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Simple Answers to Questions Posed To Imaginary Liberals

[ 71 ] December 11, 2012 |

I noticed this expansion of the old vastleft strawman while reading deBoer’s argument about how all liberals are secret torture apologists:

Here’s my problem: for months prior to Election Day, many Democrats and liberals insisted that the position of the presidency was so vastly important that it was worth suspending certain moral and ethical principles in order to elect the better candidate. I don’t want to rehash the wrongness or rightness of lesser evilism yet again. I’m just pointing out that this was the argument. And please note that the moral stakes simply could not have been higher; what was in argument were issues of literal life and death, of our stance towards the killing of innocent people. Retaining the presidency was so important that we had to put some of our most basic convictions on hold.

I don’t understand how these two impulses– to elevate the importance of the presidency to the point that you excuse any behavior to capture it, and acting like the president has essentially no power to implement his vision– can be reconciled so effortlessly. How can it be the case that electing the more liberal presidential candidate is at once the solemn duty of all progressive people, because it’s such a powerful position, and that the president shouldn’t be criticized for the deals he strikes, because he just isn’t that powerful? I understand that there is space to say “the presidency is very constrained, but the decisions the president makes are still very important.” But that space simply is not the space occupied by the people defending Obama during the election. Rather they advanced a maximal reading of the power of the presidency, the better to make the case for supporting the lesser evil.

It is, in fact, entirely possible for the president to have very limited power in terms of moving a legislative agenda through Congress, and yet for the president to be an important enough office that favoring candidate A over candidate B when the former is better on many things and worse on nothing is highly important.   Presidents have a very substantial impact even if you don’t consider the ability to enact new legislation that goes beyond the ex ante preferences of Congress at all.   So there’s no contradiction.   Also, if Obama agrees to a deal raising the eligibility in the Medicare age (although there’s no real evidence that he supports such a deal) he should be harshly criticized, and fortunately every liberal other than Jon Chait (but including Ezra) seems to agree with me on this.   And, also, as far as I can tell no real as opposed to hypothetical liberal thinks that Obama has little power here, given that the expiration of the Bush tax cuts makes the defensive powers of the presidency more effectual than usual.  You’re welcome!

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  1. Evan Harper says:

    Not to mention that Freddie willfully misunderstands the distinction between “suspending certain moral and ethical principles in order to elect the better candidate” and “concluding that moral and ethical principles positively demand working to elect the better candidate, even if he’s still bad.” He doesn’t want “to rehash the wrongness or rightness of lesser evilism,” just to bash it while pretending that he’s only offering a neutral definition.

    • mpowell says:

      This is the first thing that jumps out at me. Refusing to vote for the lesser of two evils is not adhering to any kind of defensible moral or ethical principle. It just represent an act of misunderstanding the exercise of political power. I had a professor who liked to say: “if you don’t understand it, I can’t explain it to you”, related to certain kinds of concepts. This starts to seem like that kind of a thing after a while. With Glenn Greenwald, there might be a financial motivation problem.

      • Bijan Parsia says:

        Well, and to misunderstand morality.

        the position of the presidency was so vastly important that it was worth suspending certain moral and ethical principles in order to elect the better candidate

        What’s the suspension argued for? It could, I guess, be a Thoreauian line:

        It is not a man’s duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practically his support. If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too. See what gross inconsistency is tolerated. I have heard some of my townsmen say, “I should like to have them order me out to help put down an insurrection of the slaves, or to march to Mexico; — see if I would go”; and yet these very men have each, directly by their allegiance, and so indirectly, at least, by their money, furnished a substitute. The soldier is applauded who refuses to serve in an unjust war by those who do not refuse to sustain the unjust government which makes the war; is applauded by those whose own act and authority he disregards and sets at naught; as if the state were penitent to that degree that it hired one to scourge it while it sinned, but not to that degree that it left off sinning for a moment. Thus, under the name of Order and Civil Government, we are all made at last to pay homage to and support our own meanness. After the first blush of sin comes its indifference; and from immoral it becomes, as it were, unmoral, and not quite unnecessary to that life which we have made.

        But if you believe in this sort of contagian then merely voting for some hopeless alternative is not enough to clean your hands. Or the famous exchange might have gone differently:

        Henry, what are you doing in there?

