Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Who Should Be in Politics, part 1

One of the most debilitating errors those on any side of a position can make is—to mangle a phrase from T.S. Eliot—espousing the right thing for the wrong reason; that is, advocating for a particular person or purpose on grounds which are irrelevant or, worse still, false.  In political argument it is common, for example, to advocate for one’s policies based on what some individual or party did in the past.  This would be a perfectly acceptable way of beginning a cause and effect argument, which would involve tracing all the numerous historical details connected with the old case in question, which would allow us to legitimately apply it to our present case.  But in the (perhaps justified) judgment of our leaders this country is not capable of following so sustained as discourse; and so they resort to mere associations.

No, I am not going to write about Ronald Reagan and the VAT tax.

It was not always so.  Perhaps it need not be so today.  But it is indubitably true that if one treats a Democracy like a many-headed beast instead of a body of reasonable members, it will begin behaving as such.  This is simple psychology.  Offer people easily consumed junk—whether it be in the form of food, movies, memes, or political discourse—and they will not only lap it up, but gradually come to lose their appreciation for whatever finer things they might once have enjoyed—and worse still, their ability to refine their physical, aesthetic, moral, and intellectual palates further will be degraded.  Listen to enough political hectoring, and you will be desensitized to genuine political debate.  The next person who takes it upon himself to offer you a real argument will have to work that much harder to make it intelligible, because your habit of responding to the simplest and most obvious level of associations, tones, and expressions will be that much more firmly rooted, thanks to the ongoing fertilization of bad rhetoric.

In the current campaign season, there has been the usual and perhaps more than the usual share of bad rhetoric, to the detriment of the country.  A good deal of it centers around one particular candidate on the Republican side of the aisle.

Notice that I don’t say this candidate emits simplistic rhetoric himself; there is no point in making such a point.  The problem is not his rhetoric, but the response to it—not just on the part of prospective voters, but on the part of politicos, journalists, back-bench wiseacres like myself, and (of course) the other candidates.  Rather than providing an articulate response to what they dislike about Trump, too many of the aforementioned have criticized his hair, his gestures, his sentence structure, his disorganized campaign.  Those things may all deserve criticism, from an aesthetic standpoint; but until Americans actually learn to appreciate Dante again, attacks on the déclassé are worse than ridiculous.

But yes, this IS an invitation to play the where-would-Dante-place-Trump game.

Nor is it sufficient to say that Donald Trump is not a True Conservative, our current version of the old but lively No True Scotsman fallacy.  Once again, this is certainly true under many meanings of the word conservative (including meanings that I would accept) but it is pointless unless (1) the accuser also carefully and consistently defines “conservative” as he intends to use it, and (2) the accuser offers an alternative candidate, while articulating how said candidate more closely matches his ideas of what the word means.  But I, having wasted far too many hours on a matter that is not likely to change my mind in any case, can affirm that I have yet to see anyone do this convincingly.

The worst failures to attack Trump’s conservative credentials are those which aim at achieving the first goal (define “conservative”) but fail badly.  For example, this:

Conservatism regards politics as a craft similar to carpentry and farming. Skill and success depend on personal understanding of practices and traditions handed down from generation to generation. Effective statesmen absorb and act on the embedded knowledge and practices of the people they represent, in the nation they belong to, and in the daily flux of its political system. Political experience is specific to the moment and the place; it is not readily exported to nations other than where it was formed; it is not timeless (as countless “out of touch” politicians have discovered). In the setting of the here and now, political experience is invaluable and irreplaceable.

Liberals and socialists believe differently. To them, legislation and governing are universal practices, the application of theories that have been constructed by scholars far removed from the political arena. It follows that a novice can enter parliament or government and know what to do—it’s all in the textbooks. Indeed, a strong interpretation of the liberal or socialist view implies that this is the only way to be properly prepared for politics. Trump’s supporters share this delusion.

Now, aside from cringing whenever anyone uses “scholars” as a smear word …

It’s like using “dentist” as a smear word.  I know you’ve seen several bad dentists.   
I know a bad dentist can really mess up a lot of people for life.  I know they are 
expensive and don’t really add much to the economy.  I know they’re kind 
of weird—why would anyone want to spend all day looking into THAT?!!   
But really, this doesn’t make us—erm, them—bad people.

… as I was saying: aside from using “scholars” as a smear word, the author here paints a portrait of the liberal vs. conservative divide which is dangerously oversimplified.  It is quite true that liberal academics (of which there are many more than conservative academics) enjoy crafting plans to make the world a better place, according to their lights; it is also quite true that they often pass these ideas successfully on to their students and embed them in their writings.  But does it really follow from this that “a novice can enter parliament or government and know what to do”?  Both liberals and conservatives already in politics tend, I think to insist that—textbook learning aside—no novice can successfully enter their world.  This has been true at least since Joseph Paine tried to tell Jefferson Smith how Washington works.

But universally agreed on as it is, few “truisms” are more debilitating to civic spirit than this one.  If it is in any sense a conservative idea (a doubtful proposition), it is an idea that conservatives would do better to lose.

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