This Ruthless World

Adventures in absurdity

Six More Things I Want Every Politically Opinionated Person To Take To Heart

Law_speakerDuring the previous presidential election cycle, I wrote a post entitled 12 Things I Want Every Politically Opinionated Person To Take To Heart, in which I discussed some of the most irritating absurdities of American politics.  Now that we are going through this thing again, here is a follow-up.

 1.  Climate change denialism by politicians (probably) is not about scientific ignorance.  I know, it’s easy to look at a conservative politician these days and point and laugh at his folksy, provincial know-nothing attitude on climate change. It’s easy to brand conservatives’ mistrust of scientists and hostility to education as a phenomenon driven by irrational fear and millenarian religiosity.  And it’s easy to chastise progressive politicians for not pushing harder to do something about all this.  But alas, it’s not scientific ignorance that drives  climate change denialism among the political class.  It’s the practical approach to power.

Truth is, any large oil-producing country is going to have a problem accepting the urgency of climate change.  Any society that has historically derived substantial revenue from fossil fuels is going to resist doing something about it.  Solutions, no matter how practical and how grounded in science, are going to be a tough sell, not only to its major economic actors, but to the general population as well.  We want the government to fix things – including any ecological developments that threaten our livelihoods and way of live – but we want the government to do so without spending any money or creating any inconveniences along the way.  That is impossible; something’s got to give.  In this environment, politicians merely do what they have to do to hang on to power. They know they aren’t going to get any cookies for ensuring the happiness of some future generations three hundred years hence, after they are long dead.  But they know they can lose power NOW if taxes go up, or fuel gets expensive, or unemployment skyrockets.  So their reactions to the prospect of what would amount to a necessary but unpleasant reformatting of a large sector of the economy understandably range from outright populist refusal to paying lip-service to globalist feel-goodism while being careful to do nothing of substance.

2.  Most politically opinionated people lack consistency.  As much as I hate the facile “both sides do it” bit, people across the political spectrum are equally egregious offenders here.  Listen, my friends: your passion means nothing without consistency.  In fact, a lack of consistency turns your passion into an exercise in hypocrisy.  If you truly care about freedom of speech (for your group), then don’t go clamoring for people who say stuff you don’t like to be legally punished.  If you truly care about religious freedom, don’t go around supporting politicians who pass laws designed to shame, restrict, isolate or punish people who follow a religion that’s not yours, or people who don’t follow any religion.  If you are truly against torture, don’t rationalize or defend same when it’s practiced in the name of causes you support.  If you decry the United States as a “police state”, then don’t defend, whitewash or rationalize things like collectivization, population transfers, mass repressions, purges and totalitarianism practiced by other regimes, even if you find those regimes’ ostensible goals appealing.

Anyone who is familiar with my blog knows how much I care about context and nuance, but some things are non-negotiable, nor can they be split fifty-fifty.

If you believe in the freedom of “respectful” speech, or “reasonable” speech, or “tasteful” speech, or any otherwise qualified speech, then you don’t believe in the freedom of speech; if you support the notion of any content-based censorship, you are pro-censorship, period.

If you believe that torture is wrong unless it’s necessary to achieve some laudable goal, then guess what?  You are pro-torture.

If you believe circumstances sometimes warrant summarily executing politically or socially dangerous people as an exception to due process, then you don’t believe in due process.

If you believe a regime committed to human rights should be allowed to violate the human rights of its enemies for a while, in order to establish a more perfect society respectful of human rights, then you don’t really support human rights.  You also don’t support human rights if you think bad people don’t have human rights.*

It’s easy to express lofty ideals when doing so is convenient.  But it is consistency that represents the true test of your commitment to your principles.  Are you prepared to stick to your principles for the sake of people who turn your stomach, or if doing so will cast a bad light on your friends?  Are you willing to at least not overtly betray those principles?  Know what your values are and be true to them.

*There are, of course, many, many examples of political hypocrisy, so I’ll just tell you about my favorite.  The French Revolution was inspired, at least at the top, by the Enlightenment, whose greatest luminaries were against capital punishment.  And yet, the revolutionary government marched happily into the Reign of Terror, with its notorious regular beheadings (and other forms of execution), even while its members still embraced the abolitionist ideals.  Robespierre himself was against the death penalty.  He justified his support for terror and mass executions with the argument that some people (like the royal couple and the aristocracy, for instance) broke the social compact, thereby forfeiting their basic human right not to suffer the death penalty.  So there you go: the death penalty is wrong, unless you deserve it, in which case it’s fine.  Please, my politically opinionated friends, don’t make these rhetorical pretzels.  No one, absolutely no one who still has even an ounce of integrity, has ever been, or ever will be, fooled by this demagoguery.