        Ralph, what are you doing out there!

        I voted Green, you git

        Really? Shit…really?

        For Jill Stien, no less!

        CRAP! Well post my fuckin’ bail already!

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Yes, among the other problems he doesn’t seem to grasp the the “moral” contribution made by withdrawing one’s support for Obama — even if we limit ourselves to considering the “life and death” issues deBoer arbitrarily considers important to the exclusion of the ones he doesn’t — is a net negative.

  2. Erik Loomis says:

    Don’t you understand that labor law, environmental regulations, and access to abortion don’t matter. Only drones.

    • wjts says:

      Speaking as a Principled Libertarian, I can assure you that Day One of the Romney Presidency would have seen an executive order recycling all UAVs in the US arsenal and their operating manuals into grow lights for medical marijuana farms and gay marriage licenses, respectively.

      • Speaking as a much-more-principled-than-you left-libertarian, that’s rubbish. Of course Romney would kill many, many more people with military aircraft than Obama.

        But my hands would be clean, and really, isn’t that the most important principle?

        • wjts says:

          No, the most important principle is that the military not use drones. In fact, it’s the only principle. Although it’s possible that Romney presidency would have utilized military force in a more aggressive fashion than Obama has, the hypothetical Hellfire missiles in questions would have been fired from Apache helicopters, not drones. This is a VERY important distinction, though one that is apparently lost on Obots who want Principled Libertarians like me to ignore the very real progress on dismantling the drone program that would have resulted under a Romney presidency in favor of illusory chimeras like LGBT equality, women’s rights, and other cocktail party inanities.

          • Anon21 says:

            You jest, but one gets the strong impression that opponents of targeted killing think that the mere fact that unmanned vehicles are being used is somehow a point in their favor. I can’t even begin to comprehend what their moral objection to remote control is, but I wonder if it extends to bitchin’ 1-foot-high monster trucks.

            • I think the focus you’re picking up on does is not the result of a belief that drones are worse, but is a side-effect of a rhetorical gambit.

              People arguing against the targeted killing of al Qaeda commanders have a very steep uphill climb. Drones are scary to the populace of the country that created the Terminator movies, so they hope to get a little traction for their argument by summoning up scary imagery.

            • Malaclypse says:

              I can’t even begin to comprehend what their moral objection to remote control is

              The objection is rooted in objections to all bombing and missile attacks. The idea is that by making it incredibly unlikely that our side will take casualties, it makes it more likely that we will resort to military action than we would if said action involved boots on the ground, while also making civilian casualties on the other side more likely.

              • Do you really think so?

                I find it impossible to believe that people who just saw the Iraq War happen actually believe that air strikes are more likely than boots onna ground to result in civilian casualties, or that the threat of casualties will ever be a serious restraint on our actions.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  Well, I think most of the civilian casualties in that case were caused by the post-invasion collapse into anarchy, rather than air strikes or boots on the ground. Iraq is such a clusterfuck that I think it makes a bad example to generalize from.

                  But yes, I think that if US military action carried with it the likelihood of mass US casualties, we would be a lot less likely to use force than we are when warfare can be done by cruise missiles. Honestly, would Clinton have done Kosovo if it meant books on the ground, and all the casualties that entails?

                • most of the civilian casualties in that case were caused by the post-invasion collapse into anarchy, rather than air strikes or boots on the ground.

                  Boots on the ground caused the anarchy, though. Limited air strikes can’t cause that kind of anarchy. That’s sort of the point – putting a big ol’ army somewhere produces significantly different effects than shooting a Hellfire missile at a car.

                  This point is a generalizable one, and it goes directly to the case against (and for, actually) missiles per se (as opposed to military action broadly).

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  I think that it might, to some degree, lower the felt costs of going to war and thus increase the probability of going to war.

                  I think that the combination of own casualty avoidance, very high tech and techno-braggery, plus Geneva conventions does tend to make the conflicts all around less costly. (Esp. if you compare with WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.)

                  I’d be wary to attribute too much to these sorts of stories. The factors that affect decision making in such an institutional culture are complex, eh?

