Monday, February 28, 2005

It's Not That Bad

Here's one more response to Ted H., this time regarding his criticism of Juan Cole's "chicken hawk" argument. Here's his objection to Cole, quoted at length:

...[E]ach one of us had to take a position on the Iraq War.  ...imagine you considered the case on its merits (of course, unlike Jonah, reading lots of books!) and came to the conclusion that war was justified.  ...But now imagine you've realized that you're not disposed to change your life and join the military.  What should you do?  Well, maybe you should try harder to convince yourself to join.  But say that doesn't work: you're just not going to do it.

Do your dispositions really give you an intellectual obligation to change your opinion of the war?

Two different things are being conflated in Cole's maneuver.  Yes, someone who supported the war does thereby have a reason to actively fight it.  And such a person can be criticized for not acting on this reason.  But someone who is not willing to act on the reason does not have an obligation to withdraw support for the war.

As philosophers put it, Cole's maneuver — the 'chicken hawk' maneuver — conflates practical and epistemic reasons.  Yes, supporting the war gives you a practical reason to fight it.  But the fact that you're not fighting the war does not give you an epistemic reason to withdraw your support for it.

It's worth stating right up front that Cole's argument is "fallacious," both in the sense that Ted argues for and in a sense implied by the Latin root of the term "fallacy": it is a rhetorical stratagem, rather than a purely rational argument. The stratagem has an obvious practical value: it can be used to confront and embarrass people who are cheerleading for the war from the safety and comfort of their homes. In the context of Cole's use of the argument, we needn't assume that Cole intended to do anything more than that.

Cole did seem to be overreaching a bit when he said that any young man who supported the war had an obligation to go fight in it. But Ted disposes of that business pretty straightforwardly. Why bother making the argument at all, then? Why does it have the power to embarrass? (It certainly did seem to embarrass Jonah Goldberg sufficiently that he made excuses for his non-combatant status. These excuses should have shamed him even further, if he were capable of recognizing just how pathetic and self-serving they were; or indeed if he were capable of shame in the first place.)

The "chicken hawk" stratagem embarrasses because it calls attention to two important aspects of the current war (and most other wars). One aspect is social/political, the other epistemological.

The social/political point is simply that members of the "chattering classes," whatever their opinions of the war, are unlikely to bear the serious burden of actual service. "Pundits" like Jonah Goldberg do not run much risk of having to give up months (years?) of their lives, or their family members' lives, in order to fight the war. By and large, they do not face the danger of death or mutilation on the battlefield; nor do their loved ones face that danger. Surely Ted has heard the Civil War phrase "Rich man's war; poor man's fight." The chicken hawk argument brings out rather starkly that it is easy to whip up enthusiasm for a war in which the costs will be borne by others. The situation is a moral hazard, of sorts.

More important, though, is the epistemological concern. It's one that Paul Fussell has made in a different context (in his essay "Thank God for the Atom Bomb"). The concern here is that someone who has no first-hand knowledge of the human costs of war, no likelihood of getting that knowledge, and no loved ones who can provide vivid second-hand knowledge, runs the risk of systematically undervaluing those costs.

So while Ted would like to consider the case of someone who has made up his mind about the war and then discovers himself unwilling to fight, the "chicken hawk" questions whether the decision that war is justified is epistemologically proper, whether or not it has been made with full information. And I suspect that this underlies the social/political point, as well. Someone who will not bear the most serious costs of the war may be tempted to give those costs insufficient weight when trying to decide whether or not war is justified. (There's more to the social/political point, of course; someone could fully understand those costs and still be gung-ho for the war simply because he doesn't care about his fellow citizens' suffering. I'm not sure if that would count as moral justification; it sounds like the realpolitik that Ted rightly condemns.)

The epistemological content of the chicken hawk stratagem gives it even more resonance in the context of Cole's use of it, namely questioning Goldberg's competence to render judgment on any aspect of the Iraq war. Given that Cole smacked Goldberg around like a red-headed stepchild in this exchange, perhaps Ted's critique is misdirected.

