November 14, 2009

The Plea of Helplessness, the Refusal of Responsibility, and Today's Progressives

I've been thinking further about my post from last evening, and reflecting on one particular aspect of that entry: the refusal to take responsibility for one's actions, and a person's demand that others solve the problems that he has created. You see this mechanism in the comment at Corrente that I quoted (see my post and the one at Corrente for the context and specific meaning, which was directed at "a lot of men generally" and not Lambert specifically, although he happens to be named): "men broke everything and now lambert wants women to take the lead in fixing it all." And you see it in the wonderfully clever dialogue from The History Boys: "History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket."

In that example, men create all the problems -- but now it is women's responsibility to "fix" them, or at least clean up the extraordinary mess men caused. But this phenomenon can be seen in a wide variety of settings, and it is a means of deflection employed in connection with an endless number of issues. I've examined more than a few examples over the years, and this mechanism also connects to issues that will be central to some already planned upcoming essays. So consider this only part of a still lengthier discussion.

Many of the previous examples of this phenomenon that I discussed were largely focused on the Bush administration, those who supported and defended it, and conservatives generally. That was understandable and only to be expected: in those years, it was those on the conservative side of the spectrum (broadly speaking) who controlled events. My perspective and critique began to expand outward and be more inclusive as Democrats started to regain power. I emphasize that the ideas and perspective that I advanced didn't change with regard to fundamentals; only the self-designated party (or ideological) affiliation of those in power did. You can see my increasingly intense disenchantment with Democrats and those who supported them in a post just before the 2006 elections, as one example. (And I point out, as I have before, that my predictions about how awful the Democrats would be proved to be fantastically generous given what they did and continue to do.)

A further example of my disillusionment -- of my conviction that grew as evidence accumulated that neither the Democrats nor the progressives actually meant or were serious about the goals they proclaimed to be so important to them (and I refer here to those who direct events to varying degrees, including those writers and bloggers with "access" and "influence") -- can be found in a post from July 2007: "Still Another Call to Activism: Prove Me Wrong, I Beg You." Note my plea in the title, and in the article: prove me wrong, please. In the event, they didn't prove me wrong; to the contrary, they demonstrated the truth of what I had still hoped, however faintly, wasn't true. But what was demonstrated to be true was simply that virtually everything the Democrats and progressives claimed to be their fervent concern was merely instrumental: that is, they staked out the positions they did for their perceived political advantage, and for the assistance those positions would provide in regaining and consolidating power.

In the end, that was the only goal, the only purpose toward which everything else was directed: the achievement and maintenance of power. That same post from over two years ago also provides evidence of one difference between Republicans and conservatives on the one hand, and Democrats and progressives on the other. I discuss in detail the conservative campaign against the then-proposed immigration bill. As I emphasize in that article, I considered that example a very unfortunate one. I loathed the conservatives' reasons for opposing the bill, which were uniformly and often explicitly racist in nature. But as I explained, I was focused on a much narrower issue:
I repeat that my concern here is not whether conservatives' objections to the bill were valid (they weren't), or whether they "distorted" the bill's provisions (sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't). My point is the strategic one: they didn't want the bill passed, they mobilized massive, large-scale opposition, and their tactics worked.
A related earlier point in that discussion is worth noting here, and it concerns what their actions indicated the conservatives' proclaimed principles did, in fact, mean to them (at least on this occasion):
One part of the message deserves particular note, and all of the shows I heard made the same point: they condemned those Republicans, including Bush, who supported the bill without mercy. They told people to inform the RNC and all the appropriate Congressmen and Senators that they would receive no further support of any kind, including financial support, unless the bill was defeated. In their view, support of the bill was a betrayal of core conservative principles. They therefore maintained that any such alleged "conservatives" did not deserve to be in office. As one, they said that these betrayers of the conservative faith should not hold power any longer -- and that the principles they believed were imperiled were more important than the continuation in power by the Republican party.
I repeat this for emphasis: the conservatives were entirely willing to give up power because they viewed these principles as so critical. The same point was recently made by Bernard Chazelle in his analysis of the significance of the NY Congressional election, and the failure of most mainstream liberals and progressives to grasp what was involved. Chazelle writes:
Both [David Corn and Markos Moulitsas] embed NY23 within a narrative of power and strategy. As good liberal pundits, they only see a story of suicidal conservatives displaying Palinesque levels of stupidity. They'd rather lose a seat than compromise their principles. Hahaha! Now how dumb is that? Surely no liberals would commit such a sin. They'll go with Blue Dogs and Green Hyenas if that's the road to power. The word "principle" is too well-pedigreed so the preferred putdown in the liberal commentariat is the derisive "purity."

