Sunday, September 27, 2009

Weak Tea, part four

Just one principle from the 912 Project, this time. I'll finish up in a day or two.
8. It is not un-American for me to disagree with authority or to share my personal opinion.
On your right to disagree “In a free and republican government, you cannot restrain the voice of the multitude; every man will speak as he thinks, or more properly without thinking.” George Washington
Again, it’s hard to disagree with this, at least on its face.

And again, where were these people during the Bush administration, when we were told that dissent was all but tantamount to treason, weakening our resolve and giving "aid and comfort" to our enemies? That was the line from Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, Cheney, and the rest from 9/11 on down.

There was an obvious threat behind this kind of rhetoric from the Bush administration: treason is the one crime explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, and it is punishable by death.

And what did protesters against Bush-Cheney policies want? They wanted to maintain basic civil liberties, outlined by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, realized through the long tradition of American jurisprudence, against the perceived encroachment of the federal government.

Did they have good reason for their dissent? Perhaps. Did they engage in overheated rhetoric? Some of them certainly did, yes.

Just so, the tea partiers see themselves as standing up for basic liberties, outlined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, sometimes realized, sometimes eroded by the long tradition of American jurisprudence, against the perceived encroachment of the federal government.

Do they have good reason for their dissent? Perhaps. Do they engage in overheated rhetoric? Some of them certainly do, yes.

But are the cases really parallel?

Here’s the crucial question for the tea partiers: Who, exactly, is calling you unpatriotic, or disloyal, or treasonous? Not anyone I’ve heard, and certainly not anyone in the administration.

No, people are just saying the claims you make seem ignorant and misguided, drawn more from overwrought emotion than from clear understanding and careful deliberation.

That, at least, is what I am saying, and not, I think, without some justice. I mean, are the 9 Principles really the best you can do? Is this what passes for thinking in the tea party "movement"?

Of course you have the right to say stupid things. But I have the right to sort through your claims for myself, and come to my own considered judgment. I even reserve the right to make jokes at your expense, as you would be happy to do at mine.

That, at least, is what I would tell the tea partiers, if any of them were to ask, and assuming they could hear me over all the screaming.

A few more comments on this principle.

First, casting their position, and their position only, as Patriotism is really just putting more poison in the well. We’re the real Patriots, they seem to be saying. If you disagree with us, that means you think we're un-American, which just goes to show how un-American you are (or un-Real-American? Unreal American?) After all, criticizing the 9 principles means you have doubts about the first principle, which implies you believe America is bad. QED.

So it goes.

Second, the phrase “share my personal opinion” always makes me slightly queasy. The idea of sharing opinions smacks of kum-ba-ya, can’t-we-all-get-along pablum. It implies that, if you share your opinion with me, I ought to accept it gratefully, as a gift. Perhaps I can then share my opinion with you.

Happy, happy!

And if you say bad things about what people have shared with you, then you're just a no-good mean meanie.

(But then, if you play along and share an opinion that does not fit with theirs, they howl like demons and lunge for your throat.)

As for framing this in terms of personal opinion, that reminds me of a gambit sometimes employed by students in my philosophy classes, especially if they receive a low grade on a paper: philosophy is all about personal opinion, they say or imply, and you have no right to criticize my opinion, which is, after all, mine and not yours.

Well, I try patiently to explain, philosophy is about thoroughgoing critical examination of beliefs and the assumptions behind them, no matter whose beliefs or assumptions they happen to be. This is hard work, and there's no substitute for it. Hiding behind some supposedly unassailable “personal opinion” is just cover for intellectual laziness.

Third, it’s odd to use that particular quotation from Washington in this context. He seems to mean that everyone has the right to speak, even if the mass of ordinary people (on whom Washington seems to look with a kind of fatherly contempt) insists on speaking without thinking.

It is used in the context of these principles, it seems, to uphold instead the right to not think, even if the courageous heroes who attend tea parties dare to speak very loudly while not thinking.

I suppose there is such a right, if only for lack of any practicable way to violate such a right: I know of no way to force someone to think. It seems to me, though, that the right, the privilege, and indeed the responsibility of careful, critical thinking is much more worth defending.

But then, to quote my brother:
I am one of the pissed off Americans and I don't need to make an intelligent argument. I just hold up the Constitution and ask where is the healthcare, social security, Medicare, education department, HUD, NEA, Highways (send $1 get $.80 back) states should handle their own roads (Pay $1 get $1). The list continues on and on. We shouldn't have to defend what should never have been allowed.
I have to say I really don't understand that last sentence. Must be something pretty deep.

Fourth, does it strike anyone else as odd that conservatives have suddenly become so eager to cast themselves as Victims? I thought that was a liberal thing . . .

1 comment:

Doc Nagel said...

Perhaps I read way too much absurdist literature in college, but to me, being an unreal American sounds wonderful.