Friday, May 22, 2009

Principled People: A Neccessary Danger or a Dangerous Neccessity

Centrists like myself can't help but enjoy the Obama Administration's travails on civil liberties. Contrary to what millions of folks, most of the punditry, and Candidate Obama always said, it appears the Bush-Era policies on detaining terrorists and treating them were not simply evil. Moreover, keeping in mind what the Bushites knew on 9/12 or even two years later, and the vast amount of things they didn't yet know at the time about the threats facing America and the rest of the world, at least some of their decisions were probably as good as could have been reasonably expected. And yet, as much of the criticism was couched in irrelevant terms, such as Bush-hatred, partisan Republican-bashing or simply knee-jerk hatred of America, the Bush administration probably excused itself from listening, even though some of its critics some of the time had valid arguments to make; any policy should always be permanently questioned and scrutinized, and many in the Bush Administration apparently didn't like that and weren't going to listen.

Glenn Greenwald is a fine example of crtics who may well have been right some of the time while being profoundly wrong in a complex way. I've been following him dailly for a number of months now, and am intrigued. First, from my perspective, he doesn't much like Israel. But it's not an obsession, more a minor blemish. As a reader commented when I recently linked to him, he's very educated on his major themes, and embarrassingly ignorant on Israel.

He really really doesn't like Republicans. Intellectually this is a drawback because he sees Republican positions as automatically wrong, stupid, and a-priori requiring condemnation. Such insistence on a black-and-white view of the world can hardly be helpful (no matter which party you automatically condemn).

The most interesting part of Greenwald's position, however, is his relationship to Democrats in power. I'd call it the danger of being principled. Greenwald has a clearly formulated set of principles regarding civil liberties, government, democracy - and waging of war. He's well-educated about his principles. His dedication to them is stronger than to his political party, and that's admirable because when his own side misbehaves he castigates them clearly (if perhaps less shrilly). America needs people like him, loud and intelligent voices to insist on the fundamental ideas the country was founded on. Given America's dominance of the world, the rest of us also need America to have people like him.

Yet his determination to defend principle above reality is, at the end of the day, wrong. His insistence, I'd say, even carries a whiff of danger. First, because it prevents him from noting conflicting principles. Surely, the need to protect large numbers of innocent lives from future attacks, as seen from October 2001, say, stemmed from principle? Second,and more profound, because he misunderstands the function of principle.

Principles are ideas, models, and aspirations; they strive for perfection. Life happens in the world, which is marred, imperfect, and by definition limited: it ends. So far as I know, no-one has ever managed to formulate a set of principles that will relate to the totallity of life and also be fully consistent, though many of history's worst monsters claimed they had. People like Greenwald recognize this, but rather than striving for a muddling through mostly compatible with most principles, they choose a few principles and would adhere to them totally while disregarding others; this sort of compromise is better than striving for the pristine Weltanschauung, but it's not a good way to rule. As Obama and his people are finding out.

The Greenwalds of America would benefit from re-reading the story of their hallowed Founding Fathers and their French cousins. The Enlightened American Founding Fathers formulated noble principles but were hypocrites, so the republic they founded was a flawed republic in the real world. Their French counterparts didn't find a balance between principle and reality, and caused endless suffering. Not to mention their 20th century disciples.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments. I hope Greenwald will respond to what you said. I used to read him.