Monday, April 18, 2005

on politics

A blogger asked me how liberal-sounding she came off on her blog. I told her, without rancor because I don't consider myself a droitiste or a gauchiste, that she sounded pretty left-leaning.

Terms like "left," "right," "liberal," and "conservative" are labels open to discussion.

George Bush, whom I didn't vote for and whose war I was against*, isn't a genuine "conservative" according to the traditional definition of an American conservative. He's not for minimal government involvement in people's lives, nor is he preaching a gospel of fiscal discipline, etc. The bizarre point to which he holds is Daddy's line about taxes, though he seems to know better than to say "no new taxes!", instead offering the common people useless refunds that get spent in a week.

Clinton wasn't a classic liberal, either. He acted unilaterally in Kosovo (people forget this when complaining about Bush's supposed unilateralism at the UN); he took the idea of a balanced federal budget from the Republicans, and history bears out that he was a hell of a lot more fiscally conservative than the current Bush is. Clinton did what many smart politicians do and played to the center-- something Bush doesn't bother to do because the right currently controls all three branches of government (itself a scary thought; I hate large monopolies), and the mood of the general population still tends rightward.

So it's fair to ask: Who's a lib-Dem and who's a con-Rep? These terms are all in flux.

I don't have a party affiliation. It's hard for me to imagine voting party-line. Both parties make arguments that have merit. I don't like it when I hear dogmatic dismissals of an argument simply because it originates from a certain party. If a crazy homeless guy says, "The sun is shining now," and the sun is in fact shining now, then he's right, no matter how crazy he is.

(Philosophers call this the "genetic fallacy," the dismissal of an argument or claim simply because of where it comes from-- its genesis-- instead of addressing the elements of the argument/claim itself.)

The lib-Dems worry me sometimes with their vision of government-sponsored social programs and welfare... I see little evidence that government-sponsored anything is beyond mediocre, and that's from living in the DC area most of my life. I also think that, as the "big tent" party, the Dems have trouble finding a coherent platform, and this is one reason why they lost the election this time around. The Reps were scarily on message.

The con-Reps worry me because so many of them seem to be in thrall to the religious nuts in the party base. (Many con-Reps beg to differ, of course, and the ones on my blog's sidebar are not religious nuts.) I think the war has created a general wave of public support for Bush, who may feel he has license to push for things like a marriage amendment, a flag burning amendment**, and so on. I do worry about creeping civil rights issues emanating from the Ashcrofts among us. Governmental influence isn't shrinking under this president. I also worry about the polarization of the State Department and the Pentagon during Bush's first term, and wonder how much better things will be during this second term.

At the same time, both party ideologies have merit. The Dems would argue for minimal government intrusion into reproductive issues. I'd agree, even though I'm no fan of abortion***. They'd also argue for a more compassionate stance toward the poor and otherwise disadvantaged. I agree here, too. The Reps would (generally) argue for less federal government and more activity at the state and local level. This makes sense to me. I can't stand any move toward Big Brotherism, toward centralized authority on a massive scale (and with a third of a billion people, America is massive-- quite a handful for a single government to manage). The Reps also espouse a firm foreign policy that doesn't pussy-foot issues. I have no problem with this. I think Kerry would have put a suave spin on our foreign policy, but he also would have opened the door for the Islamic version of bullshit like Clinton's 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea-- a completely useless treaty the North Koreans were violating even before the ink was dry. Or, hey-- like Clinton's equally useless Israel-Palestine "diplomatic victory." Or his failure in Haiti. Or the clusterfuck in Somalia.

[Side note: this isn't to say that Bush has been adept at foreign policy. I think his unsubtle approach is correct in Korea: Asians might not admit it, but they respect the bluntness. On the other hand, our visions of democratizing the Middle East don't strike me as completely realistic. Maybe democratization is a desirable outcome, but I do tend to think that democracy has to evolve organically, not be imposed from above. Conservatives like to counter with, "But look at how we changed Germany and Japan and South Korea!"-- to which I usually roll my eyes and say, "Yeah-- have you been to Japan or South Korea? Just how Americanized do you think the Japanese and South Koreans really are? All that shit is window dressing. Cultural fundamentals haven't changed much."]

I lean somewhat rightward in terms of foreign policy, somewhat leftward in terms of domestic social policy (homosexual marriage, abortion rights, Camille Paglia-style feminism, etc.), and am a flaming religious liberal-- more of the John Hick variety than the John Shelby Spong type. I'm a centrist in terms of economic policy, mainly because I don't know enough about micro- and macroeconomics to argue anything specific. Still learning.