My point is not to argue that conservatives have principles (many do, but that's not my point). I only wish to bring up the fact that liberal pundits lack the genetic makeup, or the intellectual category if you will, to bring up the issue of principles, even if only to dismiss it with a giant laugh.

When, in fact, NY 23 taps into a deep, widespread anger at the establishment (in that case the GOP). Beck and Palin are such inviting targets it's irresistible for liberals to dismiss the whole thing as "the Freak Show of the Retards." But it's missing two important facts: the first is that the anger is legitimate. The Bush-Obama plan to rescue the criminals on Wall Street on the back of ordinary Americans will not be soon forgotten. The visceral opposition to [health care reform] among many can be traced to it. The second fact is the appalling condescension of these liberal elites toward conservatives who have principles they care deeply about. I happen to detest virtually every single one of these principles. And, yes, Beck is a dangerous demagogue. But there's still something to be said about a political movement that would rather lose an election than its principles: a concept completely alien to the liberal establishment.
I will be revisiting this issue very soon. This difference between (many) conservatives and (many) liberals deserves more analysis, and I consider it to be significant. It is also of special importance with regard to the question of coalition-building that I recently began discussing.

Let's return to the major concern of this post. Consider the through-line in some of the earlier examples I discussed. From my long-ago examination of Irving Kristol's flagrantly dishonest explanation of U.S. foreign policy:
In this context, "bad luck" has only one possible meaning: that we had no choice but to become involved in these conflicts, that the conflicts were "forced" on us against our will, and that we were merely passive observers in world affairs who became embroiled in one conflict after another, in an unceasing train of war, altogether against our better judgment.

This is a vicious and reprehensible rewriting of history. If I thought Kristol were capable of experiencing the emotion, I would say he ought to be ashamed of himself. Every single one of those wars was one that the United States deliberately and intentionally chose to become involved in after a long period of deliberation.
Here is Barbara Tuchman on the broader issue (quoted in that same post):
Rulers will justify a bad or wrong decision on the ground, as a historian and partisan wrote of John F. Kennedy, that "He had no choice," but no matter how equal two alternatives may appear, there is always freedom of choice to change or desist from a counter-productive course if the policy-maker has the moral courage to exercise it. He is not a fated creature blown by the whims of Homeric gods. Yet to recognize error, to cut losses, to alter course, is the most repugnant option in government.
From very long ago, 2003 in fact, this is part of my condemnation and rejection of the war hawks' demand that opponents of the criminal catastrophe in Iraq be "constructive":
[T]here is one tactic the hawks ought to give up at this point. They should stop saying, as one of the commenters to my earlier post did, that none of those who opposed the war with Iraq are offering "constructive" proposals at this point. This is remarkably offensive for several reasons. First, it wasn't the opponents' policies that created this horrible dilemma. It was the hawks' policies. They are responsible for this nightmare, and no one else. They shouldn't expect -- and often demand -- others to offer solutions to the daunting problems their policies have created. Where is the justice in that? Or even the common sense? They got us all here; they ought to show some intellectual responsibility and creativity of their own, and get us out.


I, and others like me, have been constructive. I, and others like me, have offered alternatives. The hawks, and those who fashion and implement our foreign policy, rejected them. The problems we now face are their doing, the result of their actions, and their responsibility.

No one else's. It's their mess. There is no good way out. And we probably have given the terrorists' recruiting efforts the biggest boost that can be imagined. Well done.

But there is one thing the hawks should not expect or be allowed to get away with: avoiding responsibility for the tragedy that is now unfolding. They brought it about. Now they should have the decency to deal with it.
Keep all this in mind -- and now turn your attention to what has transpired since Obama took office, supported by overwhelming Democratic control of Congress.

