Sunday, May 23, 2004

Sunday Contemplations: Incompetence as immorality?

Could ever being wrong, be bad? Not just practically worse, but morally sinful? I would argue so. Events in the past weeks have borne fruit to how much our nation's leaders don't understand the nature of sin and evil, and the weakness of human character - classic topics of conservative philosophy.

Underlying the essentially libertarian and conservative sentiment and dispositional prejudice against expanding government powers is the conviction that people are all other things being equal prone to abusing additional license. This is the underlying truth behind the conservative philosophical stance pushing for high standards of public morality, and its insistence that government has no place in the private consensual affairs of individuals. This balance has been lost in the tight-rope walking act of modern-day politics because the so-called conservative opinion leaders have forgotten the underlying rational that joins both causes in the conservative mind.

Conservatives on the whole must be said to agree with the dictum of Lord Acton: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". This is the underlying notion of high standards for public morality. As my Dad said to me more than one time:"Shoot for the best, because if you don't you won't get anywhere near close." Morality is a kind of slippery slope of human good intentions and the all too often less than stellar universe of gritty real world choices. Maybe you can't do the right thing every time, but if you won't try you won't get anywhere near close.

It is the fear of the potential expansion of license by the loosening of public standards of decency that drives conservative sentiment in criticizing art and media that plays upon the most lustful and ghoulish drives in the human psyche. We understand that while it may not be a one to one correspondence, that the promotion of more and more liberal behavior as normal creates an even larger and faster expanding zone of moral decadence and indulgent actions. This is the occasional cause of conservative hypocrisy, for the potential of pushing higher standards than oneself can aspire to is always the possibility inherent in flawed human nature.

This is why our nation's leaders were completely wrong to sneer at, undermine, or attempt to create exceptions for the Geneva standards. War has long been known as the engine of atrocity and inhumanity. Rape, murder, exploitation, hate, bigotry, etc. all the inner demons of humanity's frenzied beastiality are roused in the bloody work of war. Our nation's leaders should have known that license to undermine or work around moral standards was "radioactive" in the words of Rumsfeld after viewing the pictures borne from the seeds of his empowerment. If conservatives dare rail against the pictures of cartoon violence as rightfully making our society more violent, then how could we assert it possible to treat the coercive interrogation and imprisonment of others with anything less than the status attributed to toxic chemicals - a substance best dealt with in protective gear, loaded down with tons of safety regulations, and used or disposed of with the greatest accounting and care.

As conservatives we should have known better just exactly what people get up to when they think they can get away with bending or breaking the rules.

At the same time, the underlying conservative distrust of ceding ever expanding regulatory powers to the government demands increased transparency of public actions. The number one guarentee of reducing such illicit behavior is to let the sun shine in. The increase in classification of non-military doctrines has proliferated, and not to the benefit of our national security but the increased licentiousness of government agents. Recently Time magazine reported that there were eight million classified documents roughly in 2001, and two years later nearly fourteen million. The increase in secrecy has not been to the benefit of our liberty or security, and "trust us" is a mantra that will not have as much force after the spectacular failure to own up and take responsibility showcased by the Administration the last few months.

The very same conservative philosophical tenets - the distrust of secretive absolutist central authority powers - that leads to the promotion of public transparency and high standards of public morality is the same tenet that argues for a Constitutional right to Privacy. Conservatives all too aware of the stratified and legacy ridden nature of society in turn distrust the liberal instinct that attempts to legalize and normalize the entire range of behaviors. For an honest conservative, this includes the possibility of private hypocrisy because the true conservative must promote the idea that some social practices can not be forcibly normalized even if we ourselves practice them.

This is not an instance of self-hate, but of honesty. It was for instance, a neo-liberal or neo-radical notion of "dominoe toppling" that was involved in both the Vietnam war catastrophe and the Iraq War II catastrophe. In both cases, culture and society simply proved less malleable to outside political intervention than the ahistorical social engineering of liberal theory proposed. You can never save anyone from themselves, and a true conservative is content to be able to freely practice privately what they themselves might argue is verboten publicly.