3.  Stop saying the American legal system is a “joke” and the like.  Let’s be clear: the US has got some major housecleaning to do. Like, seriously.  A continuing legacy of racism, the awful treatment of Native Americans, the militarization of law enforcement … I don’t have to go through the whole list, do I?  However, I cringe when I hear someone sanctimoniously declare that the legal system in the US is a “joke”, or that this country “invented genocide”, or that it is, generally, The Worst.  Such statements are made from a combination of profound ignorance and equally profound arrogance – not a genuine desire for positive change.  It’s pointing out the obvious that there is no justice system anywhere in the world that’s cheap, easy to navigate, infallible, uniformly fair and provides a satisfying remedy for every wrong.  Nowhere in the world will you find a society that’s free from prejudice or malicious/incompetent/biased/corrupt public officials.  I’ve written previously  what I think about Reverse American Exceptionalism – but it’s the one about the American legal system being a “joke” that particularly gets me.  Perhaps this is because the average member of the general public is astoundingly ignorant about jurisprudence.  You don’t like the legal system?  Propose a better one then.  And not as a string of platitudes, either, but in concrete, practical terms.

4.  The similarities between modern American conservatives and old Soviet communists are FREAKISH.  Once again, I need to begin with a caveat that no political side is entirely free from sin.  So I won’t put “cult of personality”, “cultural tone-deafness” or  “benevolent anti-Semitism” on this list, since you can easily find these things on the Left as well as on the Right.  But.  BUT.  I’ve noticed this curious tendency among conservative politicians and bloggers to throw around the words “Soviet”, “Stalinist” and “communist” in response to any policy or idea they oppose as mere insults devoid of any context.  And that’s a shame, because the actual historical context is frequently the exact reverse of what is implied by the insult: many of the classical tenets of conservatism are strikingly similar to the goals and policies that the Soviet regime embraced. Things like:

  • Contempt for the environment and a devil-may-care attitude towards industrial pollution, with no regard for the consequences to ordinary people.  The Soviet Union was a gleeful polluter and authored some of the most spectacular environmental disasters of the 20thcentury.  Chernobyl, of course, is the one that comes to everyone’s mind – and indeed, the major reason for the scope of the aftermath is that the nuclear power station lacked the (expensive) safety and containment features that those pesky environmentalists like to insist on – but Chernobyl barely scratches the surface.  The USSR destroyed the Aral Sea, one of the world’s largest lakes – and by “destroyed”, I mean it disappeared from the map.  It diverted and rerouted rivers, screwing up local climates and wiping out habitats.  It created the world’s largest bioweapons dump. And the world’s largest chemical weapons dump.  And the world’s most contaminated city.  (In fact, there’s another Soviet-era city vying for that dubious honor.)  And it’s home to some of the most polluted and dystopian towns on the planet, like Norilsk, Dzherzhinsk and Achinsk (an apt name indeed, considering it sounds so much like a sneeze).  The USSR even managed to foul up Antarctica.

    Bellingshausen Station, 1992

    So it makes little sense to decry environmental regulations as “Soviet”.  Quite thecontrary: Soviet environmental policies are an American conservative’s wet dream.

