Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Fusillades Over Character

     Anyone who takes an interest in politics and public policy will have noticed the Left’s immediate resumption of its campaign for “gun control” in the aftermath of the Umpqua Community College mass murder. As usual, all the factual evidence is against their position, so they’ve resorted – admittedly, faster than usual – to lies and character assassination. I consider the latter subject the more important of the two.

     For a somewhat contrary view, here’s the esteemed Ace of Spades:

     I'm not a fan of silly conspiracy theories. I'm also not a fan of this age's method of political argumentation, which consists merely of blackening the reputation of a person offering a political claim, as if smearing that person also discredited the political claim itself.

     But that's all we do anymore. It's a normal and routine technique in actual political elections to talk about character issues and personal scandals because we're actually not just electing a series of (vague) policy proposals, we're electing an actual person, and we should know about that actual person.

     This has always been grist for the easiest, laziest sort of political writing -- and as someone who practices this and loves a scandal story because of how damn easy it is to write up, I say this with complete expert authority.

     The technique is ancient. It was nicely satirized by the late R. A. Lafferty in his story “Polity and the Custom of the Camiroi:”

     The Camiroi are experts at defamation, but they have developed a shorthand system to save time. They have their decalogue of slander, and the numbers refer to this. In its accepted version it runs as follows:

     My opponent:

  1. Is personally moronic.
  2. Is sexually incompetent.
  3. Flubs third points in Chuki game.
  4. Eats Mu seeds before the time of the summer solstice.
  5. Is physically pathetic.
  6. (Untranslatable)
  7. Is financially stupid.
  8. Is ethically weird.
  9. Is intellectually contemptible.
  10. Is morally dishonest.

     Here is an example of the Camiroi system in play:

     We witnessed confrontations between candidates in several of these campaigns, and they were curious:
     “My opponent is a three and a seven,” said one candidate, and sat down.
     “My opponent is a five and a nine,” said the other candidate. The small crowd clapped, and that was the confrontation or debate.
     We attended another such rally.
     “My opponent is an eight and a ten,” one candidate said briskly.
     “My opponent is a two and a six,” said the other, and they went off together.
     We did not understand this, and we attended a third confrontation. There seemed to be a little wave of excitement about to break here.
     “My opponent is an old number four,” said one candidate in a voice charged with emotion, and there was a gasp from the small crowd.
     “I will not answer the charge,” said the other candidate shaking with anger. “The blow is too foul, and we had been friends.”

     Well, at the very least, it would save time.

     Attacks on the character of a political opponent are double-edged, as are attacks of any other kind. If they strike home, they can do permanent damage. However, if refuted, they reflect even more poorly on the maker, who is thereby held up to scrutiny as a slanderer – and worse, a slanderer for political gain. However, as Ace notes above and as I’ve said on other occasions, the merits and demerits of a position on public policy are utterly independent of the strengths and weaknesses of its proponents. Policy proposals can, should, and must be evaluated on the bases of reason, evidence, and history. Thus, in a perfectly rational political environment – i.e., one in which policy proposals could somehow be studied apart from the identities of those who make them – it wouldn’t matter in the slightest whether the proponents of severe gun control measures are pederasts or the opponents of those proposals are calendar saints. The proposals themselves would be all that matter.

     However, there is not and has never been – anywhere – a perfectly rational political environment. The nature of Man precludes it.

     Our motivations appear to follow the Maslovian hierarchy of needs:

  1. Physiological needs;
  2. Security needs;
  3. Love and belonging;
  4. Self-Esteem;
  5. Self-actualization;
  6. Self-transcendence.

     The limits to human perception, reason, and knowledge dictate that in fact, it will be an individual’s beliefs about such things that will dominate his motivational structure...at least, until Reality comes a-calling to disabuse him of some misconception. In a generally safe society such as that of the United States in the year of Our Lord 2015, it is possible to believe many things about one’s personal security that, strictly speaking, aren’t so. In particular, it’s possible for a man who lives in a secured high-rise apartment and works in a well-guarded office tower to believe that he’s safer because those around him are unarmed than he would be were matters otherwise. Nor will argument sway him, as he did not acquire his beliefs by argument.

     When such a person – call him Smith – encounters one who believes the opposite – call him Jones – his personal situation and perceptions will cause him to resist the possibility that Jones could be correct. Should he be unable to accept that differences in such convictions are possible to two reasonable men, he will grope for a reason “why this Jones bastard is so wrongheaded.” And in a milieu such as ours, the conclusion that Jones has an evil agenda is actively encouraged by persons who know better, but who have an agenda of their own, and lack moral constraints against advancing it by defamation.

     Thus does a contest over policy become a contest over character.

     In a political environment populated by human beings, nothing is more important than character. Indeed, it’s one of the emblematic ironies of our age that as the character of our political class declines, recognizing character among private persons has become critical. The average American simply cannot know, objectively and beyond a reasonable doubt, all the facts required to judge policy prescriptions entirely on their merits. His judgment of the characters of those on opposite sides of the matter must factor into his decision.

     So we look at persons such as the current crop of aspirants to the Republican presidential nomination, and we ask for indications not that they’re necessarily conservative enough, but that they’re good and trustworthy persons. We want assurances that they’re unlikely to abuse power. We want to believe that they’ll admit their mistakes, and work to correct them. And we want to believe of ourselves that we’ve elected to support this or that one because he’s good and trustworthy, rather than because his proposals would benefit us at the expense of others.

     An excellent example of the character dynamic is already in political play. Our awareness of her obvious lack of character is Hillary Rodham Clinton’s greatest problem. Our awareness of his sterling character, to which his entire life testifies without contradiction, is Ben Carson’s greatest asset. Where they stand on gun rights versus gun control pales in comparison. Thus, we can expect Clinton’s backers to commit vicious defamations of her opponents, in hope of dragging the entire contest down to her level. Meanwhile, Carson’s supporters will continue to emphasize his uprightness, to make clear how far he stands above all the others.

     From this observation of a human basic we can predict the overall shape of the campaign season to come. It won’t be pretty.

1 comment:

Pascal Fervor said...

I have so many tangential reactions to your wonderful observations and conclusion that I don't know where to begin to write my own screed. So here's the gist of the alternate paths to follow.

The ninth commandment: thou shalt not bear false witness (and its offshoot against repeating rumors.) It's essential in a society that favors preservation of truth and liberty that this is adhered to and that its offenders suffer rational consequences. Truth and justice or ruthless power? Which will win this year?

Rationality. What's that? Why is it important? Where was it last seen in public debates?

Competence, honesty and sincerity versus ruthless ambition and the preservation of power. What are the key attributes between early and late civilizations?

This is only a start. My sad inability to write at length is that each topic sets me off on new tangents. They're all yours if you want them.