Thursday, July 08, 2004

Knee-Jerk Oppositionalism

Political discourse is unavoidably polemical. The zoon politikon must needs be a zoon polemikon. ‘Polemical’ is from the Greek polemos, war, strife. According to Heraclitus the Obscure of Ephesus, strife is the father of all: polemos panton men pater esti... (Fr. 53) Politics is polemical because it is a form of warfare: the point is to defeat the opponent and remove him from power, whether or not one can rationally persuade him of what one takes to be the truth. It is practical rather than theoretical in that the aim is to implement the truth rather than contemplate it. Implementation, however, requires that one get one’s hands on the levers of power. Von Clausewitz held that war is politics pursued by other means. But what I will call the converse-Clausewitz principle holds equally: politics is war pursued by other means.

That being understood, we ought nevertheless to avoid knee-jerk oppositionalism in our polemics. We should make our polemics as philosophical as possible. Confronted with a thesis, the knee-jerk oppositionalist merely asserts the contradictory. Better is a concessive move whereby one defuses the opponent’s thesis and shifts the debate onto ground more favorable to oneself. Herewith, four examples.

1. Liberal: “Bush is stupid!” Conservative: “No he’s not!” Here it is the conservative who plays the part of the knee-jerk oppositionalist. He should just concede that Bush lacks the sort of verbal intelligence that we intellectual types prize. But although Dubya cannot rub a subject and a verb together and come up with a sentence, he has attributes more important for a CEO, namely, courage, resoluteness, and moral clarity. Like Reagan, he sends the right signals to the bad guys: Don’t mess with the USA. Jimmy Carter, for all his excellence as sunday school teacher, sends the wrong signal: you may do as you like while I scruple, hand-wring, and vacillate.

2. Jesse Ventura: “Religion is for the weak!” Religionist: “No it’s not!” Such knee-jerk opposition avails nothing. Ventura is in fact right. What Ventura doesn’t appreciate, however, is that we are all weak. The correct response to Jesse the Body is not one of diametrical opposition but one of ju-jitsu-like concession. We are all weak relative to a standard of true strength. We are weak in body, in mind, in will. We vacillate in our affections. A body that can lose its strength in a split-second due to a brain aneurysm, say, is only relatively, contingently, and temporarily strong. Such strength is nothing to brag about. Or is Ventura’s strength so awesome that it is proof against every contingency? Can he maintain it indefinitely? Is he causa sui? If not, then why is he so proud of his prowess? The great religions teach the simple truth about our weak and indigent condition. (Whether these religions provide a genuine solution to it is another question.) The proper counter to Ventura is to point out to him that the sense in which he thinks
that religious people are weak is not the sense in which they know that we are all weak. Religion is not a projection of the merely contingent weakness of some of us, but a sober recognition of the necessary weakness of all of us. Religion doesn’t exist to make good the deficiencies that we can and must make good by our own efforts, but to ameliorate the deep-going deficiencies that none of us can ameliorate individually or collectively.

3. Conservative: “Political Correctness exists.” Liberal: “No it doesn’t.” Here it is the liberal who goes into boneheaded opposition. What chutzpah to deny what self-evidently exists! One may as well deny the existence of conservative talk show hosts. The liberal would be better advised to take the concessive tack and say, yes, there is PC, but conservatives have their brand of PC too. This is response is ultimately no good, but at least it doesn’t earn the liberal the label of contrarian reality-denier.

4. Conservative: “The elite media outlets tilt toward the Left.” Liberal: “No they don’t!” A better strategy for liberals would be to say, “Yes, but we like it that way.” Or: “The elite outlets don’t tilt far enough to the Left for our taste.” Or: “Yes, but you conservatives have your own somewhat less than elite outlets, and some of them are threatening to become elite.”