Good Writers and Bad Reasoning or When Liberals Shoot Themselves

Recent pieces by Matt Stoller at Slate and Chris Hedges at Truthdig are notable; both articles criticize Liberals who supported Barak Obama during the election. Each author lists important problems the current President failed to solve like erosion of civil liberties, the conduct of the war and climate change etc. I share their objections and insistence that these issues need solutions. Regardless I demerit their arguments.

Stoller argued the merit of voting for a third party candidate on moral grounds.

“It [the USA] is a country whose economic basis is oligarchy, whose political system is authoritarianism, and whose political culture is murderous toward the rest of the world and suicidal in our aggressive lack of attention to climate change”.

Later Stoller says.

“But first, let’s be honest about what voting for Obama means. This requires diving into something I actually detest, which is electoral analysis and the notion of what would a pragmatist do. I tend to find the slur that one need be pragmatic and not a purist condescending and dishonest; no one ever takes an action without a reason to do so.”

Having a cause to do something doesn’t make the action worthwhile or harmless. In terms of third party voting the overwhelming evidence against a Nader victory in the 2000 Bush v. Gore election suggests that Stoller’s idealism neglects such experience. Refusal to choose the lesser of two evils doesn’t account for a lack of real alternatives. Regardless of my preference for Nader, to dismiss a vote for Gore as a dishonest justification of means by ends absurdly assumes that Nader could have won and that he would have done a better job, which stretches even further.  Let’s throw Stoller’s reasoning into different circumstances and see the results.

If in the recent Guatemalan earthquake you happened to be injured somewhere remote and bleeding from your leg. A bystander might suggest a tourniquet. Someone else may say a doctor would give the best help. You would probably grab a stick and start twisting someone’s belt. Anyone who described you as a condescending, dishonest pragmatist for addressing the problem this way is delusional. Regardless of the truth that a qualified doctor would be better if you could find one but you can’t.

Why sacrifice a good you can actually have for something unattainable? Abandoning real choices for an ideal that can’t be achieved can be called immoral regardless of how wonderful the imagination. Weighing real alternatives and seeking the best represents moral responsibility.

I turn now to Mr. Hedges. Granting that without interesting language something urgent may go unnoticed. However when facts are interpreted into sensational distortions of meaning the author shoots himself in the foot. Hedges says

“It [the Liberal class] fights for nothing. It stands for nothing.”

The liberal class hasn’t effectively addressed the serious problems Hedges justly points out. Nonetheless, if someone contributes to protect their daughter’s right to abortion and sex education, it counts as something, regardless of any real or imagined cynical motives. Hedges omits mention of any current advances of liberal policy at the state level such as modifying the expensive and blunt three strikes law in California. This change came through a painful process of trial and error. He goes on to say of the liberal class,

“It [the Liberal class] exists not to make possible incremental or piecemeal reform, as it originally did in a functional capitalist democracy; instead it has devolved into an instrument of personal vanity, burnishing the hollow morality of its adherents.”

The recent election brought advances for  the LGBT community, particularly when contrasted with a history of persecution. The suffering caused by unfair laws contribute to human misery. Why abase a reduction of hardship because other evils exist?  Later Hedges says,

Liberals, by voting for Barack Obama, betrayed the core values they use to define themselves—the rule of law, the safeguarding of civil liberties, the protection of unions, the preservation of social welfare programs, environmental accords, financial regulation, a defiance of unjust war and torture, and the abolition of drone wars. The liberal class clung desperately during the long nightmare of this political campaign to one or two issues, such as protecting a woman’s right to choose and gender equality, to justify its complicity in a monstrous evil. This moral fragmentation—using an isolated act of justice to define one’s self while ignoring the vast corporate assault on the nation and the ecosystem along with the pre-emptive violence of the imperial state—is moral and political capitulation. It fails to confront the evil we have become.

The evils Hedges rightly exposed above are serious and need solutions. His argument falters because he could have made exactly the same points if all Americans had voted for Romney or if Obama voters abstained. Maligning the electorate in a – pick one or the other – election fails to account that they were displaying a moral discrimination of value.

“The ’sentimentalist fallacy’ is to shed tears over abstract justice and generosity, beauty, etc., and never to know these qualities when you meet them in the street, because there the circumstances make them vulgar.”
William James

While being dragged underwater A Florida teen recently chose between sacrificing his limb to an alligator or drowning. The loss of an arm can truly be described as  an evil. Yet faulting the young man for choosing something harmful seems shortsighted. Similar decisions are made by firefighters and triage doctors about groups in response to disaster, they exercise judgment based on the circumstances directing attention to what can be done. When violent crime rates rise does that mean the voting population (who are also victims) must be complicit with criminals? The lack of knowledge or absence of any real alternatives should not be confused with lack of integrity.

Exposing human suffering and shaming Liberals for having about as much effect on a solution as his writing are different things. This constitutes a moral blind spot. When conservatives imagine a better world without abortion and suggest women hold an aspirin between their knees (abstain from sex) as a solution they have generally exacerbated the problem. Hedges conclusions are comparable to those of Rick Perry regarding sex education because of similar reasoning. Such argument essentially states that if facts were different, the problem would either be solved or wouldn’t exist. Why not end crime while we are at it? After all if people stopped breaking laws, then crime would disappear. I hesitate comparing Hedges reasoning with such insipid platitudes because it might make his valid criticism appear trivial which amounts to a real loss of what he offers. I separate his factual reporting from his judgment that assigns guilt by decree.

Hedges occupation placed the experience of human suffering before him in ways others can scarcely imagine.  He sees many problems of life and death from a different perspective. To be fair, mortality; what we hold in common binds us together, like chained prisoners working on a railroad. If in the midst of tumultuous labor a few notice a misguided train coming, the ones aware of the catastrophe insist others get off the tracks. The closer the tragedy the more efforts become frantic. If the means cause needless confusion or conflict they may be useless regardless of intention.

Clamoring for solutions to real problems I think a merit. However, the motive doesn’t justify suggesting that comprehensive health care for women, and more equality for minorities exists only to hide complicity with evil. Nor has he proved the liberal class is a corpse that stands for nothing. If it be true, then Hedges railing at a carcass amounts to ill-conceived futility; like trying to piss up a rope. He may despair in the awareness of human agony and blind corporate tyranny. His lament resonates in me. Still the fact remains that Elizabeth Warren won because she fights the corporatocracy responsible for some of the anguish Hedges exposes so well. This fact goes unseen in his description of liberals.

Yes, endowing people with imaginary virtues amounts to dishonesty. A deceit perhaps as wrong as denying a merit possessed. Let’s not blind ourselves to something good because real evils exist. Such all or nothing thinking invites a pessimism among the suggestible that helps even less.

Mr. Hedges best efforts may not have solved the problems he sees nor influenced enough people to make a difference. That doesn’t make him complicit with evil nor a corpse even if he did vote for Obama. Perhaps he could become more effective in the same way that liberalism should collectively improve, through the slow grind of testing new ways of doing things and keeping the best.

 

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Todd Vickers

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