Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

What with the renewed interest in a Russian antagonist recently, it has become fashionable in some circles to dismiss criticism as use of a rhetorical device that has stood the long test of time: whataboutism.

Well, yes, tu quoque is a logical fallacy, and that would matter if public opinion were logical. But it is not, so it doesn’t. Whataboutism as a device works because it plays on the cognitive dissonance arising from the conflict between one’s ideals and hypocritical behavior. The case of Thomas Jefferson, for example, writing that all men have the right to liberty while keeping slaves. The United States is particularly susceptible to this style of argument because of our founding in the Enlightenment and because we pretend to be a shining example to the world, a City upon a Hill. How can we on the one hand pledge allegiance to liberty and justice for all while simultaneously denying it in practice? How do we reconcile our behavior with our ideals?

Whataboutism works because it’s true.

Whataboutism may draw a false moral equivalence between parties, without concern for shades of grey, but a decent respect for the opinions of mankind does make it unseemly to criticize others of a crime, e.g. torture, when one engages in that crime. Or at least makes the accusation more than a little ironic. Well, isn’t that just the pot calling the kettle black! The U.N. Human Rights Council is likely tired of hearing this. It would be something else entirely if we admitted our flaws, acknowledged them, and actually held ourselves to at least the same, if not a more stringent, standard than we hold others. “Let he who is without sin…” and all that.

We certainly aren’t without sin. No one is. One might take a moment for self-reflection. Or not. Many so-called patriots prefer denial and cannot admit fault. Brush the dirt under the rug of history while claiming the dirt doesn’t exist and, even if it did, it’s not dirt but soil. We don’t air our dirty laundry in public. This is the “my country, right or wrong” crowd: the reduction of civil society and the clash of nations to a team sport, and, strangely enough, the active embrace of the core argument advanced by the current crop of whataboutism.

Masha Gessen, in “In Praise of Hypocrisy,” writes,

Fascists the world over have gained popularity by calling forth the idea that the world is rotten to the core. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Hannah Arendt described how fascism invites people to “throw off the mask of hypocrisy” and adopt the worldview that there is no right and wrong, only winners and losers. Hypocrisy can be aspirational: Political actors claim that they are motivated by ideals perhaps to a greater extent than they really are; shedding the mask of hypocrisy asserts that greed, vengeance and gratuitous cruelty aren’t wrong, but are legitimate motivations for political behavior.

[Vladimir Putin and Victor Orban] seem convinced that the entire world is driven solely by greed and hunger for power, and only the Western democracies continue to insist, hypocritically, that their politics are based on values and principles….

Despair at how the world is shaped by power imbalances, and embrace a blunt conception of the Good Life:

They err in understanding a description of how the world works as a prescription for the way it should. Still ideals beyond power give us something to strive for in this dog-eat-dog world where only the murderous survive. Isn’t it odd that those who care so little for the public opinion that they have no qualms looting their country for their own personal aggrandizement are among those who are the most assiduous perpetrators of fraud, indirection, and deceit in hiding their wealth and the sources of it? Isn’t it odd that heroes must hide their feet of clay?

Perhaps there’s something to these ideals after all.

Speaking of Hate

I really hate that the rhetoric of liberty is perverted in the service of illiberal causes. And I hate this not just because of the hypocrisy of it. I hate this because now that the language of liberty is indeliably associated with those wishing to deny liberty to others, it is relatively simple for all who wish to deny liberty to others to argue that it is in fact those who wish to defend liberty who are in reality attempting to suppress it.

For example, it is well-known that the Ku Klux Klan would deny liberty to blacks, Jews, and Catholics, among others. Yet in rallying people to their cause, they speak of defending their freedoms. Now any who would defend liberty can be discounted as fellow travelers, tarred by association.

This rhetorical identification allows those who would expand their power at the expense of liberty greater discretion. You don’t really want to be like them, do you?

The Disarming Power of Words

We TiVo’d the last debate, and watched it again just now. Others have summarized it much more pithily, or eviscerated the candidates with more gusto, but I’d like to offer a small observation, a small suggestion in hind-sight that perhaps would have moved some voters from column A to column B.

When discussing a Constitutional right to privacy, Senator Obama ranked it with the First Amendment, and then groped for some other Very Important Right to use as a second example. The transcript doesn’t show the hesitation between “than” and “many.”

And I think that the Constitution has a right to privacy in it that shouldn’t be subject to state referendum, any more than our First Amendment rights are subject to state referendum, any more than many of the other rights that we have should be subject to popular vote.

At that point, right there, Obama should have said “the Second Amendment.”

Fiat

Simply because you say something, does not make it so. But enough people might believe it to be so, that for all intents and purposes it is.

Last night during the post-election analysis on CNN, David Frum, whom Jerry Pournelle calls “the egregious Frum” for his erroneous ways, remarked,

You know, the Democrats claim not to be the party of the rich, but they’re raking in the bucks.

Trade-offs

The troubling fact is that taking a lot of exercise and then eating a bit more food is not good for the global atmosphere. Eating less and driving to save energy would be better.

Or so says Chris Goodall, Green Party parliamentary candidate for Oxford West & Abingdon, as quoted in The (London) Times [via Eugene Volokh (via David Sucher) and John Massengale].

The troubling fact is that living is not good for the global atmosphere. Dying would be better.