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What Was That! September 5, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts.

The short answer: It was the Republican National Convention.


The longer answer:


It was a convention that tried to sell a Republican who almost always votes with George W. Bush as an agent of change.


It was a convention that tried to sell a Senator with an entirely conventional and predictable voting record, who has been in Washington for 26 years, as an outsider bent on reform.


It was a convention that tried to sell a war-monger as a peace-maker.


It was a convention that tried to sell a failed pilot with an entirely ordinary will to survive as some sort of war hero/saint whose mere presence will vanquish threats to the American way of life.


It was a convention that tried to sell a fire-breathing conservative nutjob as a “soccer mom” and feminista besieged by a sexist liberal media


It was a convention that tried to sell a neophyte governor, 18 months ago a mayor of a village, as someone with vast foreign policy acumen.


It was a convention that tried to sell the selection of a vicious, ignorant yahoo, unvetted and unknown, to be a candidate for Vice President—so lacking in her grasp of the issues that she must be hidden from the media lest she step on her scripted talking points—as a responsible decision that puts the country first.


We now are a few votes away from having a war-monger with a bad temper and a cretin who buys all of the delusions of the religious right as leaders of the free-world—this after eight years of evidence that delusional war-mongers make really bad Presidents.


Shame and dread are the only possible responses.


George Orwell famously described the ability of totalitarian power to convince people that “war is peace”, “freedom is slavery” and “ignorance is strength”. We saw that ability on display this week.


A few years ago when Bush was at the height of his power, and fashioning his own version of the Imperial Presidency, it was fashionable in some districts of the blogosphere to warn that American fascism was at the end of this road. After witnessing the goings-on in St. Paul, Minnesota this week, it is evident we are still heading down that road.



1. Moriae - September 6, 2008

My, My, caffeine will be the death of you. On a more decaffeinated point, who’s been a Washington insider longer, Biden or McCain? I think we know quite well that the interests of the Washington establishment are always at the forefront of either of the parties machinations. Deeply favoring one candidate or loathing.another sufficiently to elicit vitriol is a sign of the Washington political process working efficiently. This site has been consistent in not letting passions play a merely ancillary role is persuading others. It may be human to error, but is seems more human to error with both feet eagerly and call our opponents names.

2. Huan - September 8, 2008

On the topic of the movie, I haven’t seen them, but I’d imagine theres a central command for the aliens that is driven by something akin to emotion isn’t there?

3. Huan - September 9, 2008

Ops wrong topic!

4. Dwight Furrow - September 9, 2008


“…who’s been a Washington insider longer, Biden or McCain?”

Probably Biden. But then Biden is not selling himself as an outsider, which was the point of my post.

“Deeply favoring one candidate or loathing another sufficiently to elicit vitriol is a sign of the Washington political process working efficiently.”

I think you have this backwards. The assumption that both parties are working towards the same goal, and that there is some neutral, bi-partisan, rational consensus available that can govern effectively is a sign of the traditional, liberal Washington political process that has lost so many elections and has failed to hold back the more passionate, more frankly partisan conservative movement that is ripping this country to shreds.

5. Moriae - September 12, 2008

“But then Biden is not selling himself as an outsider, which was the point of my post.”

Had this really been the point of your post, we must have here a “failure to communicate.” I would have thought there would be sufficient dispassionate evidence to share with people who read these posts that might actually lend itself to actual persuasion for that point. For the 14 small paragraphs you posted I wouldn’t have guessed for second that your vehemence had that aim. Yet the persistent reliance on zeal and passionate rhetoric in this blog to demean views rather than explore them seems to me much more remindful of the pages of Der Völkische Beobachter or Der Stürmer. Haven’t we learned a thing? I suppose it is true as Hegel insisted that ‘the only thing people learn from history is that they learn nothing from history.’ Passion does not improve views, and neither is its presence pretty. You see, passion merely begets passion and pretty soon its the blood of innocent others that are spilled to prove the sincerity of one’s passion.

