Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Right's Relativism

Mike's post directly below about the NSA poking about in your phone records without a court warrant makes a good and obvious point much like the good and obvious point we've been making for a while now about most of the Bush administration's illegal actions: they're illegal. There are laws that explicitly say they're not allowed to do what they're doing; there are no laws that allow them to do so. Vague and unsubstantiated recourse to the President's constitutional duties to "defend America" don't count. Last I checked, mumbling "fighting terrorism" isn't actually a legal defense. If it is, I'm gonna make a fortune with my new "We're Fighting Terrorism!" plaques to hang on the walls of meth labs and kiddie porn studios across America ($39.99 + s&h, red, white, & blue only).

In the most immediate ways, it's clear what's happening here: people trying to defend the legality of illegal programs find themselves spinning, spinning, spinning like snake-oiled merry-go-rounds. Not too complicated, not too interesting even, except that our freedoms are at stake.

But part of how they're spinning is interesting. I remember in the 80s and early 90s, when cultural conservatives had their gender-appropriate panties in celibate bunches over the dangerous "relativism" creeping into American culture and higher learning. Why, they protested, if we accept the notion that French way of life is good if the French like it even though--perhaps they haven't noticed?--it isn't the same as the American way of life, then we throw all standards out the windows. Morality become meaningless in a multicultural world, they argued, because the premise of multiculturalism is that one should embrace all cultures, even when their fundamental values contradict one's own.

Something happened, though, in the mid to late 90s that inverted that stance. Not in the most obvious sense: cultural conservatives still put morality (their morality) at the center of all their political projects. Which is their right, of course. But despite their hostility toward "relativism" and "lack of standards" cultural conservatives have actually embraced relativism in the pursuit of their moral agenda.

And this relativism is a factual and logical relativism. Which is intriguing because facts and logic should be less understandable in relativist terms than morality is. Thoughtful people, even those who agree on certain bedrock fundamentals, tend to agree that there are areas of moral uncertainty. If you and your friend believe that liberty and empathy are the highest values, you might well disagree over how and whether to prioritize one over the other in a particular situation. This is no less true among cultural conservatives than among liberals.

But facts and logic would seem to be more objective and less susceptible to any kind of relativism. One can dispute the accuracy of facts and one can contest the soundness of a given chain of logic, but if one accepts the facts as accurate and the logic as sound then one has to accept the conclusions reached through applying the logic to the facts.

But in the last decade or so, cultural conservatives have seemed increasingly less likely to do so. The Bush administration is a prime exemplar. Despite the fact that virtually the entire scientific community feels confident about the reality of global warming and the causal contribution of human activity to it, Bush ignores it. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of evolution, Bush insists that students should also be taught "intelligent design" in science class. And Saddam's WMDs, etc., etc.

The core problem here is one of faith of the kind that "surpasseth understanding." Let me be clear: I'm not singling out Christianity. Or even religion. There are plent of secular believers who are just as guilty of this. What I mean by "faith" is that feeling of certainty in one's morality that so deeply and completely informs one's actions that one no longer sees any need to test one's beliefs either against their consequences or against the world in which they exist. If my faith requires me to believe that the sun rotates around the earth, then it must. If my faith requires me to believe that white people are inherently superior, then they are. If my faith requires me to think that all that serial killers need to change their way is a nice bowl of oatmeal and a big hug, then then I'll invite them over one morning to meet my kids.

And If I feel that what I'm doing is right, then it's right. And if it's right, it's must be all other things good--must be beatiful, true, lovable, puppy-eyed, and kitten-purry. And, of course, legal.

Which is why this latest round of revelations about the NSA raiding my phone records without permission from me or the courts worries me so much. Or part of why. The other source of my concern is the more typical civil libertarian concern that a cynical, power-hungry faction of the national security apparatus is using the pretext of yet another indefinite war, this time the war on terror, to strengthen its power over me and all Americans. But the cynics don't worry me any more than the zealots. The true-believers in the security appartus and the administration scare me because they believe so intensely that they don't have to think any more, don't have to fact-check any more. They want to help their America in the way that they think it needs helping. They believe that's right. And if they're doing what's right, it must be legal. And they'll tell you with all sincerity that it's legal.

And if you point out that, gosh, for it to be legal it would a) have to not be illegal and b) to have some legal justification, they wonder why you can't understand simple truths. If you point out that it's weird to on the one hand endorse "strict constructionism" in interpreting the Constitution while on the other hand ignoring the Constitution, they wonder why you hate America.

But or course those of us worried about the NSA's snooping don't hate America. Most of us love the version of America articluated during the revolution against England: the new republic was to have "a government of laws, not men." It's a government run by cetain rules and procedures that everybody has to stick to or change in certain defined ways. It's not a government in which the law is whatever the President says it is. (Le droit c'est lui.) It's not a government of men and women who have decided that, as good people, they don't have to worry about the laws.

If these committed patriots want to protest the laws and go to jail like patriotic protesters have done for centuries, they have that right. Maybe even that obligation. But they don't have the right to break the laws while claiming to enforce them. The laws matter. The laws--especially laws protecting Americans against tyrannical expansion of power--are there to protect us not only from criminals, not only from traitors, but also from well-meaning zealots who decide that they and they alone can truly read the laws, that they alone can read the hidden permissions in the laws, in the stars, where the rest of us see only prohibitions.

Emotion and belief are crucial, and we couldn't function in the world without them. They allow us to see beyond the way things are to see what they could be. But responsible government, like responsible protest, has to acknowledge how things are before trying to change them. Otherwise, it will change them, but only for the worse.


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