Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Lost High Road

Somewhere along the line, I picked up a love of philosophy and political rhetoric. However, these interests have a particular flavor. It is the flavor of highfalutin' words, clear reasoning, and incisive criticism of an opponent's positions. That is to say, the academic study of politics, not necessarily politics as it is practiced today. Mind you, classical references to the Greeks or the Romans can still be heard from our legislators in the late hours on C-SPAN. And at least on the surface, American politics is about ideas regarding how the government should behave and how people should live their lives. However, in regular practice, thanks to the television, the 24-hour news cycle, and the irrational belief that "the personal is political," American representative government has strayed a long way from the Greek or Roman forms of rhetoric and politics.

Father Dan suggests that such ideas are passé, naive, or both. And it's a pity, really, because with no serious rivals left, and with our unchallenged military, economic, and social leadership in the world, one would like to think that a nation with serious responsibilities would have a serious political discourse to match. Alas, one would be thinking wrongly to assume such a thing.

A friend of mine tried to convince me a dozen years ago that "philosophy has nothing to do with politics." I was offended by her statement, and refused to believe it. After all, the political fights of this generation and those that went on before HAVE dealt with the behavior of government and its relationship with the people. One would like to think that there was something behind it besides gossip, innuendo, and trashy insults. However, the longer I read and hear the nation's political theater, the more depressed I get because it appears that my friend is almost right.

Almost right, that is, because there IS a philosophy at work in American politics, and that philosophy can be expressed as follows: "If you do not like the political ideas of your opponents, you must constantly and relentlessly attack their character, truthfully or not, to undermine their credibility and ability to campaign or govern."

Note that this has nothing to do with the merits of your opponent's positions, or the possible outcomes of those positions--which should be more important--but those are irrelevant. Your enemy is EVIL because they belong to a different party. They oppose what YOU believe, and therefore they must be DESTROYED by any means necessary--lies, cheap shots, or dirty laundry that has little to nothing to do with how smart their political ideas are.

The latest victim of this "philosophy" is Sarah Palin, who has decided to leave the Alaska governorship after a vicious presidential campaign and the aftereffects thereof. She's getting out of Dodge while she's still got some dignity left...and even so, she'll be the butt of nasty political jokes long after she's gone. And it's a damn shame to me, because she was willing to take on her political opponents on matters of policy that are vital to our national economy right now. But no: it was more important to mock her Christian faith, her quaint accent, her lack of international travel (George Washington never left the States, by the way--neither did Lincoln), her wardrobe, her family's personal tragedies, or her lack of an Ivy League pedigree. So: another conservative politician goes down in flames, to the great delight of the TV pundits; and another several dozen or hundred or thousand serious citizens think twice about running for office for fear of the trashing that might face them...which is the whole point of the trashing.

I don't really care "who started it." I'm more interested in who's going to take a shot at stopping it. You can find examples of dirty politics in America going back to at least 1800. In the television era, one might find mobsters enforcing dead men voting to elect Kennedy or Nixon bugging his enemies to take an election he was likely to win anyway. I don't care. Would it kill our politicians to ATTEMPT the high road? And if someone DOES take the high road--say, by criticizing someone in power about their policies--would it kill the other guy to respond in kind rather than look for dirt as a way to discredit the criticism?

Of course we do have such things--the televised debates, which are a choreographed exercise in policy trial balloons and sound bites--and they bore the public to death because they ARE so scripted. How do we overcome such things? I don't know, but I'd like to see it tried. Call it principled naiveity.


lin said...

