Sunday, August 26, 2012

Another Case of False Equivalency

Frank Bruni has an interesting essay in today's New York Times, and "Compliance" sounds like an interesting movie. Mr. Bruni discusses it carefully and intelligently, but I have one large problem with Bruni's analysis. Maybe it has to do with his carefulness. His description of what transpires in the movie points up the film's political and philosophical overtones, but Bruni carefully lays these overtones at the doors of both parties. Both political parties behave like this, he says. He does list several examples of Republican credulity, but then he strains to find one that tars the Democrats too. "Rope them all in. It looks fairer."

He is like a mother who comes into a room, finds one child beating up the other, and punishes both equally. Sometimes one side is more wrong than the other. Sometimes one side is far more wrong than the other, and dangerously so. This is one of those times. Both of our political camps aren't equally extreme. Both sides aren't equally dishonest.

More importantly, both sides in this current political climate are not equally devoted to top-down, witch-hunt, fully-armed, purity-test, lock-step orthodoxies. To suggest this is ludicrous. As Will Rogers said "I don't belong to any organized political party. I'm a Democrat." Democrats are almost comical in their habit of disagreeing with each other and departing from uniform beliefs. Sometimes it seems Democrats would rather question an instruction than win an election. No Democrat I know would behave like the obedient jackboot manager in the film Compliance.

Millions of Republicans would. Republicans punish deviation. When the call goes out, Republicans fall into line. Republicans are the party associated with fruitcake ideas like birtherism, arming school janitors, irrational fears of the UN's black helicopters, notions about Moses and Abraham living among dinosaurs, magical beliefs about rape and homosexuality and unregulated capital markets being protected by "invisible hands" (or is it fairies and elves?) They are also the party most willing to adopt draconian methods to enforce their beliefs. Voter purges, electrified fences, depriving the poor of food and healthcare for the crime of being poor.

Fruitcake ideas (like those in the movie) are the ones most in need of draconian, top-down enforcement because they are vulnerable to critical thought.

Nick Kristof wrote about this in March of this year. (I'm bothered by the tendency of newspapers to publish scientific research not as news or analysis but as opinion whenever it takes an unfavorable or disparaging view of conservative thought.) John Stuart Mill wrote that Conservatives were not stupid, but stupid people tended to be conservative. I think this is instructive. It might explain why conservatives follow their leader, their conservative leader, more obediently than liberals. They like others to do their thinking for them, but draw the line at any thinking that questions their old fashioned orthodoxies or the monied power structure.

Granted, their obedience has its limits: if the president or other elected official is black or Hispanic or gay or Democrat or pro-labor or Unitarian or believes in science or has won a Nobel in economics, Republicans are widely instructed to disobey him or her, oppose everything they propose, block every majority proposal they side with––even to the point of harming themselves and harming the common good. There are Republicans in some parts of the country (recently in Texas and Virginia) who urge armed revolution agains the government if it isn't Republican. Who do the managers in this little movie most resemble?

The Republicans we grew up with are almost uniform in their embarrassment and despair over the newer, weirder, more extreme, power-and-gun-hungry Republicans. So asserting that this weird movie is interestingly true and true about both political parties is a bizarre distortion and downright dishonest. If one family member shows signs of dangerous insanity we don't institutionalize them all. We use the rational to distinguish the irrational, and rational people try to enforce reason with reason, not with irrational, draconian methods. When we give equal respect to extreme and moderate we become more extreme. When we give equal respect to right and wrong we encourage wrong. Bruni, in trying very hard to be fair, has distorted the true shape of things. This is the kind of phony fairness that makes cynics of us all.

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