"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, February 11, 2008

Struggling with incoherence

As a philosopher, I am richly entertained by watching people struggle with their incoherence of thought in face of their clashing instincts. Occasionally, I'm even entertained by my own incoherence, for that brief moment before I strive to end it. Either way, it's more fun and much cheaper than cable television or movies. It's more worthwhile too. Today I offer two examples to entertain as well as educate.

The first is the struggle of American conservatives with the idea of John McCain as the Republican nominee. True, he's not a predictable ideologue; he seems to be more motivated by his ideals of honor and decency than by movement-style ideology. But considering the alternatives, what's wrong with that? Vain and prickly, he's not a perfect human being either. But who is? All this outrage, this doom and gloom, is completely unjustified. Yet Ann Coulter says she'd rather have Hillary Clinton than John McCain as President.

Of course that's the sort of thing she would say. Coulter has become rich by marketing her well-honed hyperbole to the angry Right, and it doesn't hurt that she's a slinky blonde who favors dressing in black. It's largely an act, even if not entirely an act. But sometimes people become their act. I'd love to have dinner with her, unnoticed, just to see what she's really like. (OK, and to see what she'd wear too.) Perhaps there's still a coherent core of authenticity there. But the notion that conservative ideals would be better served, even if only via backlash, by the return of the Clintons to the White House, is just plain adolescent. We might remain pure ourselves and gain more converts, but we would be letting our opponents do incalculable damage.

For one thing, as Sam Brownback has pointed out, the next president will almost certainly get to define the ideological direction of the Supreme Court for the next generation. Given McCain's record of supporting the Roberts and Alito nominations, the possibility of overturning Roe would be far greater with McCain in the White House than with either Clinton or Obama, with whom the possibility is nil. This issue is extremely important to social conservatives and ought to be important to any Catholic voter. As for the second leg of the three-legged conservative stool—strength on national security—both McCain's deserved persona as a war hero and his actual policy record are as strong as anybody's. Would conservatives really rather have a president who has competed with her (or his) primary opponents about who would pull our troops back faster? What really angers conservatives about McCain are his unwavering support for limiting the influence of money in politics and his willingness to be flexible about illegal immigrants. Frankly, I don't care about the former, and the latter actually brings him closer to Catholic social teaching than most conservatives are on the subject. What's the big deal?

We're dealing with syndrome thinking rather than with a coherent philosophy. Partisans of the Right and the Left have rarely thought out their political philosophy. Rather, their positions form a syndrome based even more on sentiment than on reason—and even when based on reason, the reasons are not always mutually compatible. E.g., Ronald Reagan is the conservative icon and fiscal conservatism is the third leg of their stool. But under him, federal budget deficits grew to a level unseen since World War II—for good reason, I would add. I could go on, but time is limited and the greater threat, at least in my view, lies on the other side and in the religious sphere.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has called for "plural jurisdiction" in Britain, with Sharia law governing those Muslims who want it and British law everybody else. (What happens when a husband wants it and a wife doesn't is an interesting question.) Of course the outraged reaction of most Britons, well expressed here, is justified. But the amusing thing is that Williams is exhibiting the same incoherence on this political point that he has cultivated in theology as he presides over the slow implosion of the Anglican Communion itself. In a show of apparent realism, he suggests that Sharia courts may "unavoidable" anyhow. Yet he backtracks when it's pointed that Sharia law is incompatible with the notions of women's rights and gender equality that he has so vigorously defended. As John O'Sullivan asks: "[I]s sharia unavoidable or not? If it is, then women's rights will simply have to give way. But if women's rights can be protected against it, then sharia isn't unavoidable - and we need have none of it." So, which is it? Williams doesn't say.

Such incoherence is of a piece with the relative silence of Western feminists about the oppression of women in Islam. Leftists in general cannot decide whether the notions of human rights to which they appeal as though universal are nonetheless trumped by multiculturalism or not. If intolerance must be tolerated, even within our midst, when shown by people who are not otherwise "people like us," then are there universal human rights other than the right to define oneself over against others? Why or why not?

This is why I lost interest in politics as a college student and never went to law school. Questions of the sort I've just raised are necessary to raise, pursue, and answer if we are going to live sensibly together. It takes courage and honesty, as well as time and thought, to pursue them to conclusions. So that's why I did. But when I ran for Congress back in 1988, the year I earned my doctorate, I learned that such is rare in politics because unrewarded. Instead, adults who pursue them are shunted into reservations called "universities" where they can talk to each other without either bothering or being bothered by everybody else. Nowadays, if you can't get a teaching job, there's alway blogging. But you can't usually get good sound bites out of real thought. The really important questions do not entertain.

At least it's entertaining to watch the results of refusing to entertain them.
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