Friday, May 19, 2006

Ramesh Ponnuru is an Asshole (in the technical sense of the word--personally, he's most likely a nice fellow, never met him so I can't really say)

Jon Stewart's interview last night with Ramesh Ponnuru, National Review editor and author of Party of Death, was magnificent. One of the points he so wonderfully put forward is that anyone using hyperbolic rhetoric and claiming that difficult moral questions are straightforwardly solved is failing to be a responsible contributor to our contemporary moral discourse.

Ponnuru seems like a smart enough fellow, but he is emblematic of exactly what is wrong with our current discussions of ethical issues, namely, no one is talking about ethical issues. The people who claim to be talking about ethics are not really talking about ethics -- they are either politicians or political operatives pretending to talk about ethics while actually pushing political agendas or just pushing hot buttons to drive single-issue voters (read, suckers) to the polls, or they are religious right televangelists who are pushing political agendas or just pushing hot buttons to drive viewers (read, suckers) to send in contributions. Nobody is really talking about morality for all of their huff and puff about "morality."

The fact is the hard moral questions out there require serious, thoughtful, but passionate discussion. The hard questions do not have easy solutions for a simple reason, they are hard. Anyone, like Ponnuru, who tries to build a strawman out of those who hold a different view and then claim that there is no real difficulty with these issues, that their answer is clear, obvious, and indisputable, is not only a fool, but undermining our society as a whole. We need real dialogue, not posturing. I understand that the man is trying to sell books and that there is a huge market among right-wingers for simple-minded demonization of anything associated with the left. But, gosh darn it, we need an authentic right willing to engage in fair discussion.

The problem is that there are only two models of ethical argumentation that get put forward today. One is the "I'm right and you're evil" model. We all know the sort who think that the only purpose served by discussing morality is to convert you to their way of thinking. Any ethical issue must be spoken of in an incredibly condescending, arrogant, self-righteous tone because this person is not engaging in open-minded discussion, he is bringing the truth to the rest of us mere mortals. The technical term for these people is "asshole."

On the other side are the subjectivists. These are the one's who think that there's your morality, and my morality, and Soupy Sales' morality. Everyone's entitled to his own opinion, so what is there to talk about? If Stalin really believed that mass murder was morally good, then it was for Stalin. With these buffoons, moral discussion consists of simply repeating the phrase "who's to say" over and over until you punch them in the mouth.

The motivation behind this move is a good one -- it comes from a good place, the desire not to be an asshole. They see the obnoxious jerks spouting a closed-minded absolutism and knowing that is wrong, make the mistake of going all the over to the other extreme. It is done in the name of tolerance. But actually, it is not at all tolerant. Tolerance means everybody having a fair chance to be part of the conversation. What this sort of relativism does is make it so that there is no conversation. I don't need to listen to you because my morality is whatever I think it is. If you disagree with me, talk to the ethical hand. We are all in our own little moral bubbles with nothing to think about. There is no sense in listening to you because by definition whatever I think is right, is right for me. I can't be wrong about it, so why bother thinking deeply? This justifies closed-mindedness, not authentic conversation.

What Stewart was plaintively calling for last night was open-minded, but passionate legitimate discussion. He was saying to Ponnuru, "Look, be passionate. Put forward strong arguments. Believe in your view. But understand and acknowledge the complexity of the issue and approach the views on the other side charitably. Take on the left, please. But take on the real left, not some strawman designed to look vaguely leftesque" The problem that he was pointing out was not that the view was conservative or flawed in any specific way, but that, by Stewart's reading of his book, Ponnuru was being an asshole -- in the technical sense. He is a smart fellow who had a real opportunity to help create a legitimate discussion about hard issues. He could have played it fair and not only sold books, but actually helped to carve out a space for real, passionate, hard-core, full-contact ethical discourse. Instead, like a champion boxer who refuses to face real challengers for the belt, he wimped out.

The saddest part of the whole thing, as usual, is that a comedian is going to be the only one out there in the media wilderness making this point.