Saturday, November 3, 2012

What Is The Use ... ?

A day or so ago my liberal law-professor friend was crowing on Facebook because the right-wing British publication The Economist endorsed Barack Obama for reelection.  "That's not 'liberal media,'" she commented.  True, it's not.  I can't help wondering if she'd be so triumphant if Fox News endorsed Obama, or the Daily Caller, or some even more deranged right-wing media.  Would that prove that Obama was the better man, or would it cast doubt on him?  How far can you go in that direction?

All The Economist's endorsement indicates to me, I commented on her link, is that Obama is not a liberal, and I don't need them to tell me that.

My friend's reaction -- so typical of Obama loyalists the past few months (well, okay: years) -- was that it doesn't matter if Obama is a liberal or not, what matter is who is the better candidate.  "Or do you plan not to vote?" was her parting shot.

To be fair to her, I had been provocative.  But she knows perfectly well that I plan to vote.  I always vote.  I've had to tell her this numerous times as the campaign has dragged on.  I (virtually, of course) rapped her knuckles sharply on that point.  I suppose I should thank her for giving me yet another example of someone who can see only either/or alternatives, and can't conceive of more than the two; as if I needed any more.

The difference between "the better candidate" and "the less awful candidate" might be irrelevant in practice, when it comes time to vote.  But I don't think it's meaningless.  Certainly Obama cultists have refused to consider it.  My friend is another one of those Democrats who will, if cornered, concede that Obama has been a "disappointment" and feel like they're going out on a limb by doing so.  Which they might be, given the fanatical groupthink that Obama devotees have been cultivating the last four years, if they really meant it.  But it's really only a tactical move; they are not really disappointed by him at all.  They've worked very hard to repress any less than enthusiastic thought about their President, which is probably why it infuriates them so much when they encounter people who've allowed thoughtcrime to run free in their minds.

If your favored football or basketball team loses a game or even a championship, that is a disappointment.  (My friend's main subject on Facebook, aside from the election, is the fortunes of her college's football team.  I don't think that's a coincidence.  Football is politics is war.)  If George Lucas sells his production company and its prime properties to Disney, that is a disappointment.   If the President of the United States prosecutes whistleblowers to an unprecedented extent, kills American citizens without due process, demands the power of indefinite detainment, prolongs the wars he inherited and starts several more, and gives priority to the interests of the top one-tenth of one percent of the citizenry over the interests of the other ninety and nine, he's a murderous thug and a corporate enforcer.  As well as a congenital cheap pig.

Which of the two main contenders is "the better candidate" is not the issue.  It's not really of much interest to party loyalists on either side.  They begin with the conclusion of their guy's superiority and work backwards.  A person who isn't committed to this cult of personality has to approach voting differently.  Which candidate is less awful?  It doesn't follow from the fact that I consider both Romney and Obama to be loathsome -- and Romney is a comparatively unknown quantity; we have the evidence of four years of Obama's iniquity -- that I won't vote.  But how to vote?  Voting LOTE, or the Lesser of Two Evils approach, is scorned by many, but sometimes in life we have no tolerable options available, and must choose the less or least intolerable.  Whether that applies in this election is for each person to decide.  There are other candidates on the ballot in some states, who can be written in in other states.  One might decide not to vote at all, or not to vote for a presidential candidate; and despite the catcalls of "purist!" from the loyalists, non-cooperation is a time-honored option in some cases.  Again, each person must decide what to do, and such decisions are not necessarily made by pure rationality; they may just come from a gut feeling like This far but no farther.  I've made my own decision on this, but I recognize that other people might reasonably make others.  This recognition is also difficult for loyalists to think about, so they usually don't; lying is so much easier.

Such decisions can be debated, but as this campaign has shown, most people aren't interested in debate.  As I told my friend, more in anger than in sorrow, the extent to which Democrats have thrown out rationality and any concern with facts during this campaign has outstripped my own most cynical imaginings.  That's especially true with people I know personally, like my friend: two doctorates, one in mathematics and one in law, both fields in which reasoning and fact play significant roles.  Yet where the election is concerned, she falls back on pure emotion, the appeal to fear, the cult of personality -- so much so that she can't remember from one day to the next that I both intend to vote and urge everyone else to do so.  I don't know who she believes she's talking to, but it isn't me.

It occurred to me today how similar this situation is to the weeks right after the September 11 attacks.  (Eleven years ago; hard to believe.  Time flies when you're getting old.)  I was out of touch with my law-professor friend at that time, which is probably for the best.  I watched numerous liberals, people I knew personally as well as journalists, politicos, and pundits, fall into line behind George W. Bush, gnashing their teeth with lust for Saracen blood.  Some of them were forthright about throwing out rationality, since this crisis was too important to think about.  It was an unprecedented historical moment, a time of trial by fire, and you were either with the President or you were against him.  If you didn't think it was a good idea to attack Afghanistan, you obviously were on Bin Laden's side.  (This, although the best evidence then and now was that Bin Laden hoped to entice the US into a ruinous, self-destructive war, not only making more enemies all over the world but spending ourselves into collapse -- just as the USSR did in Afghanistan.  As I suggested earlier today, I consider the harm done to others more important morally than the harm we've done to ourselves; but that doesn't mean that the latter isn't significant too.)

Which reminds me of something the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote to his former student Norman Malcolm in 1939.  I've quoted some of it before, but I'm adding some more bits that seem especially relevant today:
You & I were walking along the river towards the railway bridge & we had a heated discussion in which you made a remark about "national character" that shocked me by its primitiveness. I then thought:what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any ... journalist in the use of the DANGEROUS phrases such people use for their own ends ... You see, I know that it's difficult to think well about 'certainty,' 'probability,' 'perception,' etc. But it is, if possible, still more difficult to think, or try to think, really honestly about your life & other people's lives. And the trouble is that thinking about these things is not thrilling, but often downright nasty. And when it's nasty then it's most important.
I'm not sure how much philosophy would actually help in this election season.  I don't think it can even help in choosing between the candidates; reason can only be part of that decision.  Still, philosophy can encourage a becoming modesty about one's own opinions that is strikingly absent among the partisans in this election campaign.  As Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in "Portrait of the Anti-Semite", a lot of which is pertinent to more general issues today:
The rational man seeks the truth gropingly, he knows that his reasoning is only probable, that other considerations will arise to make it doubtful; ...he is "open." He may even appear hesitant. But there are people who are attracted by the durability of stone. They want to be massive and impenetrable, they do not want to change: where would change lead them? This is an original fear of oneself and a fear of truth. And what frightens them is not the content of truth which they do not even suspect, but the very form of the true -- that thing of indefinite approximation...They want to exist all at once and right away. They do not want acquired opinions, they want them to be innate; since they are afraid of reasoning, they want to adopt a mode of life in which reasoning and research play but a subordinate role, in which one never seeks but that which one has already found.
Rational or not, it'll all be over in a few days.  And then we'll see what happens.