Universal Translator

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Chasing the Consistency Hobgoblin

Everybody gets the quote wrong.

Way back when I was a very young lawyer I attended a Motion Hearing with a Senior Partner, who pointed out in support of his argument that the opposing counsel already agreed with him:  they had in fact adopted exactly the same position for which he was advocating just a few months previously in a different case.  Senior Partner had the legal briefs opposing counsel had filed – with their signatures on those briefs – to prove it.

But now they found it advantageous to argue the opposite position and – incredibly – they won the hearing.

Afterward, talking with opposing counsel while waiting for the elevator, Senior Partner asked them how they could so cynically argue diametrically opposing positions within only a few months’ time.  The other side smiled superciliously and said:  “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  Senior Partner had never heard this expression before, correctly perceived it to be an insult, and railed afterward in the car about how it was just further proof that the other side were a bunch of ethically challenged shysters who didn’t really believe a single goddamned word that came out of their mouths.

Had I been a little older, and thus a little more sure of myself, I might have piped up at the elevators to correct those guys.  What Ralph Waldo Emerson actually said was:  “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

That initial two word qualifier – “a foolish” – makes all the difference.

A few months ago, before I actually even started writing this blog, I was thinking about a comment-thread discussion I had gotten into half a year before with someone over at The Daily Kos.  I had written a post about Why I am a Progressive, and one commenter – who said right up front that he was a Conservative – objected in the politest possible way to a few assertions I had made in my Diary.  It was actually a very enjoyable discussion – no rancor from either side – but one of the issues I raised is Conservatives’ unwillingness these days to agree to any idea presented by a Liberal (or even a Democrat) . . . even if the idea presented was theirs to begin with. 

Cap and Trade greenhouse gas regulation . . . originally a Conservative idea.  Mandated Insurance to help rein in health insurance costs . . . originally a Conservative idea.  Payroll Tax Holiday to stimulate the economy . . . originally a Conservative idea.  And yet the minute any of these ideas are proposed by a Liberal . . .   Soshulism!!!!

The disingenuousness displayed leads me to believe (I argued) that Conservatives aren’t really interested in enacting policy so much as they are interested in grabbing the reins of power.  Which means that when I read about the “political debates” in Washington I mostly see a tragedy of errors:  two parties having different arguments, talking at cross-purposes to each other.  One wants mostly to enact policy, the other wants merely to seize power.

The thing is . . .  I’m a big believer in introspection.  I think I’m right about my perceptions of modern Conservatives, and also think I’m correct that their inconsistent positions arise out of the most cynical of reasons:  that, for them, being correct takes second place to punching hippies, pissing off liberals and “Winning.”  But I also have to concede that my own beliefs – whether economic, social, or foreign policy oriented – often seem contradictory.  It occurred to me to wonder if there was, for example, some overarching set of ideas that might explain all of my own thinking about any particular issue.  The economy, for example.

So I set about trying to write a single narrative tying together all of the economic truths that I believe in; I first outlined how I would make my argument and then I started writing it.  In one large burst I penned about 15 pages – which was still only an introduction – and then I took a break and never picked the thing up again.  (Although, occasionally, I cannibalize from it when helpful to make other points.)

But that wasn’t too bad, not really, because the outline and those first 15 pages convinced me that, economically speaking, yes I can explain my beliefs and economic prescriptions consistently.  Those prescriptions may sometimes differ for any given circumstance, but that should only be expected.  Different circumstances demand different policy prescriptions.  Someone suffering from heat prostration, for example, should not be treated the same as a person suffering from frostbite, but achieving a healthy body temperature remains the goal in both situations.

And this, of course, is an adult way of trying to understand the world.   Which is different than merely adopting a single, simplistic one-size-fits-all solution to every problem.  Hey!  It’s 2000 and the economy is doing great and the federal budget is showing a surplus:  time to cut taxes.  Hey!  It’s 2001 and the economy is in a recession and the federal budget is looking at a deficit:  time to cut taxes.  Hey!  Some Liberal is making a suggestion -- any suggestion, under any circumstances -- and that means it's a Bad Idea.

That is the “foolish consistency” that Emerson wrote about when he described “the hobgoblin of little minds.”  It is consistent only in the most facile and superficial way.  But, of course, for the Reality Based Community this is is amazingly inconsistent.  How can one possibly think the same prescription always applies, even in diametrically opposed situations?

* * *

Don’t misunderstand me.  My point here is not simply to bash Conservatives, but to address a somewhat larger issue.  I don’t have a problem arguing with people with whom I disagree; very often, being challenged helps me to better understand things that maybe I hadn’t sufficiently thought about before.  Sometimes, it even helps to convince me that I may have been . . . wait for it . . . wrong.  It’s never a good feeling to find oneself proved wrong, but it’s infinitely better than to remain a jackass about something one’s entire life.

But what I do object to is arguing with people for whom consistency and logic are seen as – at most – useful tools that can be wielded to achieve the strategic goal of power.  I don’t understand, I cannot understand, how some people can at the same time talk about how much they love the United States of America and yet take pride in flying the Confederate Flag.  Dude!  Those guys tried to destroy the Union you claim to care about so much!  But I’m in the minority here because – at least where I live – nobody else seems to see any contradiction.

For the same reasons, I cannot understand how someone like Rick Perry can show up in Iowa and declare that we need a President (himself) who is “passionate” about America and can accuse Ben Bernanke of treason if Bernanke engages in another round of quantitative easing . . . just two years after telling Teabaggers that Texas might be justified in actually leaving the Union if Washington enacts further economic stimulus. Rick Perry is the last person who should be calling anyone else “treasonous” or talking about how much he loves this country and yet I’ve yet to hear any of the punditocracy mention these wildly inconsistent positions.  I would think that threatening to leave the Union would instantly invalidate someone as a reasonable candidate for leading that Union . . . but, again, this seems to be a minority view.

Finally, I cannot understand people – like William O’Brien, New Hampshire’s GOP House Speaker – who can suggest college students and others whose opinions he doesn’t agree with should have their voting rights restricted, but who would undoubtedly be shocked if told that he can’t say such things and also claim to respect the Constitution. 

There is an age-old political tension between those who believe voting is a privilege that should be accorded only to the deserving few (the wealthy, for example, or the sufficiently educated, or – in ages past -- the literate), and those who understand voting to be a right afforded every adult citizen.  But the Constitution resolves this conflict:  voting is a right -- our most basic right -- and is not merely a privilege, which is why voting restrictions like requiring government-issued voter ID should be understood to be unconstitutional.  Anyone who doesn’t agree with that needs to argue that the founding document of our country got it wrong, but they don’t get to argue that the Constitution is perfectly correct and also that certain people – even if only those people without ID -- shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

These are only a few of the examples that came to me off the top of my head . . . I’m sure you can think of a bunch of others.  But the principle is the same.  I don’t mind talking to those with whom I disagree so long as they are intellectually honest with me in their disagreement.  But I cannot stand even listening to people willing to assert mutually exclusive positions and then advance them as necessary to score rhetorical or electoral points.

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