Friday, November 02, 2007

Bad Means Have Consequences

Liberals usually recognize this point (see also: indirect utilitarianism). The kind of self-styled "pragmatists" who are willing to countenance torture as a means to their ends are shooting themselves in the foot. And it is not necessarily "realistic" to think that belligerent bullying and overwhelming force will secure one's foreign policy goals. As Hilzoy put it, with characteristic wisdom:
Violence is not a way of getting where you want to go, only more quickly. Its existence changes your destination. If you use it, you had better be prepared to find yourself in the kind of place it takes you to.

Yet people keep telling me that my penchant for intellectual honesty is too naive and idealistic to be worth adhering to in the real world of politics. We've gotta play dirty if we want to win. My worry is, when we look at where playing dirty might get us, it doesn't look to me much like victory at all.


  1. I think that "playing dirty" got us where we are today, but also were we were a decade ago, fifty years ago, and actually, everywhere we have ever been. It's the only way things have ever been played because almost by definition those who turn down power don't have it.

    Of course, I don't approve of the designation "playing dirty", and think it has the wrong connotations. What I actually mean is that power is necessarily held by those who behave in a manner determined by the system in which they are embedded.

    "Nature, to be commanded, must first be obeyed." This is true of human nature, not just physics. I would contrast playing by the real rules (rules which must be discovered empirically like other instances of natural law) and dogmatically insisting that the rules are what you were told they were in high school civics classes. The actual emergent consequences of those rules do, in fact, determine where you get, but they do so whether you recognize them or not.

    The existence of the possibility of violence (generalized to encompass all non-rational methods of influence) doesn't change your destination. Rather, it is one of the causal facts that determine your destination, but it isn't your decision to make violence (meaning non-rational influence) possible, that's just the way things are. In so far as you can change your destination you have to work within the framework of how things are.

  2. See my post on "Political Reality", and the circularity of fatalism.

    (There's no reason why we couldn't choose to change "the way things are". The only 'reason' you've suggested is that we actually won't. But that's question-begging, since I'm precisely raising the practical question of what to do. Insofar as we take the question seriously, the answer is not yet settled.)

  3. The republicans (at a high level strategic view) are trying to defend their country and various things that both they and the democrats stand for.

    They are concerned about maintining the global structure that allows them to maintain those policies, concerned about the rise of foreign powers that might view them in a hostile manner, and concerned about the effect that such attacks might have.

    In order to do that they are willing to betray some of those same ideals. The same pragmatism just playing it on a slightly larger scale.

    I guess related to Richard’s point the question becomes what level of influence do we want to debate at.

    The bottom level of that is to say 'I almost certainly won't change the election result'. Neither will you me and richard put together.

  4. Aaargh. Genius, it's really impossible to debate what's going on in politics in this country if we aren't willing to describe the Republican Party accurately. It's not just the more conservative voice in contemporary political debate. No, they don't aim at the same things the rest of us do "at a high level strategic view". They can't, because they don't have a high level strategic view. The party literally has no plans or policies. It has ceased to function like a political party, and is now more of a PR firm for corporate looting of the treasury, and sometimes a protection racket. Look at how DeLay was running congress. Look at how Bush has run our foreign policy. There is literally no plan. It's just people using state power, largely for personal enrichment. Even the neocons don't really have a plan-- it's a bunch of aging college nerds pretending to be the Illuminati.

    This is quite a bit different from older school Republicans. James Baker was very much an ends-justify-the-means guy, with a plan. Hell, even Nixon had a plan. You would have to look at people like McCarthy and Tweed to get an accurate model for the ideal politician of the current Republican Party.

    To the extent that there is any long term plan, it's based on Cheney and Addington's sick fetish with police-state like powers. Even this, though, isn't aimed at solving anything. It's more magical thinking: 'If we take the gloves off, that'll beat the terrorists.' (Note, I say this as someone who is much less left-wing than you might guess, and who was largely indifferent between the two parties prior to Bush's invasion of Iraq.)

    As for Richard's worry that we might debase the level of political discourse in this country, how? Have you watched cable news, or read what gets published in the newspapers around here? In the last election, a frequent accusation was that Kerry seemed "too French". That's the level of our political debate-- weird nationalistic slurs. The sorts of widespread attitudes of civic-loyalty and responsibility to the nation which we would need before an intellectually honest debate were possible are simply gone from the society at large, and aren't coming back till a really major political crisis hits.

    Finally, as far as smearing Ann Coulter goes, the woman should not be invited on TV shows. Every time she appears on one, she should be attacked, smeared, and the network that invited her embarrassed. She is not a serious political debater, and TV shows that present her as one are serving as propaganda.

  5. Richard-

    You can just as easily say the same about Democrats...

  6. Derek, I agree, political discourse is already debased. That's why I'm asking people to start doing things differently, i.e. cease to maintain this debased condition.

    Importantly, I never said Coulter and other prominent Republicans should not be "attacked" and so forth. They should, to precisely the degree that is intellectually warranted. This is, I'm sure you'll agree, a high degree, so I don't see why anyone would feel the need to disagree with me here. I'm not saying we should smile at her politely. I'm saying we should speak the truth, denounce her when she deserves it, for the reasons that she merits censure and not on false pretenses. Smear her with the truth; that provides us so much ammunition, there's simply no need to resort to slime.

    Jared - while the Democrats have their flaws, I don't think they're even on the same scale as the current Republican party when it comes to civic vice.

  7. Oh, sorry Jared, I see you were addressing the more specific complaint that "The party literally has no plans or policies." (I think that's similarly false, but don't really care to pursue the issue here.)

  8. Richard,

    Obviously false accusations that Ann Coulter is anti-semitic will worry a much larger number of producers about inviting the woman on their show than pointing out the multiple times she has demonstrably lied. (Consider Imus.)

    That's the contemporary political scene.

    The populace at large has no interest in seeing their discourse elevated. They even get insulted when others try to elevate it.

  9. Taking a broader view, though, it's worth noting that our society has not always been so sensitive to racism and anti-semitism as moral concerns. I can think of nothing that would improve the world more than seeing intellectual dishonesty join their ranks. But that won't happen until more of us start to make a fuss about it.


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