It is to be expected that the study of philosophy, and by extension ethics, is no longer part of the curriculum required for a college degree. The people who fund and create the nation’s curricula are desperate to hide what children are taught and how schools are operated. Few ethical systems seek to justify this sort of wholesale deception.
Unfortunately, far too many members of the educational and political bureaucracies believe that lying is their birthright.
Without deception, politics would grind to a halt because that process is merely people interacting at the most base level possible. Shameless federal, state, and local legislative bodies in action bring to mind TV nature shows depicting different pecking orders of carnivores competing over carcasses.
One must have a moral compass in order to have a sense of shame, and self-restraint is an inherent part of morality. Ethics is the science of making consistent moral choices. Arbitrary and selfish choices are not moral, ethical, or consistent. They are however, the bedrock of the American political debate that panders to liars, thieves, charlatans, and cowards.
As long as such weak and unprincipled behavior pays dividends rather than earning shame and ostracization, ethics will be tainted with the appearance that honesty and self-restraint are liabilities that hamstring seekers of the high road and benefit the greedy, shiftless, and irresponsible.

Unknown said...

I am absolutely with you on your dismay over the lack of serious philosophical debate in our political sphere. That said, I don't really view Palin as a victim of anything except her own ignorance and of one party's cynical ploy to use her to grab votes based on her beauty queen pedigree.

The pundits who are crowing don't really have any room to do so, as they are as vacuous and empty-headed as she was, but that doesn't fundamentally change her complete lack of suitability for the highest office in the land.

Bart said...


Regarding Palin's "complete unsuitability," I would submit that that is a value judgment, not an objective statement. Here's what the Constitution says about the "qualifications" to become President:

"No person except a natural born citizen, or a citizen of the United States, at the time of the adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that office who shall not have attained to the age of thirty five years, and been fourteen Years a resident within the United States."

I see nothing there about particular (or minimum) forms of education, professional background, disposition, or even level of sanity. Most of the nation's Presidents have been governors or mayors--people used to executive power. Senators have been relatively rare.

Anyhow, I've teed this issue up for you; feel free to swing away. Aside from Palin's ideology and lack of "professional politician" pedigree, which are the ACTUAL reasons she was so despised, I am curious about your stated reasons.


Unknown said...

By your fairly constrained (and literal) terms, I can go find a 35-year-old homeless guy who is, in the same terms, perfectly suitable for the office of President. Likewise, were I to float such a candidate, I would expect people to look at me as if I'd grown a second head.

That Palin was ever a governor is a terrifying testament to the contemporary American political process as high-school popularity contest. One need possess no ability to think critically, no ethical base, and no actual mental acuity to be considered viable. Just a sufficient war chest and support of one of the two major parties (or deep enough pockets to go it alone).

As to the "ACTUAL" reasons Palin got trashed (though I'd argue your interpretation is as much opinion as my earlier value judgement) -- her ideology was in absolute lockstep with the previous 8 years of the American Presidency, so I'm not sure how it stands as the damning characteristic. Her "professional politician" pedigree was as good as several recent candidates (including the current POTUS). Which leads me to suspect that the "ACTUAL" reason might not be either of those things, and might be that people saw that there was no "there" there. Add to that a string of ongoing investigations in her current office, and things go downhill quickly. Had McCain actually gone shopping for a running mate with more political savvy, I might not be enduring lots of Republicans who have recently rediscovered their fiscal conservatism throwing tea parties. ;)

Bart said...

Some of us never lost our fiscal conservatism, and were irritated with Bush over the spending.

Beauty contest? You ever seen the worshipful, GQ-type coverage Obama gets every time he shows his pecs on the beach?

Anyhow, I honestly didn't do my due diligence on who Palin was or what she stood for. I liked some of her sound bytes and thought she had a much saner and more pleasant personality that McCain. She had more of a populist bent that I like, but she was much more energetic than McCain. Obviously that's not enough basis to elect a president, but she did have some easily identifiable positions that I could agree with: pro-gun ownership and pro-oil drilling in ANWR (her state) being the two that stood out.

I think some of your remarks a bit mean-spirited and unfair. Again, my gripe has been that conservatives all get trashed in the same way--over personal matters that have little to do with their positions--while folks like Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and Al Franken are lauded or celebrated for their "little quirks." It gets old after awhile. However, this is not a recent development. Eisenhower was treated as lazy and out of touch, sort of like Reagan.

The ends of politics (policy) are almost completely disconnected from means we use to pursue them, and that's what's frustrating.