One final note. Ted remarks at the outset that he disagrees with Jonah Goldberg "about almost everything," and agrees with Juan Cole about much. But rather than talk about the many ways in which he disagrees with Goldberg, or the many ways in which he agrees with Cole, he spends his time explaining just what Cole has done wrong. This is a long-standing habit in Ted's blog, and may explain why he got such a lot of unpleasant responses from his readers. What, exactly, is the point of nitpicking over Cole's tiny divergences from a Platonic ideal of rational debate, while lumping over Goldberg's daily idiocies? Whether or not Ted intends it, this has the effect of holding the intelligent, well-informed Cole to a much higher standard than Goldberg. Is it that surprising that commentators regard him as hostile to the sensible and well-informed liberal view, and friendly to the ideologically hidebound and ignorant right-wing view?

Please do not make this argument any more. It is bad.

Friday, February 25, 2005

A Response to Ted H.

I see that Diachronic Agency has moved, and that its author has abandoned his former semi-anonymity. But for old times' sake, I'll keep referring to him as Ted H. If you want to know his real name, just visit his blog and follow the link to his academic page.

His blog has just undergone another major revision, occasioned by Ted's discovery that he lacks political allies. I'll let him explain:

In politics you lose if no one agrees with you. And no one has agreed with me over the past two years. As one fellow blogger put it in an elegiac email, my political position was "really original." I didn't think it was. I thought it was what we all used to think -- all of us left-liberals who grew up in the 1980s and hated coldwar realpolitik. I thought I was merely applying the principles that the liberal left has always applied. Why did no left-liberal agree with me then? I didn't need many to agree, merely a few. I wanted to see signs that others were thinking along similar lines. And some are -- in the UK. But not in the States. Stateside you either went over to Bush or you viewed everything Bush has done with absolute horror. That I searched for an alternative to these over-personalized reactions pushed me off the political map.
I hope it's not unkind of me to say that this strikes me as a bit exaggerated and melodramatic. Here's why.

The political position that Ted is talking about is his initial, and somewhat equivocal, support for the Iraq war. Speaking very broadly, he supported the war because he believed that Saddam Hussein was a horrible dictator, a mass murderer and torturer, in violation of UN resolutions, and a threat to regional peace and stability. What's more, the United States was complicit in Hussein's actions, having once supported him (and armed him) in pursuit of cynical realpolitik. Ted believed that a moral and just US foreign policy would seek to remove Hussein from power by the most effective means possible, which term did not refer to the economic sanctions in place since the first Gulf war. Ted believed that this was a perfectly reasonable position for a left-liberal to adopt, given leftists' and liberals' presumptive devotion to human rights, defense of the helpless and weak, and the preservation of the United Nations as an international peacekeeping organization. (In the unlikely event that Ted ever reads this, I invite him to use the comments section to correct any mistakes in my description of his views.)

To Ted's shock, he found that virtually all leftists and liberals he met, and particularly those working around him in academia, were dead set against the Iraq war, and uninterested in engaging seriously with his arguments or even granting them the minimum respect of a fair hearing. He worried about keeping his job. He worried about maintaining amicable relations with his family. And his feelings of alienation from his erstwhile political allies continued even after his position changed to a subsequent, and somewhat equivocal, opposition to the war, largely because of Bush's incompetent management of the war and its aftermath.

I think that Ted has overstated his case, particularly his isolation from the rest of the country. Recall that he says "Why did no left-liberal agree with me then? I didn't need many to agree, merely a few." Is this true? Did no left-liberal agree with him? It's not hard to think of quite a few left-liberals who argued along similar lines. Christopher Hitchens is probably the most obvious example, but one shouldn't neglect someone like Paul Berman. And stepping outside the realm of academics and journalists, consider the case of John Kerry. He cast his vote in favor of the war, then later changed his mind about it, largely because of the appallingly bad execution by Bush and Rumsfeld. He seems to have put a great deal of thought into these decisions, no doubt considering many of the same arguments that made sense to Ted. How isolated is Ted's position, really, when it bears that much similarity to the position of last election's Democratic presidential candidate?

