The Political Animal

The (Lost) Art of Democratic Argument – A Day Trip (3)

from Eric Scheie at Classical Values, on the subject of “odious debt” from which a citizenry might be granted relief:

The Cato Institute has another piece on odious debt:

Most debts created by Saddam Hussein in the name of the Iraqi people would qualify as “odious” according to the international Doctrine of Odious Debts. This legal doctrine holds that debts not used in the public interest are not legally enforceable.Far be it from me to compare people like Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid to Saddam Hussein. They didn’t build huge palaces or massacre their political enemies. But how can reckless policies which are certain to bankrupt a country ever be considered to be in the public interest? Saddam Hussein would say that his were, and I think all tyrants would make the same claim. As to consent, once again, all the Saddams would argue that of course the people consented. Just ask Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; I am sure he will say that the people love him and he is acting in their interest.

But tyranny is tyranny. It doesn’t have to reach the bloodthirsty levels of a Saddam Hussein. Tyranny is arbitrary power, especially illegal and unconstitutional power.

Which raises the question of the day: Are we now living under tyranny?

I sometimes get myself worked up into emotional states, and when I do I try to avoid writing about the topic that upset me, because I find I am more capable of being logical, analytical, and rational when I am calm. And it is really easy to get all worked up and scream that these people who want to invade our privacy, steal our money, and run every last aspect of our lives are tyrants.

But the other day I was calm, collected, unemotional, relaxed, you know, completely sober in every sense of the word, and I concluded that, yes, it is beyond question that the United States government has become tyrannical.

On sober reflection, I still agree with my sober and reflective thought.

Let’s start with Scheie’s gracious concession that Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid might be distinguished from Saddam Hussein on the basis that they “didn’t build huge palaces or massacre their political enemies.” Good that he was able to find some moral space between the parties. I think the same space may be found between Hussein and G.W. Bush. Yet there has to be for Scheie some basis of comparison, so he finds it in fiscal policies that are “certain to bankrupt a country,” and in this the parties are all alike. But, of course, the current policies are not certain to bankrupt the country (if I were required to bet money on the prospect – I’d rather not – I would bet they won’t), but because that certainty is required for the foolish moral equivalency Scheie draws, he asserts it anyway. He then claims, out of some faculty other than a critical one, that Saddam Hussein, like the Democrats, thought his fiscal policies for the good of his country – another equivalency. There is good reason, actually, to think that Hussein did not think about the good of his country, not in any way, by any definition of the words “good” and “country,” that the rest of us would understand, but even if he did conceptualize in those terms, Scheie would here be making the kind of relativistic argument that a believer in “classical values” would otherwise reject. He has just offered the fiscal equivalent of “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

Just because Hussein might have made the same claims as Democrats – and Republicans – doesn’t mean that the claims are true or equivalent, anymore than wrapping oneself in a banner of national liberation and freedom fighting means, on the basis of the claim alone, that one doesn’t meet a definition of terrorist. Individual cases need to be judged against established criteria.

Let’s continue with the observation that Scheie takes no note in his agonizing over the debt of the policies of George W. Bush and the amount of debt his administration racked up, or the trillions – a quadrupling – accumulated during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Wherever we are right now, we didn’t get here by the guidance of Barack Obama alone, but this kind of slanting is necessary when you want odiously to compare people to a tyrant like Saddam Hussein, as many people Scheie would reject compared Bush and Hussein. Playwright Tony Kushner said he thought both of them evil. I’ll bet that really burned Scheie. Now look what he is up to.

Scheie says we’re “living under a tyranny.”

Here is is

/ˈtɪrəni/ Show Spelled[tir-uh-nee] Show IPA
–noun, plural -nies.
1. arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power; despotic abuse of authority.

2. the government or rule of a tyrant or absolute ruler.

3. a state ruled by a tyrant or absolute ruler.

4. oppressive or unjustly severe government on the part of any ruler.

5. undue severity or harshness.

6. a tyrannical act or proceeding.

Some of these words are subjective. Your “oppressed”?  Hey, I feel oppressed, too. I use you, but you abuse me. And just and unjust we could argue all day. There are times many of us, when young, feel our parents to be tyrants. But “unrestrained,” “absolute rule” is the starting point for tyranny, from which the severity and harshness and all the rest may objectively follow. You can dislike the policies of your government a whole, whole lot – it can even, actually, be misguided – but that doesn’t make it a tyranny. That’s why Scheie is waiting so eagerly for November. The meanings of words do matter, and one might think a believer in “classical values,” like good, honest democratic debate, might well believe that, too.