I’ve always preferred the approach of a former colleague of mine when he wrote (in an essay in Eminent Economists, p.47), that “I consider it essential to honesty to look for the best arguments against a position that one is holding. Commitments should always have a tentative quality.”

This isn’t a quality easily found in our youthful students and hence I cringe when I see it in adults who should know better. Passion is a sensation closer to the tastes of young adults because the fruits of reason seldom prove their superiority quickly. Impatience gets people killed. I think that’s what prompted George Stigler to remark, “My lifetime as an observer of young adults in college convinces me that a modest knowledge is all that is needed for, or possibly compatible with, strong political views.”

In a sense I can see how many people from many departments in a college or university can have strong political views. In too many occupations to count worldwide, the ‘proper foundation’ for making choices, persuading others, and the circumspection needed prior to acting passionately on sincere personal views has always been sadly lacking. That probably can’t be changed. Yet I had always believed that philosophy would be the last bastion of sanity against the ever burgeoning sea of barbarous appeals to the inhuman treatment of others (by word or deed). I’m repeatedly chagrined to read what I do in these posts here, and because of that I get very circumspect in responding to what seems to me to be consistently ‘over-the-top’ views. Can’t we rely on even philosophers to keep their feet out of the mud of the common canaille anymore? Can’t we be above the Hanitys’ and Olbermanns’ of the world? For a philosopher (who, it was my hope, cannot be a member of the canaille by definition) to allow passion to grip his wits makes my hopes for a bright future seem gloomy indeed.

As Saint Bernard opined: “Zeal without knowledge is always less useful and effective than regulated zeal, and very often it is highly dangerous.”

6. Dwight Furrow - September 13, 2008


A failure to communicate indeed. This post is neither philosophy nor political philosophy which is why I tagged it “current events.” It was intended to be political commentary.

My (I would think rather obvious) point was that the Republican campaign is trying to sell the public a pig-in-a-poke (with lipstick) by convincing us that up is down and left is right. As with all blog posts (since they must be brief) I assume the reader is familiar with many of the facts that support the thesis. Among those facts are that McCain had been a Senator for 26 years, that his recent voting record in the Senate has supported GWB over 90% of the time, that McCain was shot down and imprisoned by the North Vietnamese, and this fact is being used as support for his character, that his policy statements regarding the use of military force are more hawkish that even those of Bush, that Palin holds very conservative views, has a thin resume, etc. If you are unaware of these facts, I apologize for not making you aware of them. But time is short, and as do all writers, I make assumptions about the background understanding of my audience. I assume that people who read political commentary have a some awareness of political events.

Although this is political commentary, there is a philosophical context for it. Plato, especially in the Cratylus but throughout his oeuvre, argues that the essence of the pursuit of the truth is to call things by their correct names. It is a distinctly philosophical task to point out the subterfuge of misnaming when it occurs. And surely Socrates was no dispassionate pedant when it came to defending Athens from sophistry. Orwell, of course, is drawing on this tradition when he links misnaming and sophistry to totalitarianism.

Before you get your dander up, I am not comparing myself to Plato, Socrates, or Orwell, and a blog post is no Socratic conversation. But there is nothing non-philosophical about calling a lie a lie. One cannot “explore” a view that is based on nothing but obfuscation. I, too, would like this election to be about competing policy proposals. But as I have pointed out in a variety of recent posts, the Republican Party cares little about policy analysis or governance. It seeks to make elections about moral identity–liberals must recognize that as the terrain on which the battle is fought.

As to my rhetoric being “over the top”, I can assure you it is not merely an attempt to be inflammatory. Neither is it a knee-jerk response expressing ill-informed political preferences. After many years of studying the competing political ideologies in this country, I have come to the conclusion that conservatism is destroying American values–a claim which I defend in a forthcoming book. Given the nature of blogging, and time constraints, the argument comes out in dribs and drabs on this blog but as events proceed, more of the argument will appear.