I suspect that Ted is reacting, overreacting, to his own particular circumstances, by which I mean working in academia. Humanities professors very well may be a solid bloc of opposition to the war, hegemonic and intolerant of dissent. Is there any other major professional class for which this is true? (Yoga instructors, perhaps?) I suspect that if Ted was a doctor, or a lawyer, or a dentist, or a mid-level business executive, or what have you, he'd have a very different perspective on the breadth and variety of public opinion on the war. Many voters took positions similar to his, in outcome if not in argumentative detail: they accepted the president's word that Saddam Hussein was a very bad man, that his government was a threat to the United States, and that this justified the US in taking action. I'd wager that a majority of voters still believe this, whatever their feelings about the way the war was carried out.

There's also an air of unreality to Ted's arguments, though less so than in earlier versions of his blog. In the new version, he has largely excised the substantive posts from 2002 and early 2003 that sought to justify his position on the war. Those posts were remarkable in that they rarely grappled with the way the actual war was actually being promoted. Relatively little, if any, attention was given to the Bush administration's constantly shifting and mendacious rationales for the war; to the lies and distortions that were advanced, repeatedly and shamelessly, by the war's chief proponents; to the faulty intelligence that was used, and the damage to the integrity of the country's intelligence services; to the blinkered optimism of the Pentagon civilians who planned the war; or to the vitriol that was hurled at anyone with misgivings. Ted's primary worry was that no one was taking his arguments seriously.

He may have been right. Left-liberals may not have agreed with Ted's views, but I doubt that most of the war's supporters agreed with them either. The real hard core of support for the war was not on the basis of Ted's humanitarian ideals. In the real world, most of the Republican right wing supported the war because of a general enthusiasm for using American military power to control and intimidate other countries; because they wanted to take revenge for September 11; because the war was presumably good for Israel; and (in large part) simply because Bush wanted it, and they were eager to fall in line and do rhetorical battle against anyone who opposed it.

In this context, Ted's complaints are academic ones, and not in a particularly complimentary sense of that word. Perhaps in some Empyrean realm of pure reason, there were good arguments for the war, arguments that left-liberals would have adopted in time. Perhaps a future Democratic administration might have seen the virtues of high-minded confrontation with Saddam Hussein. But what relation does this have to the headlong rush to war that took place in 2002-3? We weren't faced with a choice between craven appeasement and a carefully justified and executed war of liberation. Rather, we were being asked to abandon an established policy of containment (that could have extended for at least another decade) in order to undertake a war originating in bad motives, promoted with lies and incendiary political attacks, and executed in great haste by incompetents. In those circumstances, it is perhaps excusable that left-liberals were not terribly interested in Ted's well-argued justifications of something else entirely.

One of the recurring themes of my blog is that bipartisanship is a lost cause as long as the Republican party continues in its current state of ideological rigidity and partisan fervor. So it's not surprising that I'm not terribly sympathetic to Ted's bewilderment. He was hoping for a calm, rational, morally grounded debate, and instead he got partisan shrieking and posturing. I agree with him that this is a bad situation; I just think he ought to consider more carefully what brought us to this pass, and what needs to be done about it.

Diachronic Agency 3.0

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Nicely Put

Matthew Yglesias writes:

Most notably, Arab suspicion of American efforts at democracy-promotion are [sic] largely focused on the idea that this is exactly what we're doing. Saying "democracy" but mean[ing], "the free election of political parties that like the United States, will be nice to Israel, friendly to foreign direct investment, and generally cooperative with our security policies."
Nicely put, Matthew. I'm a little puzzled by your phrasing, though. What do you mean by saying that "Arab suspicion ... is largely focused on the idea" that that's what we really mean by "democracy"?

That is what the neocons really mean by "democracy." Surely you don't think that they give a damn about actual rule by the people, do you?

Temptation, Temptation. I Can't Resist

I haven't posted since last November, since Election Day, in fact, and I thought that all you reader out there might be wondering why. It's straightforward enough: I didn't see the point. Bloggers occasionally win one or two battles — at least some of the widely-read bloggers do — but I didn't really see much point in continuing to write or argue in the face of an win, an actual election win, by the worst president, perhaps the worst major-party candidate, in American history. Argument and nuance seemed futile in the face of a massive propaganda machine, a collection of mainstream media too lazy and/or co-opted to tell the truth, and an American public too deluded or ignorant to recognize the danger that this adminstration poses.

But such are the counsels of despair, and we're told that despair is a worse sin than any of the others that might have led to it. Not to mention that the passage of time has restored the need to get some of my thoughts written down and (self-) published. So I will start blogging again. I'm sure that's a great relief to all my avid reader — by the way, keep those card and letter coming!