Judging by this nonsense, apparently not.

(H/T Shrinkwrapped)



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The Political Animal

The (Lost) Art of Democratic Argument – A Day Trip (2)

Yesterday at the Huffington Post, Shawn Amoei offered a post entitled “Neocon War Plans Undermine Iranians’ Quest for Democracy.” The post opened, after that already auspicious title,

The “Bomb Iran” crowd, fresh off their historic blunder in Iraq, is now at it again with Iran. As if the daily drumbeat of articles and op-eds advocating war with Iran was not enough, Republicans in the House of Representatives have introduced a truly dangerous resolution — explicitly green-lighting the use of force by Israel against Iran.

Amoei then went on to cite Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen as stating that any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be, he quotes Mullen, “calamitous.”

Now, if I weren’t someone who reads this sort of stuff for reasons other than genuine interest in what the writer has to say, I would have been ready to bolt at the title, and I definitely would not have passed that introductory paragraph, and so would never have learned how Amoei deceptively used Mullen’s statement. Working backwards, then, we need to know that Mullen, on Meet the Press, described both options – an attack aimed at disabling Iran’s nuclear program and the alternative of permitting a nuclear armed Iran – as bad, potentially calamitous outcomes. So, you see – you see what he did there? Amoei cherry picked Mullen’s statement about as manipulatively as can be done.

But back to that title. I imagine Amoei is a graduate of the Glenn Greenwald school of categorical thinking and reflexive labeling. True, there may be some individuals who never met a bomb they didn’t want to drop, and I’ve noted before that Charles Krauthammer himself is rumored to fly around in Washington airspace with actual hawks; however, this automatic, unthinking, empty use of the term Neocon to designate anyone who would ever consider under any circumstances the use of military force should be one of those signs that the writer you are about to read may, should you already agree with him, pet your peeve, but he is not about to offer anything in the way of respectable argument. Just in case one does not think the level of argumentation sufficiently lowered to begin, Amoei offers us an alternative label: the “bomb Iran” crowd. Crowd. You know, that bunch that hangs out around the corner of 96th and first. (Or is it the Yale club?) They harmonize with John McCain sampling the Beach Boys. Strategic foreign policy and national security considerations are here reduced to juvenile conceptualizing generally applied to groups that like to beat up hippies, fags, and suits or knock back Manhattan’s amid oak wainscoting while they trade legacy admissions. Then we’re “fresh” off the Iraq War (what’s the start date for “fresh”?) amid a primitive “drum beat” for war. Throw into that first paragraph “Republicans” (as if none other considers the possibility that action against the Iranian nuclear facilities may be necessary) and for good measure “Israel” and one has so slanted the presentation that quibbling about the appropriateness of the phrase “war with Iran” seems almost beside the point.

Not beside the point is the full title. One can certainly reasonably argue that military action and its range of consequences might set back the potential of democratic change in Iran. One can also argue that said potential has been pretty effectively squelched already this past year by Iran’s tyrannical regime, or even that the upheaval of any attack on the nuclear facilities might destabilize the political situation enough to bring about a democratic resurgence. One can argue all of those possibilities and more – that’s what honest, democratic argument is for – but the title states that the “quest for democracy” is already being undermined, right now, and not be any actual attack, but by the planning (thinking?) about the possibility.

This is not thinking. It’s thuggery. You were mugged on the way to the second paragraph.



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The Political Animal

The (Lost) Art of Democratic Argument – A Day Trip (I)

The other day I posted a TED video of Harvard’s Michael Sandel on “The Lost Art of Democratic Debate,” or argument. Today, we’ll look at some random (hmn) examples of what he might have been talking about.

Here is Sharron Angle, Tea Party challenger to Nevada’s, and Democratic Party Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, from the Las Vegas Sun’s Nevada Wonk:

Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle chalks up her shift — some say flip-flop — on Social Security to gathering more information.

Angle said today during the opening of her North Las Vegas headquarters that she never wanted to privatize Social Security. Instead, she said, she wants to “personalize” it.

But during a debate in May on the public affairs show “Face to Face With Jon Ralston,” Angle said, “We need to phase Medicare and Social Security out in favor of something privatized.”

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has assailed his opponent for the comment. He opposes Social Security privatization.

