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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Political Moralities: Another Trek Through The Layman Left's “Torture” Thinking and Arguing

Here's a quandary. How do you wrap your head around a moral absolutist argument by those who also believe in moral/cultural relativism? How do you find the theoretical synthesis between having an impenetrable morality all the while believing that other moralities/cultures are just as legitimate, even if they violate the absolute moral code?

Want to know the answer?

The answer is that you don't.

Politics as Life

There are millions of my fellow political junkies out there who eat, sleep, live and breathe the goings on of home and the world. We read the news, the opinion sections, the blogs; we watch the news, listen to the talk hosts, agree or disagree over and over. Some of us are more informed than others. Some of us are more passionate than others. The key thing is that the amount of passion you have for politics has no bearing on the depth of your knowledge and the accuracy of your points.

This is not a phenomenon of the left or the right. Both sides have those who are informed, those who are passionate, some who are more of one than the other and some who are equally both. Of the both category, on the right, you have thinkers like Thomas Sowell, Rich Lowry, George Will and Will Wilkinson. On the left, you have such names as Ezra Klien, Matt Yglesias, Bill Scher and Fareed Zakaria. There is plenty of knowledgeable and passionate people on all sides, all with views that make sense, even if you don't agree with them.

The problem arrives with the appearance of the passionately uninformed politico. In a debate on torture on Blogginghead.tv between John McWhorter and Glenn Loury, two distinguished professors, the comments were flooded with post after post on how the Bush administration should be prosecuted for the so-called crimes these people accuse them of. Some commenters went so far as to say both men were dead wrong on the subject because said commenters knew a priori that what the United States did was wrong, and by such astounding argument any other talk on it, or any other path of thinking other than conviction, was null and void.

I'm all for an actual, intelligent, back and forth battle of wits. I think I'm right when I debate, of course (who wouldn't think that?), but I've been corrected by others and I have corrected others countless times. Such is the way you learn and grow your intellectual mind. But it's these people who take politics as a lifestyle, not just a hobby or an interest, that come to be the people who get the deluge of links from eager beaver college students in their term papers when they call President Bush a war criminal and a fascist. It's these people who get vast followings by questioning the authenticity of birth certificates or claiming FEMA is about to round us all up in the event Obama turns out to be a Muslim Martian. These people are the ones that fan the flames of unintelligent debate. And just because it'll piss off the uninformed left, I'm going to focus on their contradictory moralities and totally ignore the right.

Torture as National Moral Rot

The argument I hear constantly from the passionate moralists is that giving a green light to torture, with specific focus on waterboarding, would erode America's moral standing and national moral core. Whether the other methods like temperature fluctuation and sleep deprivation count as well depends on the moralist you're talking to. This argument crosses so many different ideas and cherry picks from them only to make an inane point that has no bearing on the real world.

To start off with torture, there is no conclusive proof of actual state-sanctioned torture. Waterboarding is still being debated by Barack Obama and Barack Obama, let alone the rest of the government. Even in foreign policy hawk circles there is plenty of room for discussion. All this while the other methods are not even on the table except by the most hardened of activists. So to sing the praises of Spanish judges or demagogues is so premature as to be embryonic.

Moving on, the green light to this so-called torture program was given years ago by not only the slew of public policy experts in the government, but by Congressional leaders. Congress is the voice of the people and the people at that time wanted to prevent another 9/11 at all costs. Luckily, for captured terrorists, at all costs in America does not mean beheading, gang rape, burying and stoning, or any other disgusting and horrific methods used by radical Islamists. At all costs, in American-speak, means within reason. What the “torture” memos describe is not the legal gymnastics to do whatever we need, but to build a legal ceiling to prevent torture from occurring while doing its best to not hamper the goal of the entire program: gathering intelligence. Basically, to do the best one can with terrorists who've been expertly trained in interrogation without it actually being torture.

And now we get to the icing on this mudcake: the idea of a collective national morality affected by the collective agreement to institutionalize torture. First and foremost, the idea of a collective national morality is fascistic. Such talk was used by every Progressive from Teddy to Kennedy. It was used by the Nazis, the Italian Fascists and many others. A belief in a collective national morality dismisses the idea that individuals are able to determine their own morality because of some kind of collective psychological slavery to the will of the mob. It also dismisses the checks and balances of our republican system in which the collective can (and has been) reserved in its fury by the executive or judicial branches, as was the case in the Civil War and its aftermath. The nation could be calling for the extermination of all redheaded stepchildren, but it'd still go against a warehouse full of constitutional protections and it would be struck down, if the judges actually did their job. As for our moral standing, other parts of the world have opposing moral/cultural codes which naturally conflict with ours, and so our moral standing with these nations probably isn't exactly high during good times, let alone the times that they can exploit as a war against their values when, in fact, we do nothing of the sort.

So, what we have from this paraphrase summary of the layman left's argument against torture, is this:
The United States, through its representative legislature, green lighted methods that have yet to be determined as torture, but if the people, now in discussion over the issue, do not demand the prosecution of the past administration for crimes that have yet to be conclusively ruled on as crimes, then the collective morality of the nation, a concept both fascistic and questionable, will be affected by the people's choice and negatively affect the nation in ways we do not know nor in ways we can hypothesize except that it won't be good for our moral standings with nations whose views conflict with ours naturally and who exploit every chance they get to denounce us.
Compelling stuff.

Arguing To Win

These politically passionate folk, armed with their air-tight argument against the use of harsh interrogation, strut their stuff on their blogs, on message boards, in coffee shops and on the street. They proclaim the immorality of what President Bush and his administration did. They attack others as fascists and monsters. There is no way someone who is moral can support these methods. No way in hell. Anything else deserves a stern response, preferably snarky or emotional. And this is where the passionately blind lose sight of their goal, if they had a goal to being with.

