Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Panning Matt Bai's Unfinished Book Before I Even Read It

How could I not, after reading his critically flawed little essay in Sunday's Times Magazine?

With this essay, Bai argues, somewhat convincingly, that Democrats have lost critical ground in failing to craft a narrative couched in popular values or morality. "Before [Terri] Schiavo ever became the story of the moment," he quips, "Democrats were wrestling over the meaning of moral values, with about as much clarity as you might expect from a bunch of cable-TV pundits debating superstring theory."

He presents two alternatives for consideration. The first, illustrated by Representative Harold Ford (D - Tenn.), goes like this: "We can separate church and state, but, by golly, we ought to be able to say that our spirit, our faith and our morals influence somewhat how we treat people and how we shape laws and how we implement policy."

The alternative view, according to Bai, is presented by Howard Dean who "counseled that if Democrats really wanted to win back churchgoers, they had to make the case that traditionally liberal programs like health care and community-development block grants were moral values, too. 'I am tired of having decent Americans who don't happen to wear their religious beliefs on their sleeves called immoral,' Dean said."

May I delay my substantive critique to castigate Bai's sheer hackery?. Thanks.

"Programs," whatever else they may be, are not nor shall ever be "values," moral or otherwise. They may reflect or perhaps instil certain values, moral or otherwise, but in themselves they are not values. Now, it's possible that Dean said in unquoted language something very like that, and that Bai is simply paraphrasing the sentiment to set up the direct quote. If that's the case, here's my advice as a reader and writer: don't. Never expect your readers to ascribe faulty logic or bad writing that doesn't appear in quotation marks to anyone but the author.

But that's just the appetizer. The main course is prepared over the flame of my umbrage at a false equilibrium Bai attempts to find in the two ends of the political spectrum that fundamentally mischaracterizes the debate in question. The mess starts here:

While the Democratic Party traces its ideological lineage on economic issues to the New Deal, its DNA on social issues was created by the union of the two principal movements of the 1960's: civil rights and the antiwar counterculture. The two are generally discussed as part of the same transformative social force of the era, but in fact, in the political arena, they reinforced very different instincts. The civil rights movement legitimized the idea of legislating and codifying morality. Where activist lawmakers or judges could find a constitutional rationale for overruling states and communities on a discriminatory social policy, Democrats came to believe that they had not just the right but also the responsibility to intervene. The counterculture, however, was all about radical individualism -- the attitude Republicans now snidely describe as "if it feels good, do it." In the context of the time, these contradictory ideas weren't hard to reconcile; to Democrats, and to most Americans, government's integrating swimming pools seemed clearly to be right, while government's banning books seemed clearly to be wrong.

Okay, as far as it goes I think we can all accept this account of things, although I'm not sure that ruling against segregation based on Equal Protection and substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment quite qualifies as "finding a constitutional rationale" so much as finally acknowledging one that should have been "found" long ago. In any case, there is, as Bai suggests, something that might at least appear dissonant about these two impulses vying for supremacy during the 1960's. Bai continues:

The inheritors of the [Democratic] party, children of the 60's and 70's, have never been able to reconcile this contradiction . . . . Where their own communities are concerned, Democrats reflexively resist any notion of government as a moral umpire; they don't want some politician dressing up their kids in school uniforms or deciding which video game they should be allowed to play. * * * * And yet when it comes to the more rural and religious communities where other voters live, Democrats tend to view government, conveniently, through the activist prism of civil rights. Legislation limiting gun ownership or legal decisions restricting school prayer seem eminently reasonable, because they reflect urban and secular values that, to most Democrats, constitute an obvious moral imperative.

Matt Matt Matt, what in the world are you talking about? I mean, yes, Democrats tend to think they've got it more right in their permissive coastal Sodoms and Gomorrahs (at least, when they look up from their frequent orgies with underage boys) than the right does in its bible-thumping Footloose-ian heartland communities, but you miss a critical distinction when you attempt to contrast as inconsistent the rejection of government qua moral umpire on matters like school uniforms and censorship with its embrace of civil rights-related legislation, or that regulating gun ownership and the prevention of proselytizing in public schools.

Oh, wait, am I being circular here, you think? Arguing from the very knee jerk position (or should I say, straw man) you aim to expose? No, Matt, I'm not. Why? It's called the Constitution of the United States of America. The moral proscriptions the right would impose on children (and the adults who might as well be children, for all the autonomy the right would allow them) do not sound in any constitutional doctrine. Nor does the right even attempt to make the case that, e.g., there is some constitutional clause that authorizes massive fines for the exposure of a single breast, or the utterance of a single vulgarism, on national television. Ditto, school uniforms.

On the other hand, those supposedly inconsistent positions on the left actually sound in the United States Constitution. Granted, not conclusively so; at least some of these matters are subject to debate. But at least when the left seeks to ensure equality of opportunity a constitutional provision animates its vigor; when my party seeks to prevent evangelizing unwitting children with taxpayer dollars, it may advert to a two-hundred year history of Establishment Clause jurisprudence. The right's proscriptions, however, come from nowhere but Christian scripture and the corporate boardrooms of America. That is a categorical difference. It is not even vaguely inconsistent to argue for liberty (another value enshrined in the constitution) to behave and consume as one chooses while campaigning fiercely to maintain such critical values as the separation of church and state.

Once again a journalism shims the lower end of the table in an effort to level that which should not be falsely leveled. After labeling the straw man "hypocrisy" Bai moves toward his conclusion with more false leveling:

When it comes to morality, our first instincts always tend toward tyranny. Moral issues bring out the worst in our two political parties because the parties seek to capitalize on those instincts, motivating voters by turning them against one another and pushing them toward extremes.

That which is couched in moral values but unconstitutional cannot be permitted in a civil society that lives by the rule of law. The proper conduit for such action is toward constitutional amendment. And it provides telling, if not conclusive support, for my argument that it's the right, not the left, that has been reduced to campaigning, however hollowly, for constitutional amendments. It is the right's legislative enactments, moreso than the left's, that have been frequently struck down by the ideologically conservative Supreme Court due to naked overreaching of the powers enumerated in the constitution.

The left, on the other hand, resists those impositions of moral values it views as unconstitutional. This is not tyranny; and it's not even wholly an assertion of morality; it's a series of legal maneuvers couched in the hallowed legal document that has formed and guided this country through darker days than these, designed to preserve everyone's individual right to live according to his own moral code to the extent it does no harm to anyone else. This fundamentally libertarian impulse that used to mean something to the political right. This is not tyranny or sanctimony; it is a sacred endeavor to preserve all that keeps this country great for liberals and conservatives alike.

I reject Bai's attempt to jury-rig false parallels between the stridence and provenance of the right and left ideological camps' animating "values." He concludes, "Most Americans seem to understand that we are entering a time of complex, wrenching decisions that defy facile and self-righteous answers. Maybe it's time for politicians to admit that, too." Politicians will be forced to do so when the electorate catches on; the electorate won't catch until the nation's most revered news sources offer something more than the "facile" analysis reflected in Bai's essay.

One can't help but dread Bai's impending book "about the future of the Democrats." It will probably sell well and it will probably propagate virally the above-maligned fallacy, which is the last thing the people, and especially the left need. With friends like these . . .


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