The Washington Post has a piece describing how Tom Coburn has come under fire from conservatives for suggesting that Nancy Pelosi is a nice person. Yes, he opposes her on health care (and most other things). He attempted, though, to oppose the policies she advocates while refusing to attack her as a person. Some would say that is simply what decent people do. Cobrun even suggested that Fox News isn’t always fair and balanced. Would Nancy Pelosi get the same treatment from Daily Kos, etc. if she has said the same about Coburn and CNN? Is this just politics as usual? Could it be that we are taking politics too seriously? Does thinking of politics and policy debates in terms of war induce a “destroy the enemy” mentality?

Alasdair MacIntyre argues that we have lost a common moral language rooted in classical virtue. With that loss, all that is left are absolute rights claims, emotivism, and the political tactic of “the protest.” In such a context, there is no room for rational discourse, there is no possibility of compromise, and there is a diminished chance that we can disagree in a way that suggests an underlying commitment to the common good even if we disagree on the means to achieve it. At the very least, an ethic of virtue requires that we grasp the meaning of human excellence. To grasp the meaning of human excellence, we must grasp something about the meaning of the human being.

Wendell Berry gets at this issue by suggesting that one aspect of the problem is a failure of imagination:

In order to survive, a plurality of true communities would require not egalitarianism and tolerance but knowledge, an understanding of the necessity of local differences, and respect. Respect, I think, always implies imagination–the ability to see one another, across our inevitable differences, as living souls.

A hopeless ideal? In the age of cable television, talk radio, and blogs, it surely seems like a long shot. Nevertheless,  I’ll throw in my lot with the hopeless idealists.

h/t Jordan Spencer

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  1. It was at the time of the Robert Bork hearings in 1987 that I lost any illusions that U.S. politics was not a matter of total war. I got over any idea that we could be reasonable and agree to disagree. I came to understand then that left would stop at nothing to win. It has only gotten worse since then.

    I don’t think it always was that way and I would be glad for it to be different again, but that’s the world we have to live in.

    That doesn’t mean I can’t say Nancy Pelosi isn’t nice, or that nice things can’t be said about her. (I just wrote a blog article in which I took her side against Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard.) But I would do it in the same way that I might have had to be polite to Joe Stalin or Adolph Hitler–for the sake of public decency. After all, they had their good points, too (which would have been easier for us to appreciate if they hadn’t wielded total power). They should not be treated or thought of as sub-humans. We should try to understand our enemy, and we can’t do that if we have to be in full rant mode all the time. But they don’t stop being enemies while we do that.

    So if Tom Coburn is just trying to be realistic and objective, I have no problem with him saying nice things about Nancy Pelosi, so long as it’s done with the realization that she is an enemy of the people. If he’s going Frum on us or is going to be one of those Republicans who has been pussy-whipped or for whom the left finds “strange new respect,” then I would have a problem.

    One difference is that for the left, everything is political. For us conservatives, life is a lot bigger than politics. So we relax once in a while, and like to put down our guard. The other side never does.

    There is a slight parallel with the way the European-Americans conquered the Natives. The Anglo-Europeans were relentless in the way they kept their noses to the grindstone, built up capital, and took the land. That doesn’t mean they were always out trying to kill off the Natives. Far from it. Their kids would play together, they would trade food and work, and even do favors for each other. But the Anglo-Europeans were relentless, while the Native peoples were not. For the Native peoples, there was more to life than getting ahead. For the Americans, getting ahead was everything. The Natives would win a battle here and there in their effort to stop the Americans, sometimes a real battle in wartime and sometimes a legal battle in the court system. But they would give ground and try to accommodate themselves to the new order of things, and sometimes try to establish real friendships with the conquerers. The European-Americans never did that. They would get along socially, but when the Natives were shipped west across the Mississippi, not a one of the Americans tried to help their Native friends in the manner that some Americans later tried to help escaped slaves. I have read many accounts by American kids who later in life, as oldsters, told how they were traumatized at seeing what was being done to their Native friends. But not one told of parents or neighbors who tried to hide the Native people who were being rounded up or otherwise help them avoid eviction. It was relentless warfare on one side, but not on the other.

