Archive for February, 2005

1 State, 2 State

February 28, 2005

I’m a born-again liberal. Which is to say I’m liberal by choice, not by upbringing. Nor by social convenience, as I’m a tiny blue speck in some of the reddest country in Red State America. As a former conservative and current liberal-in-diaspora, I’m intrigued by the differences between these 2 Americas. (Barak Obama notwithstanding, there are 2 Americas, at the very least.) A recurring theme in this space will, I suspect, be my attempts to identify and understand what distinguishes liberal from conservative; how the two see the world differently, and therefore not only come to different political conclusions, but so often find each other’s conclusions utterly opaque and unjustifiable.

For my first trick, I’m going to explain the past 8 years of presidential politics.

Presidential politics have been unusually interesting during the period covering Clinton II and Bush43 I. Opinion on these 2 presidents could hardly be more polarized. Clinton: beloved icon of liberals; Great Satan of conservatives. Bush43: beloved icon of conservatives; Clueless Warmonger of liberals. What makes that reality even more interesting is that, policy-wise, Clinton was not a particularly liberal president, nor is Bush43 a particularly conservative one.

What gives?

A similar polarization arose in the 2004 election cycle. Liberals “got” Kerry and not only preferred him, but couldn’t understand how any rational adult could support Bush. Conservatives, on the other hand, “got” Bush and not only preferred him, but couldn’t understand how any rational adult could support Kerry.

What gives?

The answer — or what I take to be the primary answer, at least — occurred to me while I was watching Tim Russert interview Sen. Kerry a few weeks before we all put ourselves out of our misery by going to the polls (You did vote, didn’t you?). Russert asked Kerry a series of questions about Iraq. You’ve been critical of the president’s Iraq policy, Senator. What would you do differently about [tactical problem X in Iraq]? What would you do differently about [tactical problem Y in Iraq]?

Kerry responded with answers that took the general form of: I don’t know; here are my general principles on Iraq and foreign affairs, but what I’d do about the particular tactical problems you asked about, I can’t say until I have all the facts about the tactical situation on the ground — i.e., until I’m Commander-in-Chief.

Now, let’s lay aside for a moment the fact that these answers were, in part, the old Washington Dipsy-Doodle — don’t answer any question directly if you don’t have to — a dance performed equally well by generations of politicians on both sides of the aisle, going all the way back to the debate over the ratification of our Constitution. To the degree that’s what Kerry’s answers were, they were dissatisfying to both liberal and conservative voters. But that qualifier — “to the degree that’s what Kerry’s answers were” — is where the real division reveals itself.

To conservatives watching that interview, Kerry’s answers were nothing but the Dipsy-Doodle. They were an instance of his unprincipled refusal to say exactly what he’d do and stick to his guns. Bush43’s willingness — even eagerness — to do just that is the very thing conservatives adore most about him. They call it “principle” or “strong leadership.”

To liberals watching that same interview, however, there was more to Kerry’s answers than the Dipsy-Doodle. They were an instance of his principled refusal to make policy decisions (actually, at that point in the proceedings, campaign promises) without knowing all the relevant facts. This is, when you boil it down, the thing liberals see Bush43 as utterly lacking. They call it “realism” or “humility.”

The labels used by each side, however, as usual, mask the real difference between them, I think. The problem is not that liberals want an unprincipled president who lacks the strength to lead, or that conservatives want a dictatorial president who has no grasp of reality. We’re talking about rational adults on both sides, here; neither group of voters is foolhardy. Well, not that foolhardy, at least. No, the problem is that liberals and conservatives have completely different ideas about what kind of a thing Truth is.

Conservatives have an atomistic view of Truth. There are things which are right, and things which are wrong. The rightness or wrongness of these things cannot be changed; a wrong thing will always be wrong, a right thing will always be right. Similarly, the rightness or wrongness of things doesn’t depend on anything outside themselves; a right thing is right in any context, and likewise for wrong things. Therefore, conservatives want to hear a political candidate say what he thinks are the right things, and display his or her devotion to doing them regardless of what other facts might arise. To fail to do so is spineless waffling.