President George W. Bush also tried to privatize a portion of the Social Security program in 2005. The move was defeated, and Republicans saw their popularity plummet.

I, myself, in creative contexts, have played with connotative distinctions between “private” and “personal,” the former suggesting a possible secretiveness, as in Merriam-Webster’s third definition, that is not connoted, properly, by the latter. But none of this is relevant to the debate over Social Security accounts, and, really, we don’t want politicians and the government playing semantic games with us, do we? Yet they do, all the time, don’t they? Even “reformist” Tea Party candidates, who the moment they run for office and wish to win decide they will treat “the people” like idiots – as we see above in the verbal shell game switch between words.

Then there is the the not entirely negligible matter of logic. The origins of Social Security, we know, are in the Great Depression. What we are just possibly managing to live through is the closest thing to it since. If you have an IRA or some kind of 503B or 547 retirement account, not to ignore any non-retirement investments, did you notice how their balances did not soar during the economic meltdown of 2008-09? Had it been privatized – oh, goodness, even if it had been personalized – that is what would have happened to your Social Security account. Some security. Not very social.



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Culture Clash

Michael Sandel: The lost art of democratic debate

Harvard’s Sandel offers a pithy “real-world” introduction to thinking about justice – Aritstotle’s still “da man” – and defense of reasoned, democratic debate.

There is a tendency to think that if we engage too directly with moral questions in politics, that’s a recipe for disagreement, and for that matter a recipe for intolerance and coercion; so better to shy away from, to ignore, the moral and the religious convictions that people bring to civic life. It seems to me that our discussion reflects the opposite: that a better way to mutual respect is to engage directly with the moral convictions citizens bring to public life, rather than to require that people leave their deepest moral convictions outside politics before they enter. That, it seems to me, is a way to begin to restore the art of democratic argument.

(H/T Normblog)


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The Political Animal

The Re-Opened Mind

It has been longer than usual since the last Open Mind. Though the series has been quiet on our blogs, ShrinkWrapped and I have been in contact behind the scenes. We paused to review the Open Mind experiment and consider what might be improved. Improvement here means a process that is in some way educational. It explores ideas and sheds light on their nature and boundaries, even in disagreement – disagreement that can be strongly and still civilly expressed. Intellectual civility requires a focus on ideas and not personalities: its purpose is to understand even disagreeable ideas rather than simply reject them with a critical label. This is the spirit that was meant to motivate our exchanges, expressed in Shrink’s words to me, to which we often return, concerning

how two reasonably bright, reasonably decent people can disagree so significantly in their perception of reality.

In our reconsideration, we have thought that we might try to seek areas of agreement rather than the obvious points of disagreement. The latter are not likely to alter in argument, in which case, what’s the point, except the comfort of reaffirming one’s opinions? The new idea, instead, is that in finding some agreement, we would seek then the parameters of the agreement. From there, we would explore the points of departure from each other, hoping fully to understand the disagreement rather than simply disparage it. For instance, in considering the size of government, we would begin by establishing those functions of government on which we agree, and why we agree on them, and then apply the ideas inherent in the agreement to the reasoning for the emerging disagreement. We are going to attempt to have a civilogue.

We will increase the number of posts in each exchange by one: claim, counter claim, response, and counter response. This way each of us will have equal opportunity to respond, amplify, and clarify. We will not rush to respond, but extend the exchange over perhaps a couple of weeks. Each exchange will begin with a highlighted statement of the issue, like the affirmative statement or the resolution in some forms of debate, so that the issue of the discussion is clear and won’t be misunderstood, though we won’t restrict how the issue is stated in any formal way.

While the exchange between Shrink and me on a chosen topic will end after four posts, we hope readers will continue their comments long after the date of a last post, and do so in the spirit of inquiry rather than of declaration. We hope the commenting will take place in a manner we will seek to represent ourselves in our posts. We hope that participants will support the claims they make with reasons and evidence. We hope that participants will respond directly to challenge questions and to counter arguments intended to test and explore their claims, rather than merely restate their claims. We hope that participants will explore and discuss the ideas actually presented in the posts and comments, and not argue against generic conservatives or liberals, or against reformulations of ideas represented as something other than what they originally claimed to be.

We hope to do better.

The next Open Mind begins Monday.


Detail from Government. Mural by Elihu Vedder. Lobby to Main Reading Room, Library of Congress

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