 8/1/2011 @ 10:59 am

  11. Fair enough. I’m partly talking about a complete lack of perspective generally.

    Comment by Brad — 8/1/2011 @ 11:01 am

  12. Brad #8

    Uh, I listened to that same broadcast this morning, Brad, and I have to say your characterization of it telling in its own way:

    1. The Host did not seek to reinforce Claire McCaskill’s rhetorical point by asking it. In fact, the Dreier brought it up.

    2. The host did not use the word “gutting” in response to Dreier, and instead sought apply to the much more neutral “changes”.

    Here is a snippet of the transcript I found at NPR:

    http://www.npr.org/2011/08/01/138884574/debt-deal-a-republicans-perspective

    INSKEEP: Will enough Republicans vote yes to put past this?

    Rep. DREIER: I believe they will and just having listened to my colleagues, I’ve got to say that I don’t know of a single Republican who wants to eliminate Medicare. Everyone has been forced to pay into the Medicare fund and through their FICA taxes, and that’s not something…

    INSKEEP: Well, let’s grant that changes to Medicare on the table, we can argue over how to describe them, that’s fair to say. But you think that enough Republicans will vote yes. And are you committed to allowing a vote on this, willing to let it pass even if it required Democratic votes to get to that majority?

    I don’t remember a second segment fitting your description, but given how different my perception is from yours on this topic in general, I wonder if that is because I missed it or because we are simply not hearing the same things.

    Comment by tessellated — 8/1/2011 @ 7:12 pm

  13. It was on at a different program, actually – can’t for the life of me find it because I can’t remember the name of the damn lobby/corporation thing. The Republican, who was a Southern congressman and an idiot, did not exactly acquit himself well – rest assured that my paraphrase of him was as inaccurate as in the first program – actually I’m positive it’s much more so (as he was an idiot), but that was the gist of it, all lipsticked up.

    Anyway, thanks for the transcript – my memory is notoriously faulty and I wind up paraphrasing and then putting it in my own words by the end of it. I did remember that Inskeep allowed that the congressman’s point was a fair one, but the way he came off seemed to me like he thought it was more semantics than anything. I chose not to quote the “why did your colleagues threaten to torpedeo the economy?” question at the end, though I thought about it when posting but wasn’t sure it was the same segment or if I was remembering some other program (I have NPR in the background all the time I drive). But I’m glad you pulled the transcript for that one.

    Comment by Brad — 8/1/2011 @ 10:23 pm

  14. But rest assured, when I’m vaguely recalling something, I’m almost certainly paraphrasing with wide license and usually doing so in service of a point rather than the direct quote – I really ought to break the habit of turning it into a scene by using quotation marks. Anyway, you got me on this one, but listening to a lot of NPR, the kind of lean I’m talking about runs pretty strong through the coverage.

    I tape record interviews professionally, for the record. :)

    Comment by Brad — 8/1/2011 @ 10:32 pm

  15. Back to the topic, here’s a nice headline/lede pairing in the New York Times today.

    The Tea Party’s War on America

    You know what they say: Never negotiate with terrorists. It only encourages them.

    Bonus: referring to the Tea Party’s basic stance on public debt as a suicide vest.

    Comment by Brad — 8/2/2011 @ 10:59 am

  16. Hah, and Pete Sunerman beats us both with a full-on roundup.

    Comment by Brad — 8/2/2011 @ 1:23 pm

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