                • A couple more variables to consider:

                  When American military personnel are put in harms way, they tend to expend a great deal of firepower to prevent themselves from being killed.

                  Look at Blackhawk Down. I’m not convinced that increasing the safety of the people who conduct military strikes is a net loss for the world’s civilians. It could very well be the opposite.

                • Bijan Parsia says:

                  When American military personnel are put in harms way, they tend to expend a great deal of firepower to prevent themselves from being killed.

                  Exactly.

                  Plus, casualties can trigger out of proportion reprisals.

                  I would love to see a worked out model of how (perceived) capabilities and threats to forces affect not just strategic and tactical thinking, but broader (and civilian) decision making. Albright’s line, not withstanding, I wouldn’t be surprised if the propensity to conduct wars is prior to the development of (our side or all side) casualty minimizing means.

              • Anon21 says:

                So the idea is that American soldiers (or airmen, I guess) should become sort of moral hostages to dissuade our leaders from undertaking military action? Sorry, I’m seriously not convinced. Drones increase discrimination, thereby decreasing civilian casualties on the ground, and they keep American service members from being put at risk. That’s a win on both fronts.

                • Malaclypse says:

                  So the idea is that American soldiers (or airmen, I guess) should become sort of moral hostages to dissuade our leaders from undertaking military action?

                  The idea that air warfare is problematic under Just War principles is not exactly unique to me.

                • Anon21 says:

                  I don’t have time to read that entire paper right now, but a quick skim of the intro indicates that they are not in any way arguing that putting the bombing nation’s soldiers’ lives at risk is somehow necessary (or even advisable) to pursuit of justice in war. They are arguing for proportionality. And drones are better able to discriminate between targets and nearby civilians than current manned flight technology.

                  I’m still not seeing any argument for the idea that making American soldiers’ lives hostage to the restraint of American policymakers’ militaristic urges is a good thing.

              • cpinva says:

                if i understand this correctly:

                The idea is that by making it incredibly unlikely that our side will take casualties, it makes it more likely that we will resort to military action than we would if said action involved boots on the ground, while also making civilian casualties on the other side more likely.

                the real argument is that, by using drones, and bombing from the sky, we aren’t playing war by the marquess of queensbury rules. could someone provide a cite (loomis, you listening?), when an actual war was ever fought, using the marquess of queensbury rules?

                while there have been (sort of) universally accepted “rules of war” (no killing unarmed civilians, no looting, no killing of POW’s, etc.), there has never been any universal proscription against taking an enemy by surprise, or using superior weaponry against an enemy, so as to reduce your own potential casualties, ever.

                to assert something as nonsensical as this tends to prove more that you’re kind of an idiot, then anything else.

              • The objection is rooted in objections to all bombing and missile attacks. The idea is that by making it incredibly unlikely that our side will take casualties, it makes it more likely that we will resort to military action than we would if said action involved boots on the ground, while also making civilian casualties on the other side more likely.

                The difference in casualties between a ground action and an air campaign is vast, and could well have that effect. However, the difference in American casualty risk between a ground campaign and an air campaign is vast, while the difference between a piloted air campaign and an pilotless air campaign is small. Whatever the merits of this argument, the effect is going to be attenuated by at least a couple orders of magnitude when we consider manned vs. unmanned aircraft.

              • rea says:

                The objection is rooted in objections to all bombing and missile attacks.

                Bows and arrows are the weapons of cowards . . .

                • rea says:

                  I mean, seeriously, should we have the heralds of both sides meet and arrange a mutually convenient time and place for the battle? Perhaps we could have champions duel with broadswords?

                  No this is not a damn game–it’s war, and war is not about a fair fight.

                  And if it isn’t war, then we shouldn’t do it at all. But whatever we do, don’t let us fight a half-assed war, out of some ridiculous concern for giving the other side a fair chance.

          • Scott Lemieux says:

            Yes, this is the key point. Sure, Romney’s invasion of Iran would kill far more people, but they wouldn’t be drone killings, so hardly worthy of consideration.

            • FlipYrWhig says:

              The whole thing is mindboggling rhetorical legerdemain. The real complaint is about excessive executive discretion over matters of life and death. That’s a valid point, and one that has potential remedies, albeit unsexy and bureaucratic.

