The last eight years have seen the political left, from the loony moveon.org fringe to Democrat Congressional leaders, engage in destructive juvenile invective and surreal fantasy rather than in the sort of useful political criticism the Founders had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. In the next four years, conservatives will have an opportunity to show the country how adults do dissent: offering criticism based on philosophical coherence, an awareness of the lessons of history, and a respect for the world as it is rather than the world of our fantasies.
The attacks on President Bush and his policies were striking in their childish ignorance. The slogan “No blood for oil,” for example, was remarkable in its disconnect from the real-world functioning of oil markets and the mechanism of supply and demand. And even if the left had been right about oil being the prime mover of the war in Iraq, such an idea collapses before the scrutiny of mere common sense. For if insuring a supply of cheap gas for greedy Americans and their SUV’s had been the President’s aim, then cutting a deal with Hussein that relaxed the sanctions in exchange for access to oil––what France and Russia were trying to do––would have been fiscally and politically cheaper than going to war.
Indeed, sheer ignorance, as much as willful distortion of fact, typically laced the assaults on the President. And this is the key to our current political predicament: the failure of the educational system for the last forty years has finally produced a critical mass of voting-age adults who lack a basic knowledge of history and the principles of coherent thought, at the same time that their self-esteem has been inflated and stroked into blind arrogance. Hence the typical tone of the leftist commentariat: a self-righteous moral bluster accompanied by a lack of rudimentary facts and the basics of sound argument.
Even worse consequences follow. As Socrates taught long ago, in the absence of knowledge, unexamined opinion will dominate people’s thinking. They will then believe to be true not what they know to be true based on evidence and coherent argument, but what they believe to be true, the ideas that they have picked up from their environment––these days teachers, blogs, television, movies, cable news, etc. These opinions are then held and repeated not because they are true or coherent or even arguable, but because they gratify the person’s self-image by fitting in with his lifestyle or peer group, and flatter his belief that he is better than everybody else.
The consumption of such prefabricated opinions accounts for the astonishingly banal orthodoxy of most leftist political ideas. Liberal-leftist clichés about evil corporations and their Republican minions––those old, repressed white men secretly plotting in a “vast, right-wing conspiracy” to rule the world, plunder its resources, and enslave the Third World “other”–– are indulged and repeated without any awareness that most of these hoary stereotypes are getting on two centuries old and have been discredited by the facts of history. Worse yet, when these clichés appear in popular movies or the commentary of television pundits, the liberal establishment treats them as daring dissent and sophisticated analysis.
Two clichés of such received wisdom repeatedly lurked behind the leftist commentary of the last eight years––Vietnam and Watergate. Vietnam provided for leftists the model of the unjust war prosecuted to serve corporate interests and camouflaged by lies that preyed upon the national security anxiety of simple-minded Americans. Hence this mythic scenario––false to the facts of Vietnam, by the way––rather than reality lay behind all the “scandals” peddled by the left and the media for the last eight years. The “doctored” intelligence about Hussein’s WMD’s, the mantra “Bush lied,” the “outing” of Valerie Plame, the “profiling” of innocent Muslim dissenters, the “illegal wiretaps” and “shredded Constitution” of ACLU fantasy, the “torture” of suspects in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib––this litany of Bush’s “abuses” began in the liberal-left fairy-tales of Vietnam and Watergate, a pleasing narrative eagerly consumed by those ignorant of fact but anxious to display their moral superiority to all those bourgeois rubes who actually believe America is a force for good in the world and hence worthy of loyalty and spirited defense.
I hope that we will see something different from conservatives in the coming years, and that they demonstrate why they are the party of ideas and thought rather than of clichés and received wisdom. Most conservatives know that politics is not about policy technique, but about the philosophy underlying policy. They know that a quirky, unpredictable human nature is a constant, visible in the record of history, which provides the parameters of what is possible for such flawed creatures and their aspirations. They know that utopia is indeed “nowhere,” that perfection is not in the cards, that every good has a tragic price, and part of being an adult is being willing to pay that price. Conservatives thus will challenge the new administration’s policies on the bases of philosophy and history, rather than on the delusions of children petulant over a world that doesn’t answer their desire.