You write that: “I’ve always preferred the approach of a former colleague of mine when he wrote (in an essay in Eminent Economists, p.47), that “I consider it essential to honesty to look for the best arguments against a position that one is holding. Commitments should always have a tentative quality.”

I too agree that “commitments must have a tentative quality” if we mean by that an openness to new evidence. But that has little to do with whether the commitments are indeed commitments, i.e. objects of care to which one is devoted. And critical thinking does not entail that one suffer fools gladly. Some ideas are worthy of contempt.

Since you don’t raise objections to any particular claim I make in this post, I don’t know if your ire is provoked by simple disagreement about political ideology. But you do object to the tone. I suspect that you and I have a fundamental disagreement about the role of emotion in reasoning in general and moral/political discourse in particular. For a variety of philosophical reasons, I don’t think that moral or political views are ever held dispassionately and should not be. But because this is an interesting philosophical issue in itself, I will shortly devote a blog post to the issue.

7. Moriae - September 14, 2008

Oh, I never get my dander up, nor was my ire provoked, especially over something as limited as a blog. I didn’t take issue with your points merely because of such limitations. It’s endlessly tedious and simply provokes even more unfruitful misunderstandings. Your own remarks on its limits I fully understand and grant you always, whenever I comment here or not. That’s only being fair to you. One cannot expect tomes to be inserted here, although Mr. Kuttnauer gave it a shot.

But your response drifts again from your stated point.

“…who’s been a Washington insider longer, Biden or McCain?”

Probably Biden. But then Biden is not selling himself as an outsider, which was the point of my post.

I see no effort to even mention Biden. A suggested contrast should bring both up and show their relative merits, or demerits. But that really doesn’t matter either.

It’s the rank and blatant hostility that draws my attention, not the matter of it all. Many people cover your very same points and do so without invective. I quite often find their remarks compelling too. But I see nothing to be gained by having good points adorned with a caustic appllique. In a shouting match it is the loudest that prevail, not the right ones. We also know that if noise doesn’t achieve the desired results, then gunfire often isn’t far behind.

For the facts you state to have any meaning for me they must be placed within a context (without the hostility) that gives them the needed weight to be persuasive. In their absence they are meaningless statistics. If you’ve been to Congress, you’d be surprised how few times the Senate actually votes. They generally as a rule refuse to vote unless they are fairly sure of a bill’s passage, or short of that, the chance to embarass the other party over the failure to suceed becomes option #2.

Your 90% figure leaves out the crucial context that might also be interesting, besides making your point. Such as, considering this 90% figure (which I’ll accept on faith–part of my faith-based ethic), how many times did that also include Democrats? Which ones? Are you including the votes on the yearly budget that also include most of the Democrats as well? If they are excluded which ones are left? Are we talking about three hundred votes over eight years, or thirty? How many times did Obama vote with McCain? How many with Kennedy, or Kerry, or Schumer, or Biden? The fact that Biden and McCain are so close, how many times did they share a vote for the same thing? I have a funny feeling they shared more votes than you’d care to mention on this blog, or how else would such a cordial friendship continue if so many potentially contentious issues were laying in wait to divide them? Considering the paucity of actual votes in the Senate (it is a ‘do-nothing’ Congress, right?), any shared votes would undermine the value of your point. Without these figures, attempting to get a grip, or make rational sense of your 90% figure is nearly impossible.

But it isn’t the politics that bothers me–they can hardly be changed, being so sclerous now. I’m never surprised at the smell of a sewer. It meets my expectations perfectly. But it is philosophy’s soul that bothers me.

I simply marvel at the face of certainty. A priorism sure has its fans, and the taste of certainty sure brings out its appeal. I’ve never really had that pleasure, and I see a hundred objections to nearly any point held sincerely by many throughout the world.

I won’t contend your points, although it is tempting. Unlike Wilde I can resist those. I suppose, in the guise of Moriae at least, all I can say is that it’s encouraging to see how quickly and eagerly philosophy can chose to revoke its conscience, and remain sanguine about it to boot.