  • Creepy preoccupation with people’s private lives, especially their sex lives, combined with relentless promotion of traditional family values and rigid gender roles.  I wrote at greater length about this here.
  • Extreme homophobia.
  • Profound distrust towards intellectuals and especially the creative class, seen as morally loose, relativistic and detached from the common man; an aversion to art that’s abstract, symbolic, mystical, ambiguous or susceptible to varying interpretations – and a preference for art that’s representational, straight-forward, propagandistic and devoid of subtext or “Easter eggs”.
  • Nativism impregnated through and through with implied, if not overt, racism and ethnocentrism.  Suspicion towards anything foreign and a belief that certain foreigners are in a conspiracy to “corrupt” the fatherland’s pure culture.
  • Promotion of a certain quasi-religious asceticism, which posits that ordinary people should find pleasure in work for work’s sake and not aspire to a good standard of living or, godforbid, luxuries.  Yes, I know, that one surprises me too.  Aren’t American conservatives supposed to  be all about capitalism and material gain?  For some weird reason, those are seen as virtues only when exhibited by elites.  When conservatives talk about the rank-and-file, they do this weird about-face and switch to something straight out of the handbook on proper communist virtues. Workers are entitled ingrates if they expect to be paid at all, and if they want anything beyond what is absolutely necessary for survival, they are being spoiled babies and lazy moochers.
  • Belief in a special destiny and a preordained mission to dominate the world – not just militarily, but politically and culturally.
  • A fanatical embrace of the death penalty as a core value.
  • Preoccupation with any slightest perceived disrespect towards symbols.  Fringes on both sides may be in favor of censorship, but it is conservatives who tend to disproportionately freak out over a lack of ritual respect towards national symbols.
  • Restrictions on abortion and even birth control.
  • Strong resistance bordering on complete inability to follow the example of another nation-state in anything.  We are the best at everything, we should do everything differently, and if you think someone did something better, and first, you are an un-American (slash-anti-Soviet) traitor.
  • A paranoid preoccupation with loyalty, coupled with a perception of a lack of such paranoia as political apathy or outright treason.
  • Cultural militarization and an idealization of all people and things military.
  • Insisting on a history curriculum that is triumphalist (i.e. propagandistic) and omits uncomfortable facts, regardless of their importance or accuracy; a curriculum designed to inculcate loyalty to the system (again: propagandistic), rather than inform.

5.  No, it’s not necessary for a candidate for the US Presidency to have military experience or “business experience”.  Despite the fact that they have no problem putting forward presidential candidates who have neither (or who have no military experience, plus business experience that consists of abject failure), right-wingers are fond of saying that an effective US President must have military and business experience.  That’s nonsense.  Unless you are one of those people who believe that foreign policy = bombing the shit out of some place, I fail to see how having served in the military counts as some especially effective training for competent civil statecraft.  Soldiers don’t learn diplomacy; they don’t learn how to run a civil society; they don’t learn about any policy other than uncritically deferring to superiors and killing the enemy.  And if the rationale here is that people who have experienced war first-hand are more judicious than those who haven’t in committing troops to mortal conflict – I really don’t think history supports that hypothesis.  That’s not to say that a veteran can’t prove to be a competent statesperson, too; it’s just that military experience doesn’t make one more qualified to govern a nation-state than someone who hasn’t served.  A nation-state, after all, is about so much more than defense.  Is military experience relevant to statecraft?  Sure – among lots of other types of experiences.  Homemaking experience is relevant.  Medical experience is relevant.  Educational experience is relevant.  Law enforcement experience is relevant.  But no one says a candidate should have been a homemaker or a doctor or a teacher or a cop, do they? It amuses me to hear some windbag hyperventilate:  how can we let a lily-livered civilian be the COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF of the armed forces?  Isn’t it a travesty?  No: it’s in the Freakin’ Constitution of the United Freakin’ States.  The Founding Fathers (who didn’t all have military experience, fyi) designed the system in such a way as to permit a civilian to command the military.  You know why?  Because their aim wasn’t to create a military junta in this county.  In this country, the military serves the civilians, not the other way around; it’s a government of civilians that makes policy, which includes defense.  It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

As for business experience, its only significance is presumed favoritism towards business interests over the interests of workers, consumers and the general public.  Business experience does not, however, translate into an understanding of macroeconomics or public interest.  Most importantly, it does not translate into an ability to govern, period.  In fact, successful business people tapped to run public agencies based specifically for their business acumen tend to make a mess of it.   That’s because the government isn’t a business, and it can’t be operated like a business.

6.  You are not required to say “Islamic terrorism”, but it’s okay if you do.  I was in the midst of writing this when the Orlando Mass Shooting happened, so I debated with myself whether or not to include this item. I ultimately decided to include it with this clarification:  this is NOT about whether political leaders should include the magic incantation “Islamic terrorism” whenever they talk about Orlando, to demonstrate that they are being serious.  Rather, I want to explore the other extreme – the idea that the word “Islamic” shouldn’t be used at all, regardless of context, when discussing Islamic terrorism.  Lest you think I’m battling a strawman, here is a recent The Atlantic article wringing its hands over the fact that people call ISIS ISIS.    (Interestingly enough, last year, the same Atlantic published an article explaining why it’s stupid, counterproductive and plain inaccurate to call ISIS “un-Islamic.) And this is, by far, not the only example of Smart People arguing that terrorism committed in the name of Islam should never be referred to as “Islamic” because it has the effect of legitimizing terrorism (by linking terrorism to a major religion), or defaming Islam (by linking it to terrorism), or because real Islam is “peaceful”, and you shouldn’t call anything Islamic unless you are fully versed in Muslim theology and can back up that characterization with citations to the Quran and assorted religious texts.

