Friday, June 28, 2002

By the way, has anybody else noticed how completely and effectively the silly Pledge flap overwhelmed the far more important and troubling decision about School vouchers?

This is why I've always been annoyed, if not enraged, by the Michael Moore/Ralph Nader "Democrats are the same as Republicans" argument. Even if their policies were roughly the same, the nomination of judges is an absolutely critical tool for any president to influence politics long after he's out of office, and Republicans have been very clear about their desire to install an ideologically friendly judiciary. Whether Democrats are equally inclined towards friendly judges or not, they will by definition avoid this ideological imposition, and whether you're a liberal leftist or a radical one a friendly judiciary is a useful political tool. (As conservatives understands quite well).

This actually brings up a point about moral clarity. One of the similarities I've seen between the far left and the right is this notion that one should be pure in one's beliefs... that choosing "the lesser evil" in tantamount to betrayal of one's beliefs and positions, regardless of any good it might actually do. What these beliefs actually are might vary (which is why the right accuses the far left of moral equivalence and vice versa), but the attitude is very similar in a lot of respects. Whenever I hear this sort of argument, I think of, well, a comic book. Yes, a comic book.

Specifically, I think of one of the best comic book series ever written. It was called the Watchmen, and it was about superheroes. Not superheroes as we commonly understand them, however, but the sort of people that the real world would probably spawn if they were actually to exist, and the Watchmen was about both these people and the society that they both live in and help create. (Without spoiling the book, I'll tell you: it ain't pretty.) One of the characters was a sociopathic man who goes by the name of Rorschach. He took on the name because of the mask he wore, which was very much akin to the tests of the same name: blots of black on a white field. (One of the brilliant touches of the comic's artist was that it was always shifting... no two panels ever featured the same Rorschach "face"). He was a crime fighter, and an absolutely pitiless one, so dedicated to justice and order that he tolerated no moral uncertainties, no compromise, no cooperation, and no mercy. Ever. His war against crime, criminals, and evil was an absolute one, and he drew strength from what he saw as the creation of moral order in the filthy, immoral chaos around him.

Now, without giving away the ending of this series (and if you haven't read it yet, you must- if nothing else, it proves that deconstruction can be not only useful, but vital.. and if you wish to avoid this story because it is an indirect spoiler, than go ahead) the main characters discover that a great evil has taken place, but it is in the service of a greater good... a greater good so compelling that despite the incredible evil of the act, they realize that it was necessary, and justifiable, and yet so horrible that it almost defies comprehension. All of the characters agree that the secret of this act must be kept a secret, or its good will be undone... but in order to do that, they must sacrifice their personal honor and righteousness; they must become complicit in an act of appalling evil, in order to make it meaningful and to prevent something even worse. Far, far worse.

All of them, that is, except Rorschach.

Rorschach will have none of it. He is absolutely unwilling to give up his personal honor, righteousness, and sense of justice and order; to live with, keep secret, and therefore be a part of evil in order to accomplish this greater good. When confronted by one of the other characters, who asks him why he will not relent, he says this in his dead, flat voice- a line which has always and will always echo in my mind:

"No. Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon".

Every time I read this section, I get a shudder down my spine- and every time I read certain opinions and arguments, I get an echo of that shudder. You see, Rorschach provides a powerful example of an aspect of the human condition and especially of politics that most people shy away from, and something the groups I mentioned above seem to forget or avoid. Sometimes, you need to commit an evil to accomplish a greater good. Some people, (or perhaps most people), can't understand this or won't accept it; and some deny it to the point that they not only don't value the ends over the means, they value the means out of all proportion to the ends... they don't care what the result will be, because they refuse to compromise the means for the ends.

(Buffy the Vampire Slayer also dealt with this issue at the end of its fifth season, although it was muddied and they copped out at the end, which meant that most people didn't get that this was the central issue.)

This is the problem with the radical left, in my opinion. They believe that adherence to their particular moral beliefs can not and will not suffer any compromise, or else it is lost; and anybody that tries to argue otherwise is, frankly, evil. (Although there's no way the radical left would ever use that term). This is part of the problem with the left wing in the United States, and why the left as a whole has become so bitterly divided even before 9/11 happened. It is because the far left will not accept compromise... they will never, ever, place the ends before the means.

This is also the problem I have with the "moral clarity" types. A question is always raised in my mind whenever I hear this: at what point are you willing to live with a smaller evil in order to accomplish a greater good? Do you draw the line here? Or here? Or over here? Or do you not draw the line at all, ever, because that would mean that you would be forced to be complicit in an evil, and you could never live with yourself if that were the case?

Would you ally with Stalin to put down Hitler, if you knew what he was capable of? Would you support some dictator in a nasty little corner of the world, because the chaos that would be created by his passing would be much worse, even though by doing so you're indirectly responsible for every evil act he ever commits? Would you be willing to let a neo-nazi group do everything in their power to sway your child to their cause, because the first amendment is so important? How about Marxists? Would you do what Brutus did, and kill your own sons because you recognize that the rule of law is important enough to sacrifice your own flesh and blood? Would you still blow up Hiroshima and Nagasaki if the rationalizations about "more soldiers would have died anyway" and "the Japanese weren't about to surrender" were demonstrably invalid, because you knew that forestalling a war with the Soviet Union was more important, and therefore become directly responsible for all those lost lives? Would you be willing to kill innocent people to protect the freedom of those that did not die? Would you inflict suffering on some so that others could prosper? Would you inflict suffering and death on your own people so that other peoples could prosper, and would you inflict suffering and death on other peoples so that your own could prosper?

I'm pretty sure that some people would. I'm pretty sure that some people would do some things but not others, and others would act in the same proportion but for different goals. I don't know if I would, but I imagine so. Some people, however, will not accept compromise, will not accept the evil that must go with some good- will cry out for "moral clarity!" and become embittered and enraged that it really doesn't exist, never has, and never will. They will echo the words of Rorschach:

"Never compromise. Not even in the face of Armageddon".

A slight edit: I'm not suggesting that either the radical left nor the right are monolithic and unswerving in this sort of attitude. As Max mentioned in his comments section, there are good reasons to adopt a far left or far right position. I don't disagree- I have radical friends whose position I understand and sympathize with. My comments mostly concern the rhetoric I've heard about the evils of "giving in to the other side"... giving up any amount of victory, however small, in order to avoid having "dealt with the devil" and to retain their ideological purity. Max is wrong on this: These small victories have a way of ending up resulting in larger ones, not because of the victories itself but due to related phenomena. I'll get to that in my next entry.

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