8. Dwight Furrow - September 16, 2008


It is so generous to give with one hand and take away with the other. You acknowledge a blog post is not a tome and then berate me for not providing you with an exhaustive analysis of voting patterns in the Senate. But since you asked, here are studies of voting records of McCain, Obama, and Biden: http://www.factcheck.org/askfactcheck/is_it_true_john_mccain_voted_with.html


Long story short, the charge that McCain voted with Bush over 90% of the time is confirmed. Obama’s figure was 40%. McCain voted with his party 96% on close votes; Biden voted with his party 88%.

As you can see, your implicit hypothesis that a Biden or Obama is just a McCain falls a little short of demonstration.

More importantly, your charge of apriorism is just bunk. My views on politics are formed by many years of watching a twisted moral philosophy gain power in this country. It is hard to find an American institution or practice that is not teetering on a precipice; it is equally hard to find a substantial challenge that is being met with intelligence and foresight. The best explanation of those failures is a “philosophy” that thinks willful ignorance, the projection of military force, and greed is the answer to every problem—namely modern conservatism (which is to be distinguished from its earlier incarnations). My views are not deduced from axioms; they are grounded in observations and explanations.

In the face of this situation, you seem to think that expressions of moral outrage (which you call “invective”) are inappropriate. To the contrary, moral outrage is a rational response to a situation that in my judgment is dire. To be sure, it cannot replace critical analysis, but it supplements and motivates critical analysis if it describes a situation accurately. Consider two people witnessing a rape. One describes it as two people having sex, one who appears to be resisting. The other describes it as a vicious thug attacking a woman and an outrageous violation of her autonomy. Only the latter description gets it right, and that description is essential to understanding what is happening, mutatis mutandi regarding our political situation.

As to the mechanisms of persuasion, there is ample evidence (research by Haidt, Westin, Lakoff, and others) that political persuasion does not occur through the patient promulgation of facts or the giving of reasons. Emotional appeals are essential because they shift the background of value commitments that determine how facts and reasons are processed and understood. This is a lesson that conservatives know well, and to which some liberals are catching on. As a philosopher I regret this conclusion—but there it is.

As to your references to violence—please. My understanding of history may be deficient but philosophers hurling invective is not a frequent cause of warfare. If you want to discover the origin of violence you might better look to abuses of power of a sort that conservatives have elevated to a form of art.

9. cato on the greens - September 17, 2008

“And I can see Russia from my HOUUZE!”

10. Dan - September 21, 2008

I’m baffled at how you criticize Governor Palin for “lack of experience,” yet you fail to shine that same light on Senator Obama.

11. Dwight Furrow - September 23, 2008

You shouldn’t be baffled. There is no issue with Obama’s experience compared to Palin. Obama has 8 years of statewide experience (in the Illinois legislature) and nearly 4 years in the U.S. Senate, including membership on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Palin has been governor only 2 years. Moreover, Obama has been campaigning on the national stage for 18 months under intense media and public scrutiny, including a bruising primary fight, and has developed thorough and thoughtful policy options on most of the issues that our nation confronts. Palin is a newcomer to national politics who has to be hidden from the public and media lest her lack of experience becomes evident. In terms of number of years in state or national public, elective office Obama has more than Carter, Reagan, or George W. Bush; in fact more than Lincoln and almost as much as Kennedy.

Experience in itself is of no value–it is only valuable as an indicator of skill, knowledge, and capacity for judgment acquired through experience. In the absence of knowledge of a person’s skills and knowledge, we often use experience as a rough guide to what a person can do because we assume he/she has gained them from experience. We expect experienced politicians to have vision, the political skills to articulate and implement their vision, an understanding of the nuts and bolts of domestic and foreign policy, and the judgment to deal with complex and sometimes novel situations. Obama has demonstrated all of these–Palin has not. Even setting aside her bizarre views and questionable character, there simply is no comparison on the issue of experience.

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