              But in practice the way it tends to be made is with hyperbolic references to Flying Death Robots. And the moral issues don’t seem to me to be categorically different for drones than for any other projectile fired at a distant target.

              But if you start hashing out the issue along those lines, a funny thing happens where you can’t make much of a case about Obama’s unique evil, which deprives you of bragging rights among the illustrious cohort, The Few Principled People of Principle. (See also Greenwald, Glenn.)

    • Sly says:

      Don’t you understand that labor law, environmental regulations, and access to abortion don’t matter.

      Neither does the prospect of a more invasive and militarized policy against the people you purport to care about.

      But what do I know. I’m just a “Manichean monster” who wants fewer people to die.

  3. Re-stated in a more obviously obtuse form: “what difference does having a good GM make for a baseball team if he can’t convince the Angels to trade him Mike Trout for these two fringey Triple-A prospects I’m obsessed with?!>!>!>!?!?”

  4. SatanicPanic says:

    Freddie is really angling to be the new Glenn Greenwald.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Which of course would be a compliment I’m sure.

      • njorl says:

        Yes. For all the criticism I have for him, Glen Greenwald probably cares even more about civil rights than he does about his image of moral superiority – and that’s saying a lot.

        This Freddie bozo seems to be most interested in cultivating an image as a transparently dishonest moral scold.

        I guess he doesn’t see the hypocrisy in propagating obvious, insulting lies to further his “moral” arguments while condemning people for settling for a lesser evil.

        • John says:

          While I’ll accept, for the sake of argument at least, that Greenwald genuinely cares about civil liberties, I have a hard time believing that he cares about anything nearly as much as his image of moral superiority.

          • Anon21 says:

            Agreed. Greenwald’s a sanctimonious prick.

            • sanc·ti·mo·ni·ous (s ngk t -m n – s). adj. Feigning piety or righteousness

              I like to post this definition, because people leave out the “feigning” bit.

              I agree that Greenwald is sanctimonious. He’s just too comfortable with willfully misleading his readers for his carefully-cultivated image as the Last Honest Man to be real.

          • He didn’t seem to care about the civil rights of millions of Americans whose voting rights were in danger of being lost in 2012. And he’s barely said a peep about the shift (in the right direction) for gay marriage.

            Greenwald has spent too much time and energy on drones. That’s just my view.

          • FlipYrWhig says:

            Greenwald genuinely cares about civil liberties. He also cares, to an overwhelming degree, about being able to say that he _still_ cares, probably more, about civil liberties under a Democratic president. And that, he’s very quick to say any time he appears in a comments section, instantly proves him vastly more principled than a patsy like you. That way, if you don’t care in precisely his terms, you betray your nature as a gullible, self-satisfied lemming.

            But somehow if you support Citizens United on free speech grounds, you aren’t tainted by association with the wealthy power-brokers who support it on other grounds. You’re still brave and principled. Convenient, ain’t it?

  5. Murc says:

    This one here is the money quote:

    I understand that there is space to say “the presidency is very constrained, but the decisions the president makes are still very important.” But that space simply is not the space occupied by the people defending Obama during the election.

    Er… yes, it was! Not all people defending Obama during the election occupied that space, but plenty of people DID. Most of our hosts right here occupied that space. Charles Pierce! Freddie’s good buddy John Cole! Plenty of others.

    Freddie has at least reached the point of acknowledging there is a position somewhere between “preznit is king” and “preznit does nothing.” Now if he’d just accept that plenty of people actually believe that, it’d be REAL progress.

    I like Freddie. I think his heart is in the right place; he doesn’t seem, you know, genuinely evil, which elevates him above a surprising number of professional opinion makers. But good god, man. You’d think having been a Balloon Juice frontpager would have given him a thicker skin.

  6. herr doktor bimler says:

    it was worth suspending certain moral and ethical principles in order to elect the better candidate

    Not seeing the immorality in the argument that one should vote for the best electable candidate.

    • RedSquareBear says:

      But you see, in my highly idealized and green lanterned universe…

    • Cody says:

      You just don’t understand. By voting for Obama you’re legitimizing everything he does; therefore, you shouldn’t vote for him. Once he is no longer legitimate, we’ll elect a third-party candidate.

