Saturday, January 11, 2020

Conviction Versus Identity

     (I was about to title this piece “When Faiths Collide,” but decided that it would be unfair to one side of the contrast. Apologies to Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer. Maybe next time.)

     The Web’s favorite Bookworm has a brief piece up on well-known Constitutional lawyer Alan Dershowitz that has called to mind the important dichotomy expressed in the title of this piece. Dershowitz is a long-time liberal, and is especially well known for his work in defense of freedom of expression. He writes about number of illustrative cases in his book The Best Defense.

     Dershowitz is plainly a man of high intelligence. He’s also a man of conviction, which Bookworm illustrates in her piece:

     He’s a passionate Democrat (although he calls himself a “liberal”), but he’s willing to part ways with his party on important things. For example, he’s parted ways with the party over the whole impeachment fiasco. He’s also parted ways with the party when it comes to his staunch defense of Israel.

     It’s this defense of Israel that led him to say near the end of the interview with Hunter that, if Bernie wins the primaries, he (Dershowitz) will abandon the Democrats and campaign for Trump. The problem Dershowitz has with Bernie is that the latter went to England to campaign for Jeremy Corbyn — and Corbyn, of course, represents the apex of Western, non-Muslim anti-Semitism. Other than that, though, Dershowitz is good with his party.


     It’s that fealty to the Democrat party that’s the point of this post. The Democrat party has become blazingly anti-Semitic. Bernie is scarcely the worst offender and all of the Democrat candidates are hostile to Israel, even as Donald Trump is the most pro-Israel president (so far) in American history.

     “Fealty to the Democrat party” would seem to disturb the notion that Dershowitz’s politics are founded on conviction. And it is possible that something else is involved. For many persons with a greater-than-passing interest in politics, political affiliation is not about conviction – i.e., one’s reasoned opinions about good-versus-bad in public policy – but about identity. It’s an influence that can snare many an intelligent man – and has.

     “I belong to no organized political party; I’m a Democrat.” – Will Rogers

     There is a subtle difference between the following two statements:

  1. ”I’m politically liberal.”
  2. ”I’m a Democrat.”

     (The same difference separates “I’m politically conservative” from “I’m a Republican,” just so you’ll know I’m playing fair.) The former suggests (but does not prove) that the speaker has thought about public policy and has decided, through evidence and reasoning, that liberal policies are better than the alternatives. The latter is a declaration of attachment to a specific organization; it says nothing about how the speaker arrived there.

     There are many possible reasons for a man’s attachment to an organization, including conviction. However, when his convictions vary from those the organization supposedly espouses, it’s fair to ask “Why are you still a member?” For the reasons that still apply have dwindled to a bare few:

  • Inertia: A disinclination to make the change out of simple sloth;
  • Collateral Benefits: “Membership has its privileges.”
  • Identity: Membership has become an important part of one’s self-concept.

     In many cases the last of those three is the most significant. If “I’m a Democrat / Republican / Libertarian / Greenie / What-Have-You” expresses an important component of Smith’s conception of himself, that will give the attachment staying power apart from any other consideration. It’s an aspect of the need to be accepted by others that Abraham Maslow cited in his work on human motivational priorities. Over time Smith’s attachment might be reinforced by other factors – often including practical ones with dollar signs attached – but even in the absence of such considerations, the sense that Smith’s identity derives in part from his acceptance by the organization will provide for enduring adhesion.

     (An interesting tangent: Should Smith have become prestigious through his personal accomplishments, the intensity in any membership relation would be reversed: organizations will seek to have and keep him as a member, to add his luster to theirs. Smith would have far less personal need for them than they would feel for him. But today our focus is on the more typical case.)

     None of this necessarily applies to Alan Dershowitz, nor to retired Governor and U.S. Senator Zell Miller, the Democrat who famously spoke at the 2004 Republican National Convention. But it is a consideration for many persons. Indeed, it may be more important today than ever, given the trends toward social atomization in recent years and the steady encroachment of politics into every facet of American life.

     I could go on about this. I could note some of the more egregious instances in which political and ideological organizations have betrayed their members without even blushing. I could prattle about the strength of character required to eschew membership in any group. And of course I could explore the undesired consequences of rejecting “joinerism” as a matter of policy. But the major point is already made.

     Some years ago an old friend, after a long discussion of a political subject that had him perplexed, said offhandedly that “I’ll always be a Democrat.” The subject we’d been discussing was one concerning which the Democrat Party had committed the most devastating betrayal of his convictions. Yet he felt it was mandatory to remain a Democrat because he is black. There are many like him. There are also many like another friend, a passionate environmentalist, who felt his attachment to the Democrat Party to be just as mandatory, and another whose main concern is the alleviation of poverty, and another who values international peace above all else, and another, and another...

     There’s a moral in there, somewhere. Perhaps it’s most clearly expressed in this old story about Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign for the presidency on the ticket of the Bull Moose Party:

     While Teddy was giving one of his campaign speeches, a man in the audience jumped up and yelled: “I’m a Democrat! My father was a Democrat, my grandfather was a Democrat, and my great-grandfather was a Democrat, so I’ll always be a Democrat!”
     “Well, Mister,” replied Teddy, “if your father was a jackass, your grandfather a jackass, and your great-grandfather a jackass, what would that make you?”
     And the heckler replied, “A Bull-Mooser, sir! A Bull-Mooser!”

     Verbum sat sapienti.

1 comment:

mobius said...

Reason is a, sadly lacking, prerequisite.