    Back in the 80s I used to get into political arguments with co-workers. I’m a conservative who works for a public university, so there are many such opportunities. I remember getting into screaming matches in the hallways, but being able to turn it off and get back to work together and resume the quarrel later. It didn’t keep us from being good colleagues and friends.

    A few years later, with a slightly younger generation, I observed that the folks I was arguing with couldn’t turn it off. Political differences were personal differences and they were total differences. I quit arguing politics with people at work when I saw that the other side couldn’t separate politics from our working and personal relationships. It’s sad, but that’s the world we live in now. Maybe that’s the way it has to be when government has become so large and so involved in every aspect of our lives.

    One of my actions after the Bork hearings was to quit contributing to public radio fundraising drives. I used to say, “yes, they’re liberal (they really were liberal back in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s) but they report on news I wouldn’t hear otherwise.” After what they did to Bork I quit supporting them, and in fact still make every effort to have them defunded. I listen to the good music on the local stations, but I refuse to pay for it. I’ll use their resources but will not let them have any of mine, because they will only use them to destroy us.

  2. Whenever I step out of the Church, I really do feel as if every person I see on the walk home is a child of God. The rest of the time, I don’t do as well.

  3. I believe MacIntyre is correct in suggesting that, for the present, there is little possibility of healthy political life. I believe Voegelin’s historical analysis of politics as “representation” supports MacIntyre here. We are in a period similar to the one that occurred after the breakdown of classical civilization. A new order WILL arise, but we don’t know what it will be, and our best option now is to preserve what we can of what was good in Christian civilization, analyze the current malady as best we can, and encourage whatever trends we perceive as suggesting a new civilizational order.

  4. “I believe MacIntyre is correct in suggesting that, for the present, there is little possibility of healthy political life. I believe Voegelin’s historical analysis of politics as “representation” supports MacIntyre here. We are in a period similar to the one that occurred after the breakdown of classical civilization. A new order WILL arise, but we don’t know what it will be, and our best option now is to preserve what we can of what was good in Christian civilization, analyze the current malady as best we can, and encourage whatever trends we perceive as suggesting a new civilizational order.”

    Okay Gene I know we had quite a violent disagreement recently, half due to disagreements, but I believe we can get along here. As Christians cannot we say the changes in the decline of classical civilisation was because of a new revelation redefining the old civilisation. Now as Christians, even Christians who accept the validity of other orthodox faiths, do we really believe there are any new revelations. Otherwise what new of worth has been added? Sure dislocation and disintegration has occured but what of real, essential worth has replaced it?

  5. The political tactic of “protest” (Astroturfing, for example, as the origin of the Tea Party movement or Mitch McConnell working to the play book of professional GOP tactician Frank Luntz to prevent financial industry reform ) relates back to our ape ancestry when the tactic of “mobbing” (A band of animals working together to threaten harm to a predator, or a deviant bully of their own band, thereby driving it away, or forcing it to stop its selfish behavior) was developed. Although I’m inclined to believe that mobbing was not initially a learned, or culturally acquired behavior, but a natural instinct it later developed as such with the deliberate adoption of the intentional ethos of egalitarianism amongst hunter gatherers and this remained even in some non-nomadic tribal communities because of its usefulness. See Kenneth Westhues, Sociology Professor, on the subject of mobbing:-

    Egalitarianism helped to prevent the deviant bully from causing disruption with the band. Preventing disruption within the band was necessary for a whole variety of reasons not least because cohesiveness of the band was a useful asset for the band’s survival (You can’t successfully mob a predator if you can’t cooperate with each other) but also it has to be remembered that the desire to “dominate” our environment is a very strong human instinct hence the mobbing. Dominance in other words is made to work in reverse. Deviancy, however, which can be seen as a natural urge to dominate is subject to judgment as a matter of degree, hence human gossiping and even formal consensus discussion in tribal council to determine its usefulness and whether the deviant should be judged an “Enemy or Friend of The People”. Psychologists, however, believe that three to four percent of the human population are sociopaths and their predominant instinct is to exploit. Neuro-scientists believe the cause is a genetic maladaption in the brain which restricts the ability of the sociopath to empathize with others, perhaps a failure in the mirror-neurons to function properly although the existence of such a facility in the human brain is disputed by neuro-scientists. Curiously, however, in Asian countries the incidence of sociopathy is low and this is believed to be a result of cultural pressures to work for the common good or pursue egalitarian strategies. I would, therefore, want to correct Wendell Berry’s observation to the effect that egalitarianism and tolerance derives from both instinct and knowledge. Our best defense against anti-social deviancy and being mobbed by groups that only have selfish minority interests is democracy which includes democratic control of means which are used to incite minority mobbing for their selfish objectives.