This seems a promotion of hypocrisy perhaps but it is grounded in the notion of the internal and organic historical evolution of societies. The "revolutionary" doctrine of liberal social progress has been discredited in every form from Communism to the French Revolution to the staged-revolutions of modern day Haiti, Belgrade, and Iraq. Under stress, people always revert to "type" and must with outside encouragement or guidance essentially be allowed to work out issues for themselves. You cannot throw a true revolution with guns and tanks, it is simply not possible. Revolutions whether scientific or political are almost always generational affairs and whose progress is best benefited by quiet informal promotion and by gradual formal decriminalization.

The history of Brown v. Board of Education and its recent anniversay has pointed out again that formal political imposition can change the law of the land, and produce modest improvements, but at the cost perhaps of chronic cultural backlash. I am glad that litttle brown and black boys and girls can go to the same classrooms as white boys and girls, but I wish the process had been more stretched out, more local, and forced more people to confront their own prejudices and bigotry about class and race.

The result of trying to leap-frog this hard work was the "white-flight" that gutted the service base and "ghetto-ized" inner cities all across America. It increased social gentrification and the unconscious alignment of class and race instead of law and race. Today many decades after the initial decision, poor blacks still go to less well funded and less equal and de facto segregated schools as they did when segregation was the law of the land and before forced busing.

There have been some advancements but those are eclipsed by the opportunity cost of a chance for the nation to struggle with the hard issues involved and move forward more gradually but also more thoroughly and more consistently toward the complete racial integration of culture and society.

In the mean time, the only avenue for people who are in the midst of such social transformation is to create greater privacy rights. For if you cannot radically impose changes in public mores without great chaos, then you must create a breathing space where life can function and go one quietly and undisturbed. This very notion of quiet and gradual social integration is made all the more possible when enlightened leaders and patient special interest groups realize that there is less public backlash and more mainstream sympathy and acceptance to be had by slowly changing minds one by one rather than attempting to force progress. Before the Gay Marriage polarization and debacle and overshadowing its triumph was Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. This was a triupmh of mainstream progressive movement idealism. Striking right at the homophobic fears of normal hetrosexual men, it increased social acceptance for gays simply by helping these clueless straights become more sexually masculine in winning over their wives and girlfriends.

What a brilliant idea! What a triumph! It was an idea that even the most rabid hide-bound frothing at the mouth homophobe had a hard time criticizing. Gay men helping straight men become more manly and please their wives! What sheer genius!

There is a time for strong public arguments and mass protests. This time is most especially for open abuses, for formal legal obstacles, for systematic and life-threatening abuses. Rosa Parks should not have been asked to change seats. Martin Luther King Jr. was right to address the crowd and the nation telling them "I have a dream". But such moments cannot be overplayed. They cannot be riddled with anger and embitteredness and frustrated entitlement, or else like the Seattle demonstrations against the WTO they will alienate the public and lose mainstream support.

The greatest argument of moral authority that anyone can muster is the case for equal treatment before the law and private self-fulfillment of the pursuit of happiness. Miscenagation laws were wrong, but it took a Civil War and time to bring them down one by one. It took more time to create greater public acceptance of bi-racial couples in many ways after decades of struggles. It was not something that could be conveyed or granted by a single court decision in a single state of the union.

In the meantime there was only the hope of privacy wherever love sprung up whose name could not be spoken.

We can not create a democratic Iraq. Only the Iraqis can possibly and only after great struggle, if we are only smart enough to get out of the way and let them do it themselves. No matter how messy they do it, it is better than anything we could attempt to impose. In pursuing ever more extreme license in attempting to do the impossible, our nation's leaders can only drag us down in the mud. It is never possible to save the village by destroying it.

In all of these ways, to fail to do the right thing is to do the wrong thing. We cannot let our errors cross the line from personal mistakes into moral failures. Like parents trying to live through their children, we must get a grip on ourselves and let go. It is time to accept what must be and having done our best pray the prayer every parent prays: "Dear Lord, don't let them screw it up too badly before they figure it out."


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