Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Foolish Consistency

On the back bumper of my car are two stickers—cemented there forever with all the mysterious power of whatever glue they use on those things.  One sticker, the sentiment of which I still whole-heartedly endorse, reads: “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” (which, contrary to the impression of some people who’ve seen it, is not a pro-war statement). And the other one reads: “Obama/Biden ’08.”  This one I endorse now with somewhat less conviction, but it is there to stay.  To get it off now would require an ice pick and a chisel, so I guess it will simply have to remain there as a warning to future generations.  Bumper stickers are like tattoos—you better really mean it, because they’re not going anywhere.

While the juxtaposition of these two stickers seems cruelly ironic in our age of drones and signature strikes, it was not always so.  If you can think your way back to those days of innocence—when Candidate Obama was an idealistic civil libertarian and the Republicans still obligingly consented to be the source of all evil—you may recall that these sentiments were commonplace.  Even into the first years of the Obama presidency, his administration seemed to be reversing or winding down the worst excesses of his predecessor.  When Obama’s in-house human rights guru Michael Posner was gently heckled about Guantanamo at an Amnesty International conference I attended in 2011, he could still retort with (diminishing) plausibility that Obama’s sympathies were with the audience but his hands tied by politics.

With the revelations of the past week about NSA surveillance, the rug seems to have finally been pulled out from under those who were still clinging to this analysis.  It is therefore a decisive moment—not only for liberals and leftists who have so far supported (however critically) the president, but also for certain conservatives who consider themselves broadly civil libertarian but are also sympathetic toward Obama (I don’t know why I used the plural there—I’m talking about Andrew Sullivan). 

The moment is decisive because, for a host of psychological reasons, this is the last chance many of them will have to back out of the cycle of apologetics which invariably attend official abuses of power (especially when they are carried out by an administration or party or leader with whom one is inclined to identify).  They can either reverse course now and admit that Obama has been guilty of violating fundamental rights and liberties, whether those of American citizens or of untold others abroad, most of whose stories we will never hear—or they can dig in their heels.  Sullivan, predictably, appears to be among the heel-diggers.  More disconcertingly, so is Bob Dreyfuss at The Nation, though he is no friend to the War on Terror or to our military’s record on human rights.

I would counsel them all to take heed quickly, because this may well be the last chance they get.   Publically appearing to alter an opinion or judgment is always difficult for obvious reasons—the most sympathetic of which in this case are Obama’s personal qualities and the loyalty they engender, and the most human of which is the fear of humiliation and self-abasement, whether intellectual or moral, which is the single greatest motivator of the “foolish consistency” which, according to Emerson, dogs “little minds.”  It becomes especially difficult to alter a judgment the longer one waits to back out of it.  Like survivors emerging from cults or gangs, it’s hard to reintegrate—and there’s always the fear that those you left behind won’t take you back.  The longer these writers wait to criticize Obama with genuine moral outrage, the more often they will find themselves in a position of defending the very things they know to be unconscionable.  And the more often they do that, the more their sense of identity with their own past actions will create barriers to any future change of course.  As George Eliot put it in The Mill on the Floss, “If you deliver an opinion at all, it is mere stupidity not to do it with an air of conviction and well-founded knowledge.  You make it your own in uttering it, and naturally get fond of it.”  But out of their “foolish consistency” they will inevitably drift down a course which they did not foresee and would not have welcomed.  That is why the emphasis in that famous phrase should be on “foolish” rather than “consistency.”

There is another sort of consistency at stake here which is more fundamental: the consistency of basic moral attitudes.  If the various admirers of Obama across the political spectrum truly value the principles that made him sympathetic as a candidate, then there is no true consistency in offering up casuistry on his behalf now that he and his administration, whether from swallowing the hyperboles of the intelligence community or from the innate tendencies of power, have betrayed them.

The great English essayist William Hazlitt was scoffed at by his contemporaries Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey for sticking in his old age to the egalitarian and republican convictions of his youth—which they too had all at one point shared but had "outgrown" like so many childish daydreams.  In an essay on “Consistency of Opinion,” Hazlitt wondered why he alone “did not seem to have altered any of my ideas since I was sixteen years old.”  He concluded that those who seemed to most violently change their minds with the passing of the years were those who in fact made the least progress toward any genuinely charitable frame of mind.  “The principles and professions change: the man remains the same.  There is the same spirit at the bottom of all this pragmatical fickleness and virulence, whether it runs into one extreme or another.”  He might have been gifted with foresight, given the record of history’s great “converts” in the years since, whether an erstwhile atheist like C.S. Lewis or the former liberals and Marxists who became neo-conservatives.  As he wrote of their ilk: “They are like people out at sea on a very narrow plank, who try to push everyone else off.  Is it that they have so little faith in the cause to which they have become such staunch converts, as to suppose that, should they allow a grain of sense to their old allies and new antagonists, they will have more than they?” 

Hazlitt tried to warn us against heaping contempt on the principles we previously espoused, because they may have contained more wisdom than cynical age is willing to grant.  He bade the convert not to “become ... a living and ignominious satire on himself,” but instead urged that we all “cultivate the spot of ground we possess to the utmost of our power, though it may be circumscribed and comparatively barren.”  After all: “It is not necessary to change our road in order to advance on our journey.”

To those who initially supported Obama due, at least in part, to the change he promised with respect to civil liberties and the War on Terror, I hope that you will not follow him onto a different road entirely from the one on which you both started.  For he does appear to be leaving that road, almost in spite of himself (vide his recent speech on the War on Terror, which I believe to have been genuine, even if he has set himself on a course that will take him very far away from its ideals).  I encourage you all to cultivate the spot of ground you first planted when you cast that ballot in 2008.

Regardless, however, of whether you choose to do that, or instead, to pursue your foolish consistency to the point of defending the same policies and acts of war you once repudiated, this is the time to make your decision.  It may soon be too late—not for the country, which I think is showing a robust, if belated, outrage, but for individual pundits.  “The moving finger writes and, having writ, moves on.”

1 comment:

  1. ACLU just filed a lawsuit relating the the NSA Video surveilance. I'll renew.