Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Who Evil Thinks

     [The political hate-fest in progress on the Left has me thinking very dark thoughts. I suppose that’s no surprise to the Gentle Readers of Liberty’s Torch, but now and then I become so conscious of my revulsion that I must retreat from the fray. Accordingly, have a repost: the following article first appeared at the Palace of Reason on June 6, 2003. -- FWP]


     Granted that political argument can be trying. Eighty percent of us enter the discussion of any issue convinced that we're right -- yet there's the other guy, smugly stubborn about his contrary and completely irrational position, and he won't shut up and he won't go away! It can drive a man to all kinds of discourtesies.

     But let's leave that sort of lapse to the side. What are we to make of the fellow who leads off with vile insults? Who accuses you of lack of compassion for your fellow man, or of possessing horrible motives? Who compares you, or public figures you admire, to Hitler?

     There are more such than ever before in your Curmudgeon's memory. Moreover, they tend to be consistent in their approach to, ah, conversation. Given their proliferation, oughtn't we to try to understand what propels them? Assuming it's possible, of course.

     Certain correlations present themselves straight off: These folks are also prone to refusing to admit to error, denying the validity of adverse evidence, and putting words in others' mouths. They tend to downplay, sometimes conceal, their core principles and agendas. They can often be found in alliance with very unsavory types.

     These habits are not just ungentlemanly; they're wrong. They bespeak a lack of respect for the truth, and for human fallibility. But then, a man who opens a political disagreement by comparing his adversary to Hitler would likely have a few character flaws, wouldn't he?

     But perhaps we should stay on point: the tendency to treat those who disagree with one as the lowest of the low, not merely mistaken but evil. What can it possibly mean?

     Among some, it expresses moral uncertainty: the interpretation of disagreement as a challenge to one's moral postulates, a challenge against which one does not know how to defend. Among others, it expresses moral certainty, of a degree so complete that it relegates all dissenters to a lower plane of moral consciousness.

     But there is a third group disjoint from these, perhaps the most important of the three: those persons whose sole concern is tactical advantage.

     In his 1978 book A Time For Truth, the late William Simon, Treasury Secretary during the Ford Administration, noted an important pattern among businessmen: a tendency to respond to unfounded condemnation with moral collapse:

     As is so often the case in our society, when the liberals orchestrate a nationwide uproar over good versus evil, all those defined as evil suffer an acute loss of nerve. Businessmen and bankers, who seem to value respectability more than their lives, are incapable of tolerating this moral abuse. Invariably they collapse psychologically. And whatever they may think and say in private, in public they either go mute or stumble frantically over their own feet as they rush to join the moral bandwagon.

     Collapse manifests itself in a capitulation to one's enemies, even when recognized as enemies. Simon pointed out how major corporations would kowtow to outright enemies of capitalism, agreeing to fund efforts to destroy the scheme of private property on which all market behavior is founded. Bankers would pledge their support to groups opposed to banking. Automakers would contribute to the coffers of groups whose activities threatened to destroy the automobile industry. Energy-industry executives would cede their autonomy to "public interest groups" whose ill-concealed aim was to prevent any further energy exploration or development of any kind.

     This pattern isn't confined to businessmen alone. In our present day, many nominally freedom-oriented politicians hasten to conciliate enemies of freedom and capitalism. They simply can't stand to be vilified.

     Obviously, this response to condemnation will evoke more of it from the third group. As long as they feel they're getting what they want with their chorus of condemnation, they'll pump up the volume and intensify their search for targets. And having seen many others bend the knee to them, their newer victims will be even more likely to do so. After all, if Captain of Industry Smith chose to propitiate them, what chance to prevail have I?

     In the realm of pure political combat, the third group operates with accusations of horrific wrongdoing. A good recent example is the charge that the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, all of them captured in combat in Afghanistan, most of them members of the al-Qaeda terror network, are being brutalized or denied basic needs. Inasmuch as these prisoners are leaving confinement in better physical condition than they arrived in, the allegation is obviously baseless. But those making it have seen conservative administrations fold before still weaker charges, so why not press it home?

     Similarly, we've heard endlessly from the opponents of the Bush Administration about how Operation Iraqi Freedom had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction or the anti-terror campaign; it was "all about oil." A ten year old could disprove this. It's been done too many times to repeat it here. But because the charge strikes at the moral basis for the decision to go to war, it offers the possibility of a psychological collapse such as William Simon described.

     It's hard for your Curmudgeon to refrain from classing as evil those who would mount baseless campaigns of vilification against innocent men. Their behavior conforms precisely to the Kantian definition of evil: the use of others as means to their own ends, without regard for the rights or just deserts of those others.

     "Honi soit qui mal y pense" -- "Evil are they who evil think" -- is a condemnation of malicious attribution nearly seven centuries old. It's the motto of the Order of the Garter, England's elite society of the highest military merit. It's your Curmudgeon's attitude toward those who would demonize their political adversaries to gain an increment in public attention or a rhetorical edge.


     [For a coda of sorts, have a look at this recent piece from Stacy McCain. -- FWP]

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