Liberals have an historical view of Truth. There are not things which are simply right or simply wrong; there are only Things Humans Do, and their rightness or wrongness depends on the context in which they happen to occur.* A thing that is right in one context may be wrong in another. Therefore, to know what’s right in any particular situation, you have to examine all the relevant circumstances. To pronounce one’s devotion to a specific course of action before one knows all the relevant facts is foolish arrogance.

Conservatives watching Russert’s interview with Kerry would (and apparently did) see pure spineless waffling: if one has any principles at all, one should always be able to say ahead of time what one would do in any context, because a thing that is right in one context is always right in any context. Things are not more complex than that (recall the way Kerry was hammered for not giving simple answers in the debates). Right is right, and wrong is wrong. Period.

Liberals watching the very same interview would (and apparently did) see the old Washington Dipsy-Doodle, certainly. (Just contrast the excitement Howard Dean’s directness aroused in the primaries with the lukewarm, if consistent, support Kerry maintained, if you suspect liberals of blindness to Kerry’s shortcomings as a candidate.) But the old Dipsy-Doodle isn’t all liberals saw in that interview. They also saw humility and realism: if one has any principles at all, one should never, just for the sake of pandering to anxious voters, say ahead of time what one would do in a particular and complex situation, because you can’t know what is the right thing to do without all the facts. Things are not simple (recall the way Bush43 was hammered for giving one-sentence answers in the first debate). Expect the unexpected.

Because we have these differing views of Truth, liberals and conservatives look for different things in a candidate — things that have nothing inherently to do with politics, policy, or party.

  • A liberal wants to see a candidate lay out his or her broad principles, then display the intelligence to apply those principles to the myriad of hugely complex situations he or she will face if elected.
  • A conservative wants to see a candidate lay out his or her broad principles, too, but they also want him or her, when asked, to say with certainty exactly what he or she will do on particular issues, because he or she knows what is the right thing to do, and knows it’s right regardless of circumstance.
  • What assures a liberal that a candidate will do the right thing once in office? Seeing that candidate’s broad principles, ability to reason, and devotion to doing the hard work of using those tools to find the right thing to do in whatever situation arises.
  • What assures a conservative that a candidate will do the right thing once in office? Seeing that candidate’s certain knowledge of what is right and unshakeable devotion to the rightness of that thing no matter what situation arises.

Or so goes my current theory, anyway.

That’s why liberals loved Clinton and loathe Bush43, while conservatives are just the opposite. Even though many of his policies were not notably liberal, Clinton was the liberal non pareil when it came to having the intelligence to walk into a policy debate, gather the relevant facts from the country’s current situation, and apply broad, well-informed principles and concepts to those facts to find the right thing to do under the circumstances; to conservatives, this made him infuriatingly phony. And although many of his policies are not very conservative, Bush43 is the conservative non pareil when it comes to pronouncing what he’s going to do and sticking to it no matter what new facts arise; to liberals, this makes him arrogance personified.

Whether you’re talking about Clinton v. Bush43 or Bush43 v. Kerry, to each side of the political divide, the other side’s man is the very antithesis of what they most want in a leader. No wonder the two sides not only disagree, but get angry that the other side would even offer their man as a serious option.

*[A number of liberals, possibly including me, would take issue with this statement. They (or we) would say there are things which are simply true or simply false, but they are much, much fewer and much, much less specific than conservatives insist.]

Al Sturgeon: New Blogger

February 28, 2005

Al Sturgeon: New Blogger Posted by Hello

Discovering the World Through People

February 28, 2005

by Al Sturgeon
(published every Monday in “Desperate Houseflies”)

Al Sturgeon: New Blogger

Al Sturgeon is a husband, father, son, and brother. He is also a preacher who is soon to publish a book and ask you to purchase it. He is a former high school teacher and coach. He has also started two different Habitat for Humanity affiliates. That’s about it. Recently, he agreed to sit down with himself for the first interview ever on “Desperate Houseflies.” Here’s what happened:

DH: Who are you, and why should anyone care?
STURGEON: I’m sorry to be such a bad interview, but I don’t have good answers for either one of those questions. Can you make them a bit easier?