I was particularly inspired to start again by the current campaign to revamp Social Security. I'm not going to present evidence or arguments about why this is a bad idea; they've already been presented in abundance by people better qualified than I to do so. What primarily interests me is the fact that there are still a few Congressional Democrats who are waffling about whether or not to oppose Bush's plan.

Consider the political, rather than economic, realities of the situation. Social Security is at the core of the New Deal. It was a model for many subsequent Democratic social programs, and it is in some ways paradigmatic of Democratic ideals: a progressively funded program that distributes risk across (more or less) the entire society. What's more, it's one of the most successful New Deal programs. It has helped create massive changes in the way Americans think about retirement, about caring for aged parents, and about domestic social programs generally. And it's not just a success: it's an efficient success. 99% of the money taken in by the Social Security Administration gets disbursed to recipients. Only 1% goes to administering the program.

Social Security is something that Democrats can look upon with great pride. It is one of their great accomplishments — not a bipartisan accomplishment, mind you, a Democratic accomplishment. The Republicans of Roosevelt's day hated it, and have passed on that hatred to succeeding generations of Republicans.

And now one of those new generations of Republicans is trying to dismantle it. It's not hard to see why. By getting rid of Social Security, they'd take away one of the key Democratic accmplishments, and give them one less major government success story to point to. The Republicans would like to replace it with a system that increases risk for working people and greatly enriches the investment industry. And if there were ever a time to try to do this, it's now, while they control Congress and the White House, and with the right-wing propaganda machine oiled up and ready to try to sell the idea.

I hope the effort fails. I think it will fail (though I probably shouldn't make predictions, given my recent track record). But as I said, what primarily interests me is what possible motivation any Democrat might have to cooperate with the dismantling of Social Security. If any proposal ever promised to undermine Democratic ideals, as well as the prestige and credibility of the Democratic party, this one does. If any proposal needed to be opposed by a united front, so as to deny the Republicans any conceivable political cover, this one does. The leadership of the party realizes this, and so do the vast majority of the rank and file. What, then, is motivating the few remaining holdouts?

Frankly, having raised the question, I must admit that I am not sure how to answer it. I'm sure that some of the Democratic wafflers (the "Fainthearted Faction") are from conservative districts and don't want to be seen opposing Bush on a proposal he's put front and center in his new term. But is that enough of a reason? Is it really worth selling out their own party's core program, their own party's core ideals, in order to cover their asses in the short term?

If that is their motivation, I think that it is delusional. As I have argued in an earlier post, cooperating with the Republicans is a losing proposition. They have shown repeatedly in the last couple of decades that they are not mollified by goodwill gestures from the Democrats, but will continue to use every conceivable underhanded, vicious, sleazy tactic to discredit Democrats — and these tactics work especially well against moderates from mixed districts, which is why there are so few moderates left. Traditional bipartisanship is dead.

It took the Democratic party the better part of a decade to realize in their guts that they were no longer the natural majority party and would not be able to waltz back into control of Congress as they'd done under Eisenhower and Reagan. It is taking more time, an agonizingly long time, for them to come up with ways to start fighting back against the Republican onslaught. It's not always easy to know how to do this, but it should be clear that in most cases the effective strategy is not to compromise, play nice, and hope that the Republicans will play nice in their turn. They won't. They didn't get control of all three branches of the Federal government by playing nice. Nor will the Democrats regain power by playing nice, whatever temptations the Republicans may dangle in front of individual members of Congress.

On that note, I'll finish up with a couple of thoughts on temptation. One is an aphorism I've seen attributed to Adolf Hitler, though I'm currently unable to confirm its source. Whoever said it, it's a good insight:

Every man has his price — and you'd be surprised in most cases how low that price is.
I don't know what's tempting the Democratic wafflers, but the leadership need to do their best to make sure that the wafflers understand the real price of caving in, namely crippling the Democratic party for generations to come. And the payment for this is unlikely to be as pleasing as it seems now. We can rely on the words of another master tempter here:
All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say... "I now see that I spent most of my life doing neither what I ought nor what I liked."

The Fainthearted Faction

The Screwtape Letters