Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rand Paul: Head-stomping and the tyranny of virtue

The tyranny of virtue is a concept usually associated with the behaviour of certain figures in the French Revolution who were so convinced of the moral rectitude of their mission that they could justify any atrocity in its defence -- hence The Terror, and its most effective tool, the guillotine. 

The violence that we have seen exacted on political opponents from associates of Republican Senate nominees Rand Paul (Kentucky) and Joe Miller (Alaska) may not be prelude to a bloodbath, but it is very disturbing.

Absolute certainty has always frightened me. It doesn't mean I'm not principled; I'd like to think I am. It's only that I'm open to the possibility that I could be wrong about certain things or, more gently put, my perspective could be improved by new information or the force of a better argument.

I'm just not seeing a lot of openness on the part of conservatives that they might occasionally be wrong or that, if evidence were provided, they could modify their views. 

In fact, they don't seem much interested at all in rational argumentation or providing reasons for the opinions they hold. What seems to motivate them instead is the strongly held belief in the moral rectitude of their mission -- a mission that is mostly about embracing a set of values that are impervious to reason. It's about constructing a world in which they would feel more comfortable -- as unconnected to reality as that might be. As we know, it's about "taking their country back." 

I am reminded of the infamous comment made by Indiana state senator Earl Fredrick Landgrebe, who, in defence of Richard Nixon during the Watergate hearings, said, "Don't confuse me with the facts."

What we are living through in America today is most emphatically not about the facts. 

Sam Tanenhaus, in his book The Death of Conservatism, makes the by-now-familiar argument that conservatives feel that their "culture has been taken away from them, that America has been robbed of its values by liberals or they would say socialists like Barack Obama."

It's a politics of resentment, anger and revenge... We're seeing a politics of vengeance now from the right. When Rush Limbaugh said he wanted Barack Obama to fail, he was not just spitting out a provocative line, he was actually handing out a kind of marching orders to the right, which they now seem to be following.

As in the French Revolution, it is the need to punish enemies and traitors that leads to the tyranny of virtue. It is the view that there are those who are right and those who are wrong and heads are going to have to roll to protect the purity of the message. There can be no middle ground.

So we are left with a pretty odd dynamic: progressives want to talk policy, while conservatives want to crush, quite literally, progressives.

When it is pointed out that Republican Senate nominees Christine O'Donnell and Sharon Angle, along with Sarah Palin (among others), are after all not very bright, conservatives come close to responding by saying, "what's your point?" For conservative true believers, it's not about how much their standard bearers know or how well they debate; it's about the values they represent.

This is not about policy discussions or building consensus or having solid facts or making good arguments. This is about being right. And when you think you're right, and are unshakable in that faith, there is no space left to engage the other side who probably only want to confuse you with the facts in an attempt to move you off your version of the truth.

Politics at its best is about negotiation and compromise, but you cannot negotiate with those who believe they are completely right and you are completely wrong. Witness the wholesale rejection by Republicans of Obama's legislative agenda, and the willingness of conservative voters to reject Republican politicians who can be shown to have supported any small part it.

The current conservative dynamic is not about politics at all; it is about absolute moral certainty. In its mildest form, it is the kind of certainty that leads to a poorly functioning political system. In its most extreme form, it leads to Republican supporters and campaign workers in places like Kentucky and Alaska resorting to violence to thwart those who threaten their crusade, however these Republicans define it.

It would have been better if Democrats had figured this out a while ago.

In any case, Robespierre would be proud.

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  • So much for bi-partisanship. When will the Dems realize that nothing they do wo appease the wingnuts will make any difference? These people live in a fantasy world. Time to ignore their feelings and kick butt !

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:13 PM  

  • I assume you meant that in a figurative sense ;-)

    No more head stomping, please.

    By Blogger Capt. Fogg, at 12:13 PM  

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