      Also, this has nothing to do with ‘clean hands’ because I said it doesn’t!

    • NonyNony says:

      Not seeing the immorality in the argument that one should vote for the best electable candidate.

      I wish you could talk to some of my meatspace friends who seem to think that a vote for anyone who will do anything you don’t approve of is morally equivalent approving of it. Or, in come cases, pulling the trigger yourself. The idea “lesser evil” has the emphasis on evil rather than lesser to them.

      They don’t vote. Or when they do vote, they vote solely for Quixotic candidates that they know will never win but who have the right message. They’re in their 40s and early 50s and they’ve voted this way all of their lives as far as I can tell.

    • herr doktor bimler says:

      I can see that voting for a less-electable candidate is just as valid, just as ethical. You are not buying a hugely increased visibility of that third option with your ballot, nor exerting much more pressure for a change in the voting system, but it’s not as if the ballot exerts a decisive effect if invested any other way.

  7. rea says:

    the moral stakes simply could not have been higher; what was in argument were issues of literal life and death, of our stance towards the killing of innocent people.

    Damn fool doesn’t seem to grasp that Romney wanted to kill far more people than Obama ever though of.

    • rea says:

      Also, “the latest absurd budget fracas between the chastened Republican rump and the Democratic party that they nevertheless dominate.

      Damn fool doesn’t seem to have noticed that Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Yes, but had a few liberal bloggers withdrawn their support for Obama the presidency would have gone by default to Bob Avakian, so.

      Also, I hardly think the House of Representatives has any real role in American lawmaking. And if Obama actually wanted to he could ram whatever he wanted right down their throats.

      • George Bush got Congress to endorse an AUMF against a Muslim country a few months after 9/11.

        Obviously, Scott, this astounding victory, the accomplishment of this most ambitious of goals in the face of such stout resistance, proves that any argument about there being limitations on a President’s powers is bogus.

      • Darkrose says:

        And if Obama actually wanted to he could ram whatever he wanted right down their throats.

        I’m fairly sure that’s what a number of Republicans in Congress are secretly fantasizing about.

    • “Damn fool doesn’t seem to grasp that Romney wanted to kill far more people than Obama ever though of.”

      Sadly, this seems to be the case.

  8. J.W. Hamner says:

    And, also, as far as I can tell no real as opposed to hypothetical liberal thinks that Obama has little power here, given that the expiration of the Bush tax cuts makes the defensive powers of the presidency more effectual than usual.

    Yes, we all know that the baseline for any deal is expiration of all the Bush tax cuts and then a passing of a middle class tax cut in the next Congress. If he goes for a “grand bargain” and comes out with something worse than that he got punked.

    -Signed an Obot

  9. S_noe says:

    Okay, digressing a bit, but did anyone else read Chait’s argument as: “raising Medicare age is bad, but less bad than you think for xyz reasons – and, if Obama has to give something up, this is the hill to abandon?”
    That’s how I saw it, and it doesn’t make him a monster or leotard if that’s what he was saying.
    (I tend to be charitable, though.)
    (I did read digby’s cites, and they all kind of fall in the same category. Basically, Chait is an asshole on the side of the angels, if you ask me. Call him out when he’s wrong, but don’t write his arguments off as centrist bullshit.)

  10. FlipYrWhig says:

    Isn’t Freddie de Boer a professor of rhetoric? Yet time and again his arguments display either willful obtuseness or willful misrepresentation. That’s either an utter negation of his field or a perverse validation of it.

  11. Cheap Jim says:

    I remember this guy. He’s the guy who said he wouldn’t vote for Obama, less than a year before the election, yet had no alternative candidate.

    Well, I hope he’s started looking for one by now, because 2016 is right around the corner, and de Boer has a long list of qualifications to satisfy.

  12. 4jkb4ia says:

    I suppose that given where Freddie has chosen to post, he is not amenable to the argument that what was at stake at the election was not one evil vs. another but evil vs. crazy.

    • 4jkb4ia says:

      That’s what Peak Wingnut is–that there is a finite amount of crazy in the world.

      The way I got around Freddie’s point was by twisting “In a democratic society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” You’re responsible whether you voted for Obama or not.

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