I am, however, leery of things like affirmative action and politically correct formulations that are more about making people feel good instead of addressing brute realities. I'm no utopianist: French philosopher Jean-François Revel is right to rail against liberal visions of ultimate human improvement. Not gonna happen. The human psyche hasn't evolved for thousands of years, and isn't likely to without genetic tampering. Why else am I able to understand the motivations of characters in a play by Sophocles? All the violence, laziness, venality, and pettiness that were part of the human condition then are still part of it now, which simply fits the Darwinian paradigm. We haven't stopped being primates who act according to dominance hierarchies. We should do what we can to assure equal opportunity, but we can't possibly assure equality of outcome.

And that's why, economically and politically speaking, I'm convinced that a marxist vision of society will never bear fruit: it refuses to take seriously certain immutable facts of human nature, chief among them being the roles of competition and hierarchy in human society. The universe itself exhibits unevenness and clumping. You march against the Tao at your peril. Redistributivism isn't inherently bad (capitalists do teach their kids the virtues of sharing), but it's not workable on a large scale for largely ontological reasons. The marxist attempt to level the playing field always-- always-- leads to "social experiments" in which people are rounded up and shot en masse in the name of the Greater Good****. This is the outcome when government thinks it knows what's good for you, when power trickles down to the people instead of up from them.

Democracy and capitalism aren't perfect by any means, but they're a hell of a lot better than hubristic redistributivist visions that ultimately lead to a more pernicious version of social inequality than do capitalist models. Look at the difference between the Chinese government and the Chinese citizenry. Are they living as good, communist equals? Or how about Cuba? Do you think Fidel has much in common with the man on the Cuban street? Or what about the Soviet Union in the early 1980s? Or Western Europe's faltering economy now, an economy that follows a quasi-socialist or outright socialist paradigm? Or North Korea, the saddest case of all? Any shining examples of total equality (in the redistributivist sense) in these places?

Socialist and communist systems don't make society robust. They don't improve the collective human condition. It's individuals, acting by choice (not by governmental mandate) and in concert, who improve things. The legislation of compassion may be well-intended, but it leads very quickly to large-scale disaster*****.

Unbridled capitalism is bad, too, but no country practices that as a national economic policy. You can find pockets of it, of course, such as at Namdaemun Market in Seoul: capitalism at its purest and wildest. But there's no way we could live in a world totally dominated by market forces. We need controls, we need an antimonopoly sentiment to balance the urge to monopolize (I'm thinking of someone like Bill Gates and his behemoth Microsoft, for instance). The potential chaos of freedom has to go hand in hand with the rule of law. Novelty needs to be balanced with tradition. A free market can't be totally free.

Left/right, lib/con, Dem/Rep, red/blue... these are all terms with wide, vague semantic fields. There's plenty of room for discussion about specifics, and little need, in American society, to create rigid conceptual dichotomies. Discussion, dynamic tension-- these things are important in a healthy culture. They can't happen if one party always dominates. They can't happen if both sides of the aisle become echo chambers, each group communicating only within itself and only rarely reaching across the aisle.

I suspect, though, that many thinking Americans have had the same insights I have. They might belong to a particular party or alignment, but they're reasonable enough to see that the other side also often makes sense. The fact that such reasonable people exist gives me hope.

*See any number of previous posts on this blog about why I nevertheless feel we have to support the current project. It boils down to this: a complete pullout at this stage would mean something even nastier filling the power vacuum. That, and there may be some positive signs emerging in the midst of the chaos. The news coming out of Iraq isn't all bad, as some would have us believe.

**A flag is a symbol. I personally have no desire to burn my own country's flag, nor do I understand people who do. But as Carlin said, "I leave symbols for the symbol-minded." His point is well taken. To make the argument that the American flag should be protected from burning, you have to sacralize the flag, then codify its sacrality as a law. For many Americans, the flag is indeed a sacred object. It isn't for me. American ideals are sacred, but I tend to think those ideals are shared by more than Americans. No matter: my point is that ideals can't be burned. We keep them in our hearts. (I hear some smartass joking, "Yeah, but hearts can be burned!")

***How many women really are fans of abortion? The ones arguing for choice are doing so not because they just love to go to the clinic, but because they feel a safe and sanitary option should be available to women. I can't think of any woman who'd claim abortion is a pleasant, desirable experience. Pro-choice arguments shouldn't be misunderstood like that.

****Please don't cite China as the happy exception. Yes, it's true that China's not a truly communist state, and it's true that China's economy has been shifting warily toward a market paradigm, but then you see shit like this and get reminded that that doesn't happen in Western industrialized nations. We've got random deaths from crime and accidents, but when was the last time you heard about Canadian Mounties lining up and shooting Quebecois separatists? And please don't insult me by implying that police brutality in Western countries is the moral equivalent of what totalitarian states do. You know damn well that's not true. Must I list reasons why?

*****At the same time, American conservatives are often too quick to accuse their liberal compatriots of being "commies," when all they're talking about is the regulation of market forces that might have the potential to run rampant. A desire to raise taxes by a fraction of a percent doesn't make one a fire-breathing communist.


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