  6. Democracy, to a degree…is “mobbing” writ large, particularly when practiced under the regime of philodoxy we seem to so ebulliently embrace.

    As to Stalin and Hitler having their “good sides”……Stalin was a thug who entered politics via bank robbing and a general berserking talent for subtle manipulations of terror. Hitler was a deeply embittered sociopath and a prosaic artist to boot. I suppose Ted Bundy had a nice side too. He was clean-cut for a serial killer.

    Interestingly enough, you can see a distinct coarsening of the political process coinciding with the simultaneous rise of big money politics and the institution of Freedom of Information and Sunshine Laws. Politicians used to convene over cocktails and cigars and get beyond their partisan interests to find agreement and comprehensive discussion in a variety of areas. It is not that Sunshine Laws caused poisonous partisanship but they favor conditions conducive to it…..particularly within the realm of big money politics today. Artful dissembling is the coin of the realm…well crafted statements for public consumption . Democracy, in this context is the Freedom to Choose Lies….or at the very least, conventionally pious myths.

  7. Absolutely right. Democracy is a mobbing activity using counter- dominance to achieve dominance on behalf of the rank-and-file. Of course, deviants will always try to undermine it, that’s predictable too.

  8. Mark,
    Are you suggesting that the proper level on which we meet Nancy Pelosi is that of a human being? What, exactly, would that mean in the real world of the Church or of the House of Representatives? If I imagine her across even ineffable differences and she wants to take my property and give bureaucrats the power to decide if I get “health care” or not, what does it mean to see her as a human soul? Would she see me that way? By the way, I’m two days younger than Nancy Pelosi.

  9. D.W. Sabin,

    I’m not sure these are exactly good sides, but Stalin had a rare and valuable talent for understanding threats to the Leviathan state. He had the threats liquidated. I wish conservatives in the U.S. had one-tenth his insights; then you wouldn’t see them pooh-poohing attacks on seatbelt laws, for example. Hitler was a prosaic painter but a talented artist. His method of governing called on all of his artistic talents, which were considerable. (I’m currently listening to “Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics” by Frederic Spotts while spading my garden and riding my bike, to give you an idea where I’m coming from.)

    As to freedom of information and sunshine laws, we just had an instance where Congress ran roughshod over such concepts in putting together a health care bill behind closed doors without letting the public know what was in it. I don’t think it uncoarsened the political process. We might call it the mob version of democracy, though.

  10. Mr. Gorentz –

    I’m going to have to assume that you are not actually claiming a moral equivalence between the actions (or even the motivations) of Nancy Pelosi and those of either Stalin or Hitler, because I honestly can’t see how that is possible, no matter the degree to which one disagrees with Speaker Pelosi’s politics.

    I did, however, want to address the conversation about the relationship between civility and whether someone (be it Hitler, Stalin, Pelosi, or a serial killer) has a “good side” or “good points.” Speaking from a Reformed Christian worldview, I’d have to argue that, just as “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, so also no one is completely bereft of any of the original goodness of creation. Everything on earth is some combination of created good and sin-corrupt evil. I have no trouble, then, believing that even Adolf Hitler did at least one good deed in his life.

    That said, I disagree both with Mr. Sabin and Mr. Gorentz about the reasons one might rationally choose civil behavior over all-out political warfare. As the author of the original post asserted, conducting political discourse in a decent, civilized manner isn’t a matter of lukewarm do-goodism, nor is it even a response to “seeing the good” in someone. It certainly is a recognition that even “the enemy” is not sub-human, but it is also a posture adopted in deliberate respect to the higher values of our polity. It is a way of signaling our dedication to truth and the public good above private interest and unreasoned, intractable opinion. It has never made sense to me when people say that an issue is so important that the ordinary rules of decency need not apply. In my view, the more important the controversy, the more careful its partisans ought to be to keep the focus on the question rather than turning it into a circus and a gossip-fest.