DH: Okay, let’s try it this way: why should anyone take the time to read what you or your fellow writers on this blog write?
STURGEON: Now that’s an excellent question, although I don’t have a good answer for that one either. I would say, though, that these “other” writers are pretty cool guys. They aren’t famous or anything, but what they write should definitely be entertaining.

DH: So the truth is that you couldn’t get anyone famous to agree to do this with you?
STURGEON: Pretty much. I was close to having someone somewhat famous be a part of this magazine, though. Originally, my friend, Jon, who plays lead guitar for LeAnn Rimes considered writing a weekly music column. He was too busy, though.

DH: Well, who are these non-famous writers that did agree to be contributors?
STURGEON: Well, the Tuesday Housefly who will write about politics is my friend Trent. He will make a lot of people who like me mad by what he will write, but I think he is brilliant. (Note to these aforementioned friends: Either don’t read on Tuesdays if you’re easily upset, or if you are brave enough, engage Trent in conversation). The Wednesday Housefly humorist doesn’t want his name mentioned, mostly so he won’t get fired for what the Tuesday Housefly might write. Thankfully, as the humor columnist, he is funny. The Thursday Housefly is my friend, Andy, who is in law school in Houston. He will write about sports. He will use his real name because he will soon be able to sue your pants off if you fire him for something someone else writes. Our Friday Housefly is Mikey, our book review specialist. He is in grad school at Syracuse, and like all grad school students, doesn’t need to protect his identity yet. The Saturday Housefly is my friend, DeJon, who is serving our country in the Air Force. He is currently in a former Soviet Republic that uses no vowels in its name. He will keep us informed of world news. I will be both the Sunday Housefly (writing on religion) and Monday Housefly (profiling people like this).

DH: You’re writing on religion?
STURGEON: Yeah, I know. I was my own fourth choice, but I grew tired of waiting. I am a preacher, though. I should be able to come up with something.

DH: And why a day dedicated to profiling people?
STURGEON: Well, I have a vested interest in people – seeing that I am one and all. I think “people” are the most interesting topics. I don’t intend on this area being a predictable one. I’ll interview people from all sorts of perspectives. I may get all “reality-show-ish” and do some strange things myself to get an interview. Plus, I’ll be open to suggestions.

DH: You mean the readers can make suggestions and you guys may actually pay attention?
STURGEON: Yeah, I mean…why not? Hey, maybe that’s a reason worth reading.

DH: Where would the readers file their complaints if one of you forgets to post an article one day, or if their suggestions are ignored?
STURGEON: You could tell your spouse or significant other about it. Or your dog. Maybe you could journal or something. Hey, tell Andy. He’s going to be a lawyer.

DH: I’ve got to ask the question. Where did you come up with the name “Desperate Houseflies?”
STURGEON: We were trying to come up with a cool name, so I brought up several in an attempt to spur the rest of the group’s creativity. This was one of those names. It turns out that we aren’t very creative, so this is what we ended up using.

DH: So there’s no hidden meaning or significance to it?
STURGEON: C’mon, don’t take us that seriously.

DH: Thanks for your time!
STURGEON: Hey, no problem. My time is your time…

Note: This weekly column will introduce you, the reader, to all kinds of people. In addition to welcoming comments on each profile, your suggestions are welcomed, too. I’m open to chasing down as best I can all sorts of folks who can shed some light on any type of profession, hobby, lifestyle, cause, interest, or question that you may be interested in. Of course, any contact information for interesting and/or famous people you know personally would be welcomed in private email as well. Be sure to check back each Monday!