Tuesday, November 21, 2006

On Voltaire and Dick Armey

On this, Voltaire's birthday, let me ask again... Is it still attacking a strawman if the other side insists on making themselves into strawmen?

Friday on All Things Considered, prominent Republicans were asked about the path forward after the thumping in the midterm election. One of those interviewed was former House majority leader Dick Armey who was parroting the now standard line that the voters were reacting to corruption and Iraq, but still back the conservative agenda. When asked about Social Security privatization and the whacking the Bush administration took for pushing that conservative wet dream, Armey argued that Bush's failing was not in the position, but in his approach -- starting a national dialogue. He said, in a condescending tone:

"Dialogues are what Democrats do, not what Republicans do. Only liberals think that if you've had a dialogue about something, you've done something."
If we pick up on George Lakoff's metaphor of the Democrats as the mommy party and Republicans as the daddy party, Armey is saying that Bush's failure was not that in making a major decision about family finances, daddy treated mommy like an adult and sat down to talk with her about the issue. What he should have done as the pants wearing member of the household was to tell the bitch to shut up and get him a beer and, oh, by the way, I'm privatizing Social Security. Armey's lesson is that if you don't act like the man of the house, you lose the House.

When we heard this, TheWife turned to me (once I was finished ranting) and said that the amazing thing was not that he believes it, or that he said it. What is astonishing is that he doesn't know enough to be embarrassed about having said it. But then again, I'm a liberal and according to Dick Armey in a speech a few years back,
Liberals "are just not bright people. They don't think deeply. They don't comprehend. They don't understand."
Yes, I am a liberal. Yes, I think that you have done something when you have had a dialogue IF that dialogue has been one that is passionate, smart, and approached by both sides in good faith. We need what I have previously called "civil fucking discourse" -- it is civil in allowing every voice a seat at the table, but it is uncivil in subjecting all views to the most rigorous critical scrutiny and outright rejecting those that fail to meet rational muster.

Of course, this notion is nowhere near novel. It dates back to ancient Greece and was the central concept underlying the Enlightenment that Voltaire loved so much. Perhaps Dick Armey is correct and I am not a bright person, I don't think deeply, comprehend, or understand much. But I can read and have always enjoyed the wit and intelligence of Voltaire who does seem to be a bright person who thought deeply, perhaps -- and this is a bit of a stretch, I know -- maybe almost as deeply as Dick Armey.

Civil fucking discourse is not only "doing something," it is essential to doing things right. I agree with Aspazia that rational processes absent empathy can be dangerous, but while they may not be sufficient, they are necessary. What Armey may be confusing is understanding with intellectual humility. Those who believe in dialogue do so for the simple reason that they understand that they might be wrong. They don't think they are, but understand that they might be and so seek to test out their ideas against the strongest objections that can be leveled against them. Like a belt holding boxer who refuses to take on legitimate challengers in defense of his title, the only people who run from dialogue are those who are afraid they will lose.

Someone needs to explain to these people that leadership does not mean being a bully. If you coerce people into doing your bidding, that does not make you a strong leader; it makes you an asshole. Real leadership is having the fortitude and concern to consider the options in good faith and wanting to do right not just win the argument.

Happy birthday Voltaire. Well, back to the garden.