This is a very strange position to take, considering that when discussing history generally, people don’t shy away from characterizing violent religious endeavors as such.  The Anabaptists of Munster were pretty much the ISIS of the 16thcentury, yet we still call them “Anabaptists”, nor does anyone deny they were Christian and Protestant.   We call the Crusades “the Crusades” without worrying whether this misrepresents Christians or defames the Cross.  We generally discuss fringe religious movements and bad things done in the name of religion without constantly launching into a lengthy disclaimer that such beliefs and acts do not represent “real” religion, which is apparently all about hugs and apple pies, always.

Here is the thing: ISIS is Islamic and ISIS soldiers are Muslim.  The end.  They don’t represent all Muslims, or “mainstream Islam”, but they are Muslim.  They are Muslim because they so self-identify; because they consider the Quran their holy book; because they are overwhelmingly culturally Muslim, in other words, they come from a Middle-Eastern Muslim background. That is enough to make them Muslim for purposes of a general discussion; no need to get into the weeds of Islamic theology.  There may be doctrinal differences within Islam (as is the case with all religions), and I have  no problem believing most Muslims do not support terrorism.  I understand, further, that to Muslims living in the US, a lot of the rhetoric coming from Trump and his camp is very scary.  Still, bad things have been done, and continue to be done, in the name of religion.  It’s neither inaccurate nor unfair to mention that when it’s relevant.  And, for ease of discussion and to avoid confusion, it’s okay to call ISIS ISIS and its followers Muslim.

That is all.



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5 thoughts on “Six More Things I Want Every Politically Opinionated Person To Take To Heart

  1. AlexanderZ on said:

    A few remarks:
    If you believe a regime committed to human rights should be allowed to violate the human rights of its enemies for a while, in order to establish a more perfect society respectful of human rights, then you don’t really support human rights.
    And yet we have all these war tribunals to very explicitly state when it’s OK to violate human rights, for how long and in what way. Same with the criminal law. These are obvious examples, but how about a more difficult example:
    Imagine a nation, say, somewhere in the Muslim world, recovering from the overthrow of its dictator and for the first time establishes something approximating a modern democracy. Now imagine that in the chaos that followed the regime change some extreme religious factions have started terrorizing the country with the explicit goal of taking power by force and killing everyone who doesn’t adhere to their particular flavor of religion.
    Said zealots have supporters, but also occupy and operate in areas where the majority doesn’t support them. The country is currently weak and poor and doesn’t have the resources to do precision strikes against every single cell.
    What is it to do? Should it violate the human rights of the people in war-torn areas to let the others live in relative peace? Or should continue with ineffective surgical strikes knowing that there is a real risk of the war spreading to other areas and resulting in either the zealots taking control or the army deciding that the democratic experiment has failed and that it’s time to bring back the previous dictatorship?
    Perhaps a bit of context and nuance is in order.

    The similarities between modern American conservatives and old Soviet communists are FREAKISH.

    Oh yes! Not only that, but the similarities between the modern Russian conservatives (who all worship the Soviet Union in one form or another) and the modern US conservatives is also freakish. I can’t count the number of times when Mikhail Leontyev flat out copied something from Fox News.
    Having said that, most of the things you describe took effect only after Stalin took over. Not that the would-be-USSR was much more pleasant during Military Communism (hell no!), but the country was still a radically different place, particularly during the NEP. Also:

    Restrictions on abortion and even birth control.

    Is half false. USSR had, for the most part, a very permissive attitude towards abortions, while simultaneously being very anti-birth control. Go figure.

    I still like your post very much – I just had some quibbles. 🙂

  2. AlexanderZ on said:

    The bolded text was supposed to be a quote and the smiley should have gone to the end. Also WP gave me a weird error message when posting the comment.

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