This video is a scream, in more ways than one (care of Roderick’s Austro-Athenian blog). Screamingly hilarious but also kind of tellingly sad to watch the liberals falling all over themselves to stand by their man, Obama, and give him whatever he wants.
There’s parody, and then there’s unintentional self-parody. Here’s a letter from Thursday’s New York Times. The “issue” in question is Syria.
To the Editor:
Those critical of President Obama on this issue owe us an explanation of how to lead when much of the electorate and the international community want contradictory things.
No more American involvement in Middle East wars but no more passive complicity in genocide. Contain weapons of mass destruction but only by peaceful means. Act decisively but only with the consent of Congress and the international community. Honor the Constitution but with the daring of Superman unbound.
Critics should tell the president what action he could take that addresses all the variables in this complex problem and how to get the necessary cooperation from obstinate parties, or just keep quiet.
Williamsburg, Va., Sept. 11, 2013
In other words, in order to oppose a war that no one has bothered to justify, we’re obliged to attempt the impossible. If we don’t succeed at the impossible, we must either support the President and go to war–or shut up.
Two obvious points:
1. No single person that I know of or have heard of has simultaneously asserted all of the claims that Harris mentions in his letter. So there is no particular individual to charge with the inconsistency or incoherence Harris has in mind. If there were such a person, he or she would simply be a fool irrelevant to discourse and irrelevant to the debate about Syria. So on this interpretation, what we have is a classic straw man argument.
2. If you assume the existence of free speech, and then insist on affirming or acting on or accommodating all of the beliefs you find expressed under conditions of freedom, you will–believe it or not–inevitably end up entangled in inconsistent beliefs. An analogous procedure would be to stand before a classroom, canvass the opinions in the class on a given subject, and then insist that every contributor to the conversation take stock of every claim made by all of his predecessors in the conversation, incorporating all of them into every claim he himself makes, while keeping his own beliefs in reflective equilibrium. “If you can’t do that, don’t raise your hand.”
Student: Well, as Jill said and as Joe said and as Bob said and as Sarah said….uh, wait, what was my point, again?
Right–it’s impossible. The whole point of leadership (or epistemic responsibility) is to exercise the capacity to choose between inconsistent options (or formulate them so that they make sense), not to declare oneself indignantly helpless upon discovering the obvious fact that when you artificially aggregate individually-expressed beliefs, they don’t cohere. So on this interpretation, we have a classic straw man argument as well.
Instead of stamping one’s feet at the inconsistencies one has discovered in the electorate, why not demand that the Obama Administration come up with a coherent account of the options it favors on either side of Harris’s supposed antinomies? (Uh, really not that hard to solve, by the way.) The electorate may want contradictory things; it doesn’t follow that Obama is a passive conduit for contradictory wants. Evidently, we’re to conceive of the most powerful man in the world as bound by our wants like some hapless Prometheus, and then use this delusion as a means of self-paralysis as we follow him into war. And I used to think that the Republicans were mindless authoritarians.
So, if you insist that I engage Harris’s problem on its own terms: the action that “addresses all the variables in the complex problem” turns out to be an omission or two–don’t go to war, and stop drawing “red lines.” (Preferably: just stop talking so much.) If you really want to do something, open our borders to Syrian refugees. For sixty-plus years now, we’ve been hearing post-Holocaust rhetoric about how we must learn from the Holocaust and “never, ever let it happen again.” Well, what we “let happen” that time around was not to let the Jews into the United States when they were being slaughtered in Eastern Europe. If you don’t want “it to happen again,” try learning that lesson this time and applying it, mutatis mutandis, to the Syrians. And then, try leaving it at that for a change. You’ll find, I think, that it’s quite enough to pull off in any successful way. Really.
George Harris, by the way, is an eminent philosopher at William and Mary, the author of Agent-Centered Morality, a defense of Aristotelian ethics. Great book. Ridiculous letter. Sorry. Really no other way to put it.