Their mistake is to believe they can change the mind of someone in a political debate that cumulatively lasts less than an enema (though sometimes the enema may be preferable depending on who you're debating). You're not arguing to win, you're arguing to argue. I don't slide over to my conservative group on Facebook to turn the doe-eyed liberal into a cranky, shotgun toting conservative. I go on there to be motivated to come up with new and interesting ways to prove a point. What began as a “But I'm right” morphed into a “Of course, Alternet is a unbiased source!” to “Eh... Wikipedia? Are you sure?”. The one thing I never did was actually win an argument. The one thing I did do early on was explode due to my opponent's odd opposition of changing his entire code of values. Who knew a conservative didn't want to give up US national sovereignty to foreign powers?

Spy vs Spy: Leftist Theory Fights Itself

“Politics as life”-ers have an emotional attachment to their views and that view's superiority that it puts them in the predicament of contradicting past or current views. For example, the political left's defense of not-so-covert agent Valarie Plame (found in D.C.'s Who's Who next to the name of her ambassador husband while “undercover”) while promoting the outing of CIA interrogators. The “torture” debate puts this front and center when it pits liberal/leftist moral absolutism against their equally vigorous support for multiculturalism, which is a product of moral relativism. Of course, not everyone arguing against the use of waterboarding or other methods are moral relativists, but I'm not arguing against everyone who has an objection to “torture”, but those who have an objection to “torture” that contradicts their other standing views.

Moral relativism has a bad rap because of its association with liberal/leftist social theory. From the left, moral relativism holds that the world has a plurality of moralities and those moralities are equal in comparison as they relate to the individual's belief and passing judgment would be ignorant. Basically, the “one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter” argument. Thing is, if you scratch the egalitarianism from moral relativism, you actually have a very basic and accurate theory on the reality of moral views in the world. There are different moralities, that is a fact, but the key thing for any intelligent person (liberal or conservative) is to realize is that not every single morality can be equal with the other. This is impossible because morality is subjective, and no matter how much a liberal may try to respect every single morality that shows itself on campus there's going to be some view that'll outrage them (other than a conservative point of view, of course).

Now, how exactly does someone who believes in an equality of moralities turn around and proclaim that “torture” is immoral?

They want to win. The argument they use is partisan, not intellectual. They want to be objectively right, not just subjectively right, and that involves doing all you can to appear on the winning side of history (and that's only if history exonerates their view). Those who take to the streets, to the blogs and to the boards in anger are not trying to find out what exactly is torture in our complicated world, or add to the discourse on the morality of using torture, if what we've done is indeed torture. They want the honor of being proclaimed victorious over an issue that is mostly subjective and therefore can never be really determined on objective grounds.

So, if you ever encounter one of these moralists in the middle of proclamation of moral absolutes, ask “Who says?”. If they are anything like the person I described, you should be able to hear the explosion. Just make sure you're under something when it happens.

4 comments:

Mary said...

Excellent post!
When I read the “one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter” section, I thought, "Yeah, but he's still a terrorist."

The whole torture thing is, of course, STUPID. The Left is way too touchy-feely-Oprah-huggy about this. Dammit, if someone kills a bunch of my countrymen, I don't want him mutilated, beaten, or otherwise actually harmed--but I do want the crap terrified out of him so he tells us all about his whacko organization.

yukio ngaby said...

Very thoughtful post.

I would not be so quick to chain together moral relativism with multi-culturalism, however. While you examined moral relativism within your argument, multi-culturalism is a concept complicated and convuluted enough to have many definitions rather than a single assumed one.

I am not moral relativist, yet I do not believe that American values are absolute truths. One can be a multi-culturalist and see various cultures reflecting various levels of morality according to an absolute moral standard. Thus being a multi-culturalist does not preclude cultural judgement, nor does believing in an absolute truth (moral code) mean that interpretations of that truth are necessaryily flawless nor culturally unbiased.

For instance, the concept of "beauty" (I do not necessarily mean the physical appearance of female or male beauty) varies from culture to culture, yet all human cultures possess the concept of "beauty." The concept itself is universal to humanity, yet the interpretation is highly informed by cultural bias.

It's the primary definition of the absolute moral code that is key-- factoring in the individual specificity of such a code, plus the human interpretation of such a code.

The torture debate is complicated, and I think you rightly point out that many people's outrage is purely a matter of political ideology-- yet probably not conciously so.

People in the US are extremely insular and generally know very little about the ugliness in the poorer areas of the US, let alone across the third world (is that classification still in use?). It allows Americans the luxury of assuming the perceived softness of America and Western Europe as being a worldwide phenomenon.

Jordan said...

Good points, yukio. Examining all our thoughts, not just the left's, would be a great project, though touching on all the points within the torture debate alone could become a book in itself.

Beaver7216 said...

Excellent post!
I am enjoying the juxtaposition of the killing of 3 alleged Somali pirates and the drone wars against Pakistan (in which one account says that 700 civilians have died, including 14 "terrorists"-not a very good percentage) with this torture stuff. It is OK to drop bombs on people but not scare them or bruise them?
Or, to put it another way, we are allowed to practice basic Old Testament retribution just for retribution sake, and ignore the collateral damgaes, but we can not torture in hopes of getting actionable intelligence?
Perhaps the Internet can figure out a way to track one's comments, in abstract, and compare responses made in the past with today. And require any apparent changes in values to be explained.