    I have been known to shock social conservatives by saying that Peter Singer is nice and a delightful dinner companion (provided, of course, that one doesn’t look too closely into the identity of the shellfish he has and hasn’t admitted to his plate). He is, however; that’s the truth. That doesn’t mean he isn’t absolutely wrong about many things, or that his ideas might not have disastrous consequences.

    – KPE

  11. Katharine Eastvold,
    I have difficulty understanding what you mean by “moral equivalence.” Stalin liked good vodka and good wine; Peter Singer, as I understand his writings, would kill me under his definitions of the order of things with no more twinge of conscience than Stalin ordering me to the Gulag. Is a good dinner companion the test of civility? I think you also have a relatively high opinion of Speaker Pelosi’s tolerance for opposition.

  12. Kaktharine Eastvold,

    I don’t subscribe to a doctrine of American Exceptionalism that says our own power-crazed megalomaniacs are more righteous than theirs. I think our institutions to limit their scope are still stronger, but the difference is diminishing rapidly.

    That said, I’m not claiming moral equivalence between Stalin, Hitler, and Pelosi. I’m not even claiming moral equivalence between Stalin and Hitler. There are very few equivalences to be found in this world of diversity. What I am claiming is a positive moral correlation (where the adjective “positive” refers to the correlation, not the morality). But as fallen humans we all have tendencies like those of Stalin, Hitler, and Pelosi. St. Paul had some good advice on what to do about it.

    On the matter of civility, I agree with you in large part, except perhaps for the sentence about circuses. I don’t think there is anything incompatible between a strong focus on the issues on the one hand and circuses and gossip-fests on the other.

    We shouldn’t get too hung up on the style of disagreement. That’s mostly a matter of social convention and tactics. I do think it’s important to respond honestly, and not make stuff up and/or criticize every last thing the other side says or does just because it’s the other side. But whether it’s done with foul-mouthed bombast like Martin Luther did to his opponents or with the smooth, suave voice of a male NPR news person is not so important. One can get used to either one. (At least I presume so. I’m still working on getting used to the NPR style of partisanship.)

    Even more important than honesty and open-mindedness is an airing of the issues. Civil discourse is what occurred in the election of 1800 when the two sides smeared each other with wild, vicious accusations. There were a lot of distortions, but there was a lot of truth to the accusations each side made. At the root were issues that needed to be aired — issues that still haven’t been resolved. It would have been better if the two sides could have stuck to the truth, but not at the cost of giving the impression that there were no great differences.

  13. Katherine Eastvold,
    I don’t recall stating any opinion about the purported choice between civil discourse and “all-out political warfare” . If you take my comments about the dead end of seeking “good traits” in barbarous megalomaniacs like Hitler and Stalin to be an endorsement of one or the other form of political intercourse, I don’t know quite how to respond.

    My sentiments would be toward civility but within the current context of well-financed Toxic Doxic Eristics, civility would seem to be beside the point. One selects an opinion and creates an evil enemy and then checks a box. Hardly the stuff of civil discourse.

    Yes, there is that community of thought that likes to concern themselves with the so-called “Performance Art” of the National Socialist descent into technocratic barbarism and Race Utopianism. I once enjoyed an exhibit at Williams College to this end but still, when we begin to equate “art” with the shoveling of bony corpses into mass graves while ash drifts down like snowstorm to a Wagner soundtrack, we widen the concept of art to encompass the sordidly corrupt realm of mass murder. Personally, this gives me heartburn , which is perhaps the intent, given the general atmosphere in the current art scene of championing heartburn. I suppose it is important to intellectualize murder and murder on a grand Political scale but is it still “art”. A technological expression in the case of the Nazis but to call it “art” would seem to me to be surrendering to such a widening of the term as to include a crushed beer can pierced with a dirty syringe in a skid-row gutter as a form of performance art. Titillation and Banality combined in the service of evil.

  14. D.W. Sabin, you make me feel dirty for having said anything in agreement with Nancy Pelosi’s words. But it’s too late to change it now.

    You do make a good case for the Separation of Arts and State. So does Spotts’ book, IMO.

    Last night I heard more of that book, some of which made Hitler sound almost like a Front Porcher, or at least like some factions of them. “Blood and Soil” sounded a bit agrarian. So did Hitler’s distaste for the souless modern life that science gave us. Hitler wanted people to feel sense of community, and to that end tried to do away with the individualism that stood in the way. On the other hand, he diminished and then abolished local units of government — the provinces.