With regard to every issue of consequence, Obama has embraced and even expanded the policies of the Bush administration that he and the progressives had claimed to profoundly oppose. From preventive detention, to increasingly intrusive surveillance at home, to the influence of "faith-based" activists and their preferred policies, to the continuing occupation of Iraq, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, which intentionally and with severe malice aforethought flows into Pakistan and threatens still wider regional destabilization, to continued confrontation with Iran via "crippling sanctions" and indefensible demands made of that country, backed up by the disgusting bullying which endlessly repeats that "all options are on the table" (thus perfectly mimicking Bush's behavior in every respect, all of which Obama and the progressives said they condemned) -- all of it is directly contradictory to what Obama and the progressives had claimed to stand for.

And what is the primary defense they offer for these stances, all of which run counter to what they said they believed in and what they repeatedly indicated they would do once they controlled the executive and legislative branches? Their defense is exactly the same defense offered by the conservatives: they can't help it. This is the best they can do. Forces over which they have no control leave them no alternative.

Those forces may be "the system" itself -- despite the rather consequential fact that they now control all the operative levers of power, or the allegedly inherent evil and irrationality of the countries we threaten, or they may include the purported "power" of a small group of anti-abortion zealots. And the "health care" debate -- and the revolting abomination that makes its way through Congress -- is another embodiment of the same mechanism, an almost perfect, and perfectly awful, one. Those who continue to support this monstrosity proclaim over and over that this is "just a first step," and that it's the only step that's possible given the forces arrayed against them. The defenders claim this is "the best" they or anyone can do. Many of them go further, and say to their critics: if you're at all "decent," if you care about helping the unfortunate, then you must support this bill. If you don't, you're a phony "purist," you're not "realistic," you're a pie in the sky idealist, devoid of any understanding of "practical" politics. You are not to be taken seriously. At this point in the argument, they not infrequently resort to mockery and further personal attacks.

On the question of who is, in fact, "realistic" and who genuinely understands how to challenge entrenched power, and to briefly reference again the nature of coalition-building and what it requires, I direct your attention to Part II of the discussion in this article. Note in particular the complete absence of agreement between Clarkson and Wilberforce on any issue except one: that slavery must be ended. They passionately agreed about that, but only about that. And note that they achieved their goal in less than a century, despite the fact that every part of the Establishment of the time opposed their efforts: "The antislavery movement had achieved its goal in little more than one lifetime." If individuals of the stature and dedication of Clarkson and Wilberforce appeared on today's scene, present-day progressives wouldn't even recognize them. To the extent they might, they would mock them mercilessly and condemn them for their "purity." All of that and worse was directed at those men -- and still they triumphed. Today's progressives refuse to learn the lesson.

In terms of these issues, what today's progressives do is exactly what many conservatives did during the Bush years. Today, we must stay in Iraq and Afghanistan, for our enemies will not permit us to do otherwise. We must bail out Wall Street, for if we don't, our entire economy will collapse. We must provide the insurance companies a gigantic guaranteed market, a market delivered to the insurers by the threat of government force, for this is the only way we can take this necessary "first step." The Democrats and progressives repeatedly claim that they have no choice about any of it.

Precisely as was the case for many conservatives, it is now the case for the Democrats and progressives: nothing is their fault, and nothing is their responsibility. But as Tuchman and many others have proven at blistering length, not a single element of this argument is true: "[N]o matter how equal two alternatives may appear, there is always freedom of choice to change or desist from a counter-productive course if the policy-maker has the moral courage to exercise it." With regard to the claim that this "health care" bill is "better than nothing," that too is completely false, as David Swanson has demonstrated.

As for the adoption by Democrats and progressives of the very defense and alleged justification that they so vehemently condemned when it was practiced by conservatives, I can only appeal to Barbara Tuchman once again. In identifying the causes of the catastrophe in Vietnam, Tuchman observed:
Not ignorance, but refusal to credit the evidence and, more fundamentally, refusal to grant stature and fixed purpose to a "fourth-rate" Asiatic country were the determining factors, much as in the case of the British attitude toward the American colonies. The irony of history is inexorable.