Tuesday, May 27, 2014

You Say "Tomato" and I'll Say "Sequester"

Robert Reich (economist and Bill Clinton's Secretary of Labor) posted this on his Facebook page today:
Dinner last night with Alan Simpson (for those of you who don’t remember, he was a senator from Wyoming from 1979 to 1997, during which time he served as Republican whip and Assistant Republican Leader). Alan and I don’t see eye to eye on much of anything – figuratively or literally (he’s 6’7” tall). But he’s one of my best friends in the world. He’s witty, big-hearted, able to listen and willing to change his mind if he thinks he’s wrong, and incredibly generous. (He and his wife Ann trekked from Cody, Wyoming to San Francisco yesterday to help raise money so Jake Kornbluth, who directed "Inequality for All," and I can make more videos and films.)

Simpson and I respect each other’s different points of view, enjoy each other’s company, and laugh a lot. Why is it so impossibly difficult for Democrats and Republicans do this anymore?
This is the kind of thing that gives liberals a bad name. Simpson, for those of you who don't remember, was appointed (along with Democratic Senator Erskine Bowles) by President Obama to co-chair his Catfood Commission, intended to provide a rationale for the destruction of Social Security and other vital social programs in the name of lowering the Federal deficit.  Though on one level it failed -- the Commission couldn't muster the votes needed to ratify the desired conclusions -- on another level it succeeded, for the co-chairs wrote their own report, which President Obama and most other politicians and the corporate media media accepted as the "conclusions" of the Commission.  Despite this, "during the spring of 2012, a Budget Resolution based in part on the Simpson-Bowles plan was voted on in the House of Representatives. The plan was voted down 382-38" (via).  A later consequence was the "sequester," which imposed spending cuts that were deplored by just about everyone, including its chief architect.  As you can see, it's not so impossibly difficult for Democrats and Republicans to laugh together after all, as long as they're laughing at the plight of the general public under their policies.

But enough of the dead past.  Professor Reich is, I must say, confused.  No one is obligated to respect anyone else's point of view, only to respect their right to hold and express their point of view.  As the philosopher Paul Feyerabend put it,
Nor does one become illiberal when denying truth to a Puritan. Liberalism ... is a doctrine about institutions and not about individual beliefs. It does not regulate individual beliefs, it says that nothing may be excluded from the debate. A liberal is not a mealymouthed wishy-washy nobody who understands nothing and forgives everything, he is a man or a woman with occasionally quite strong and dogmatic beliefs among them the belief that ideas must not be removed by institutional means. Thus, being a liberal, I do not have to admit that Puritans have a chance of finding truth. All I am required to do is to let them have their say and not to stop them by institutional means. But of course I may write pamphlets against them and ridicule them for their strange opinions.
I don't consider myself a liberal except in the limited sense Feyerabend adumbrated here.  (It comes from his reply to criticism from his fellow-philosopher Ernest Gellner, which -- the reply, I mean -- was reprinted in Feyerabend's Science in a Free Society [Verso, 1978].)  Reich, however, does, and as a political scientist he should know better than his remarks indicate.

I myself have friends whose politics are sharply opposed to mine.  I don't pretend to respect their opinions, nor do I expect them to respect mine.  In general we agree to disagree, and if we enjoy each other's company we can agree not to discuss our differences.  This can become tiresome in time, and it has its perils.  The Peck's Bad Boy of academia, Stanley Fish, toured college campuses with the corrupt right-wing political hack Dinesh D'Souza in 1991-1992, debating Political Correctness and similar chimerae.  Fish remarked (I believe it was in the book where his half of the debate was published) that they got along well, to the extent that Fish danced at D'Souza's wedding.  That's touching, I guess, but Fish allowed their bud-ship to compromise his critical judgment, when a decade later he contributed a blurb to one of D'Souza's books, calling it "witty, informed, learned and lively," committing four errors in five words.

There have been quite a few famous odd-couple friendships that crossed political or other divides.  Hunter S. Thompson and Pat Buchanan were drinking buddies.  Need I mention James Carville and Mary Matalin?  The writer Brendan Gill and the academic Joseph Campbell were friends for many years despite Campbell's racism and anti-Semitism, though unlike Reich, Gill didn't feel obligated to respect his friend's point of view:
His bigotry with respect to Jews was of an equal odiousness [equal to the bigotry he displayed toward blacks, which included agitating -- unsuccessfully -- against their admission to the college where he taught] and seemingly uneradicable.  By the time I came to know him, he had learned to conceal a few of its grosser manifestations, but there can be no doubt that it existed ... He avoided manifesting his anti-Semitism in my presence in order to avoid my attacking him, but a friend we had in common told me that Campbell, proud to be a member of the New York Athletic Club, often recounted the tricky means by which Jews were prevented from becoming members.  This was ironic because, apparently unbeknownst to Campbell, the New York Athletic Club in earlier days had been every bit as violently opposed to Irish Catholics as to Jews.  Campbell's father had been in a position to arrange for his son to become a member only because, in the Great Depression, the club had come so close to bankruptcy that its WASP members had grudgingly consented to elect the first of an army of what they called "the Irish swine" [Gill, A New York Life: Of Friends and Others (Poseidon Press, 1990), 48-49; bold type mine].
I've shown insufficient respect to my own racist friends, which they reciprocated.  One, for example, a woman a few years younger than I who attended the same high school, was fond of posting racist memes on Facebook.  I criticized the memes, and her for posting them, to her indignation.  But we continued chatting with each other online, pleasantly enough, mostly about our respective sex lives.  I said I'd take her out to lunch the next time I came up that way.  Last winter she was in a terrible auto accident that nearly killed her, and the posting and the conversations stopped while she was in a coma in the hospital.  But a few weeks later, the racist postings resumed, and after some hesitation I decided that if she'd recovered enough to post this crap, she'd recovered enough to take heat for it.  She was, again, indignant: Why do you have to keep talking about politics? she demanded.  I replied that if she didn't want to talk about politics, she shouldn't post political stuff to her timeline.  She unfriended me, as did a mutual friend who said I was being mean to her and I needed to develop a sense of humor.  I have a sense of humor, but I was being mean to her, just as I'd be mean to anyone who talked about shooting Mexicans for the target practice.  Maybe Robert Reich wouldn't like my attitude, but it seems to me that not being mean is a two-way street.  I suppose that Simpson keeps his politics out of their socializing.  Since my friend refused to do so with me, I saw and see no reason to respect her point of view -- more important, no reason not to disagree with her.

