I think a useful thing for someone to do at some point would be to compile – in book format, I guess – a handy list of all those contradictions you’re in danger of espousing if you don’t properly contextualize your political points of view. To cite a gratuitous example: latte leftists who are all about marriage rights for gays regard as outragous the idea that there could be marriage rights for polygamists. Or another: feminists who make a touchstone out of spousal rape on the grounds that a woman owns her own body even after marriage are unwilling to extend the same ownership rights to unmarried prostitutes. Or Republicans who complain about the tax burden but don’t mind deficits. It isn’t that I think these positions can’t be reconciled with an appropriate amount of logical contortion – it’s that the slogans these groups use simply don’t fit. If your support for gay marriage amounts to “love shouldn’t be political,” then you end up having to say that a polygamist union can never be loving to stay consistent, and that’s an unenviable position to try to defend. And if your argument that husbands cannot take advantage of their wives hinges on “my body my rights,” then you’re kinda stuck when a woman is willing to sell use of the body that you unambiguosly just said was hers. And if you oppose tax hikes on economic grounds, it does look rather Keynesian of you to then sit on your hands about the budget deficit.
Anyway, I’m thinking about this because Matt Yglesias has a fun post on the Arab-Israeli conflicts, basically calling out people like Jeffrey Goldberg for reducing every question about Israel to “b-but if only the Palestinians had accepted the 1948 settlement everything would be peachy now!” Here’s Yglesias with an ace dissection:
It does today seem like if you could go back in time and persuade the Arabs to accept the original UN partition plan, that contemporary Palestinians would be much better off. But what’s the cash value of this with regard to a humanitarian crisis in the contemporary Gaza Strip? And of course once you’re just constructing pure counterfactuals, all kinds of ways to postulate a better outcome become plausible.
Right. Absolutely right. But I wonder how this position sits with someone who on a typical day spends about a third of his column space calling Republicans racist for not supporting affirmative action? Here’s my thinking: the Palestinian leadership undoubtedly made a mistake in the 40s not accepting the partition plan, and Yglesias seems to want to say “so what? People make mistakes, and there’s no reason why dumb decisions made in 1948 should be paid for so heavily by the now-deceased decisionmakers’ descendants.” Well, sure, but if that’s your take, and the statute of limitations on bad political decisions runs out over a 60-year timespan, then surely it’s run out for white people on civil rights as well? Granted that a lot of opposition to the Civil Rights Bill of 1965 was driven by racism, what about that suggests that white people in general continue to be racist today, such that it would be OK to penalize poor whites for being white in the way that affirmative action policies always do? Because it sure isn’t the children of connected rich whites who have to worry about being passed over for jobs so that black people can have them instead.
Again, I’m not saying Yglesias can’t reconcile these positions, I’m just saying that it would help him be more consistent if there were a helpful list of reminders for political commentators on potential points of inconsistency. It would say things like “if the government is required to issue marriage licenses to all people who claim to be in love, then this will include polygamists. Either have a cogent response for this, or think of another flagship argument for official gay marriage.” It would say things like “if people own their bodies, then they are allowed to sell sexual favors just as readily as they are allowed to sell manual labor services. Either come up with a cogent qualification on legal prostitution, or stop claiming that you believe in self ownership.” It would say things like “if current taxes are a burden on the economy now, then future taxes will be a burden on the economy in the future. Either acknowledge this and justify defering the tax burden, or drop the pretense that you’re opposing tax hikes for economic reasons.”
And yes, it would also say things like “if decisions that leaders made decades ago are inadmissible as evidence of the kinds of decisions we expect their descendants to make today, then this is just as true of whites in America as it is of Arabs in Palestine.” And Yglesias would then be obligated to explain is support of affirmative action on more solid grounds than “some bad stuff happened generations ago.”
Because politics, ultimately, is a Humanities subject. And one cliche about Humanities subjects that I think is misstated is that there are no wrong answers. Actually, I would prefer if people said there are no RIGHT answers, or at least that there is no answer that is unambiguously right to the exclusion of all others. Because in fact there is no shortage of wrong answers in humanities subjects. It is always possible to analyze a book wrong, or come up with a philosophical argument that’s just plain fallacious, or spin a reading of history such that it gets the facts right but interprets them in a completely self-serving and misleading way. There are wrong answers in humanities – very definitely so. The issue is distinguishing the best among the “not wrong” answers – that’s the rub, and it is from this, rather than the supposed lack of wrong answers, that accounts for the Humanities’ reputations as being “open-ended” subjects. So education on how to reason over literary pursuits, it seems to me, should really recalibrate – take an approach more like that of medicine, i.e. take “do no harm” as a starting point. And so in line with that, we could do worse than start by reviewing a list of known mistakes and discussing how to avoid them.