    Of course, all this, as well as Hitler’s aesthetic sense, produced genocide, repression, and violence on a large scale. I trust that no Front Porchers will take what they have in common with Hitler’s ideology to the same end.

  15. Now now Gorentz, its always better to be dirty than feel dirty.

    I’m sure Speaker Pelosi has said some agreeable things in her career. Like when she hits the gavel on the block, adjourning the House.

  16. John says,

    “Hitler was a deeply embittered sociopath…” and “‘Blood and Soil’ sounded a bit agrarian. So did Hitler’s distaste for the souless modern life that science gave us. Hitler wanted people to feel sense of community, and to that end tried to do away with the individualism that stood in the way.”

    I do not believe Hitler was a sociopath, nor do I think the language or ideas of pscyho-analysis will help us understand him.

    Hitler’s movement sprang up from the cities and was a worker’s movement. It was not remotely agrarian, though he had a level of appeal with the peasants. Hitler was a revolutionary–not a conservative, not a reactionary. He was not remotely anti-modern or anti-science. As Churchill said, the victory of Hitler meant “a new Dark Age made more perverted, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

    Hitler did oppose liberal individualism, but his alternative was not community but the Volk, the submersion of the individual into the mass of the nationalist myth. He was a populist who thrived on the support of “the people,” and he was proud to have come to power through largely democratic and constitutional means.

  17. Mark Perkins,

    My impression from reading Spotts so far is that there are historians who would greatly disagree with your statement about Hitler, agrarianism, modernism, and science, and that Hitler himself would have greatly disagreed. Even though Churchill was right about Hitler, as he was in so many ways, that doesn’t mean Hitler wasn’t an anti-modernist. I am not an authority on this subject and am not prepared to argue any point about it to the bitter end; but I have read enough to know that yours isn’t a settled point of view.

    On individualism vs communitarianism, you are absolutely right. I used to get irritated by my fellow conservatives when they’d mock Hillary Clinton’s talk about “It takes a village.” It does take a village, and conservatives ought to understand that better than anyone. The problem with Hillary was that she really meant, “It takes a totalitarian police state to raise a child.”

  18. John,

    No it’s not settled and never will be (are any questions and problems in history really settled?), but it is largely right. Hitler had in his ideas some relatively agrarian views, what with Lebensraum as a means to upholding family land (at the expense, of course, of the poor folks who actually lived on that land). And he hated the Weimar vision of modernity, which was libertine and individualistic. But if he wasn’t modern in that sense, nor was he pre-modern in any sense. He was absolutely a revolutionary, and said so about himself repeatedly. He hated tradition. His great enemies were Communists and Jews–and also reactionaries and the bourgeoisie.

    He was no liberal, not by any stretch, but nor was he some anachronistic autocrat. At the end of his book on Germany history 1866-1945, Gordon Craig outlines Hitler’s extermination of traditionalist elements. Interestingly, Craig sees this as a good thing in the long run, or at least a bad thing with positive consequences–as the elimination of “the most important of the obstacles that had stood in the way of progress towards a free political system . . . Adolf Hitler was nothing if not thorough. He destroyed the basis of the traditional resistance to modernity and liberalism just as completely as he had destroyed the structure of the Rechsstaat and democracy.”

  19. Mark, when you say it that way, I have to say, “Well said.” What you’ve said here matches what I’ve learned about it, anyway. That quote from Gordon Craig is especially apt. His book sounds like one I might want to read.

  20. John,

    It is a very well written and enjoyable book (I found the years following Bismarck’s dismissal especially interesting), though some of the things Craig says about the Third Reich are questionable and a bit dated (he wrote it in 1979). The most bothersome is his tendency to talk about economic and material “realities” in the years preceding the war as though they ever really limited Hitler, even though Craig himself recognizes that Hitler’s rise was made possible by the near universal tendency among his rivals and enemies to underestimate Hitler and overestimate his limitations and their own ability to keep him in check.

    All this is to say* that the tendency to assume that one’s political opposites are and must be wicked people is deeply regrettable… and the most depressing thing about the comments here is the playground reasoning of “they did it first.”

    *Actually the first paragraph says nothing of the sort, but I needed to say something that was more on topic.

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