This has some suggestive implications for some recent controversies, such as the protests against Condoleezza Rice's delivering a commencement address at Rutgers, which have engendered an ocean of crocodile tears about freedom of speech among the chattering classes.  (No doubt the same people who declared their intention to protest a commencement address by Eric Holder at a police academy in Oklahoma City, leading Holder to back out.  And no, I hadn't heard about it either, until I read the Los Angeles Times article I just linked to.  RWA1, for one, who was furious about the opposition to Rice's appearance, was silent about that one.)

How much respect am I obliged to give to people whose opinions I not only disagree with but oppose?  As I asked not long ago, must I vote for a Tea Party Republican political candidate just because he happens to be gay?  Are liberal-ish gay political groups required to endorse and support such a person, just because he happens to be gay?  Must I buy Condoleezza Rice's books just to show how even-handed and open I am to differing views?  How about the works of Rush Limbaugh, or Glenn Beck, or Ann Coulter?  Must I subscribe to, say, The National Review?  And if I must, aren't all the right-wingers I know obligated to subscribe to The Nation or In These Times, and to invite Eric Holder or Hillary Clinton to speak at their alma mater's commencement?  No, freedom of speech is all very well, but that would be going too far.

I do business with RWA1, despite his politics; I've even worked, part-time and irregularly, for him from time to time.  But I also disagree with him, as he disagrees with me.  I have no idea whether he respects me or my opinions; I know that I don't respect his.  I suppose there's some mutual personal respect, but that doesn't seem to oblige us to treat each other's politics with kid gloves.

On the other hand, the blogger Ampersand was upset during the Brendan Eich controversy when a new GMO-free grocery was targeted for boycott, because the owners had posted on their Facebook page that they opposed same-sex marriage and "one of the store’s co-owners linked to a libertarian article arguing that stores should have the legal right to refuse to serve gay customers."  It seems to me that since the owners took pains to state their beliefs publicly, it's acceptable for gay and pro-gay potential customers to react to those beliefs.  In particular, if the owners of a business declare publicly that they want the "right" not to serve me, I have the right to take them at their word, and not give them my business.  If they don't want my money, far be it from me to give it to them!

I haven't been able to find the comment by someone who attacked other people for seeking out people with unacceptable views to pick on.  This is a common distracting tactic, I've found.  But no one cornered the owners of that grocery and grilled them about the purity of their politics: they went out of their way to publicize their views.   What do same-sex marriage and sexual orientation have to do with running an organic food mart?  We queers are often accused of dragging our sexuality into everything, usually by people who are obsessed with our sexuality and won't shut up about it.  (We're also often accused of looking for bigotry.  Alas, we don't need to go looking for it -- it comes looking for us.)

Ampersand drew a distinction between choosing not to patronize a business whose owners have views one abhors (which is okay) and making others aware of the owners' abhorrent views and presenting a more or less united front of people who choose not to patronize that business (which is not okay); I'm having trouble grasping where the difference lies.  It's not as if we're talking about someone's personal, privately-held political beliefs; we're talking about someone's beliefs that they publicized on their business's Facebook page, thus advertising their politics along with their business.  It's they who chose to connect their business and their politics. Ampersand argued that a boycott is not a good way to persuade the owners that they're wrong; well, an antigay declaration on Facebook is not a good way to persuade potential customers to patronize one's business. One commenter complained that a boycott isn't meant to persuade but to coerce and punish; I think he's right, but I'm not sure that's necessarily a bad thing.  Again, Ampersand doesn't mind my taking my money elsewhere, and I wouldn't be doing that to persuade them either.

Along the same lines, am I being punitive if I run for office against an incumbent because of his or her policies?  Or even if I work in the campaign of their political opponent, or merely vote for someone else? Wouldn't I do better to try to persuade Alan Simpson or Hillary Clinton to change their views, instead of punishing them by throwing (or keeping) them out of office?  This may seem absurd, but remember the right-wingers who say exactly this about right-wing gay or female candidates: their critics and opponents are hypocrites who don't really believe in diversity, or we'd vote for them!  And it's not that far from the Dems who attacked Obama's left critics by accusing them of racism, of giving aid and comfort to the Rethugs, of not voting and of trying to stop others from voting.  I have no doubt that we'll see the same behavior in 2016 if Hillary Rodham Clinton runs for the Presidency.  The idea that one could vote for a candidate, perhaps as the lesser evil, yet still point out their faults, is unthinkable to party loyalists.  I think Reich is probably coming from a similar place.

I'm not sure there's a correct solution to this, in the same sense as the right answer to an arithmetical sum; we need to think about it, and discuss it, if possible with the people on the other side.  That's why it's bad when a Condoleezza Rice or a Brendan Eich or an Eric Holder refuses to engage in debate, just takes their ball and bat and runs home.  Luckily, the debate goes on anyway, without them.