Monday, November 21, 2011

Why the Left Lacks Fortitude III: "Taking the High Road"

Sometimes a moral argument is proffered to excuse liberal weakness: we’re better than our opponents, so we should take the high road. We shouldn’t stoop to their level by responding in kind to their affronts, deceit, insults, and even threats; we should follow the principle of being nice to our enemies, turning the other cheek even when they hate us. That’s a fine sentiment, and may be worth pursuing in some circumstances. But it ignores the tremendous moral cost that capitulation imposes in our current circumstances. I cannot stress this point enough. Nearly 20,000 people in the United States die each year because they cannot get adequate health care. Millions of people in this country live in poverty because we do not have an adequate safety net. Tens of millions endure drudgery, toil, financial desperation, and a host of anxiety- and stress-related ailments because we do not have adequate workplace protections or social insurance. Billions of human beings around the globe endure utter misery for their entire lives because of our free trade policies. The biosphere and all the living beings in it are stressed and imperiled because of our lack of a rational environmental program -- in some scenarios, at current levels of consumption and emissions, life itself will perish on Earth within two or three centuries as the planet undergoes a runaway greenhouse effect. These are the moral costs of our current policies, and those policies have not changed despite a generation of the moral high road and “working with” conservatives. It surely must be clear by now that those attempts, while noble in sentiment and perhaps originally worth trying, have proven in the doing to have failed. Compromise with an opposition this irrational and zealous is not "Taking the High Road", but is appeasement and capitulation. We can no longer afford it.

I am an Army veteran, and when I joined up I was given a little card that listed the “Army Values,” which were what you would expect from the military -- loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and courage (which encompassed both physical and moral courage). I had a commanding officer who once explained that none of these values were really personal or individual, but affected the whole unit. This was easy to see with things like loyalty and selfless service, but when it came to courage I didn’t understand. Wasn’t courage an individual thing? -- you have to be brave to go into combat because you might lose life and limb, so you must have the internal courage to face your personal fear of being injured or killed. My commander explained that courage was in fact the most collective of all these virtues: a soldier who does not have the bravery to do his duty and perform his functions, but instead runs away or cowers in fear, does not simply affected himself negatively, but puts the whole company or division at risk. Defeat or the destruction of entire units can occur when an individual soldier creates a vulnerability that the enemy can exploit, fails to spot where an attack is coming from, or fails to prevent an enemy from killing his comrade-in-arms. In politics, too, failures of courage affect everyone. Your political enemy can bring down not only you, but other people too, and even the whole of society. It is thus a moral imperative to recognize when you have a political enemy, and to do what you can by way of defense. Whenever some milquetoast DC strategist gives away part of a social program or environmental law, we are all negatively affected; we need to start shaming such behavior as dishonorable and a betrayal of all. Despite the noble sentiments of the proponents of “taking the high road,” it is not a moral stance at all. In our present circumstances, such an attitude leads to a systemic lack of political fortitude/courage that costs us all the possibility of a higher, better life. The Occupy protests are a reaction, in part, to the failure of putative liberals in DC to have the backbone to defend left-wing principles.  
I am, of course, using many metaphors of battle and conflict, and it should be recognized that these are just metaphors for other kinds of confrontation and conflict. To repeat, I am not calling you to violence. I am calling you to be brave and determined in our political conflicts with the radical Right -- and we can all, myself included, take as out exemplars the students of UC Davis, and demonstrators of Occupy Oakland, Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Portland, and all the rest. I am calling you to build political strength and confidence, and to use the weapons of rhetoric and persuasion to win the political fight, rather than to continue trying to be “decent” in vain attempts to take the high road. But that is rhetorical confrontation and conflict, not actual bloodshed.  Indeed, political battles often need to be won precisely to prevent the warmongers from waging real battles and wreaking real destruction.
Handling conflict in a confident, mature way is learned behavior, a set of skills that every adult should learn and, ideally, master.  Doing so is necessary to having healthy relationships in one’s personal life, and this is also true socially and politically. Sometimes you have to stand up and say “NO!” to someone, and they have to be told that in a strong and firm tone, accompanied with confident, upright body language that demonstrates your determination to stop them. People often forget how confrontational the peace movement really was; protestors didn’t just put flowers down the barrels of soldiers’ rifles, they also yelled and screamed and confronted police and security forces, and they linked arms and literally marched to do so. We will not make any changes to our system without confronting it, as the Occupy and other recent protests have reminded us.  

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