You Had Them At Weaken
December 22, 2010, 2:01 pm
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I saw a leftist commentator (don’t remember who) make the point somewhere that it seems as if Republicans are against the START treaty because they’re simply against all treaties full stop. I think he may have a point. (Note: beyond the vague generalities I can guess at, I really have no idea what’s in the START treaty.)

It might be a more salient point, however, if it weren’t equally apparent that the left is pretty much in favor of the START treaty solely because it’s a treaty. That is: it’s some sort of Serious Document, which was presumably cooked up by some experts somewhere, if the United States signs it she’ll presumably have to do a bunch of stuff, and get rid of some weapons, and employ a bunch of expert bureaucrats in the process (for verification, and writing up docs, making reports, etc.) – and the left automatically likes all of those things, regardless of the treaty’s actual details. In fact you pretty much had the left at ‘the United States gets rid of some weapons’. Didn’t you?

You don’t have to be hugely observant to notice that on any treaty such as this, the left is constitutionally far more interested in constraining the United States from doing things, than in what happens in or is done by the co-signer of the treaty – whether it comes to verification, or realist assessments of the co-signer governments, the left is distinctly uninterested in the treaty’s actual effects – on anyone other than the United States, that is. If the United States signs the treaty, and abides by it, and Russia cheats like holy hell – my sincere and honest impression is that the left would take this as a perfectly desirable outcome.

With such values it’s no wonder that all the left needs to know is ‘it’s a treaty’ before favoring a treaty. This is why my favorite question about all such documents that the left forms strong opinions about is what’s your favorite part of it? But go ahead, prove me wrong, do tell, if you’re passionately in favor of us signing the START treaty, and think that only cretins could oppose it, let me know what your favorite part of it is, so that I may evaluate the basis for your passion myself. (Thanks in advance.)

Meanwhile, let me push back and give my two-cheers for conservative/Republican anti-treatyism. Because personally I find myself anti-treatyist too, and I think I have a rational basis for this reactionary stance: namely, it’s the only healthy response to a left which is promiscuously in favor of any/all treaties regardless of details.

If you have a little slutty sister who brings home any guy with tattoos and a motorcycle, all of whom beat her up, do you really need to investigate Guy #71 in full depth and detail in order to know that her getting involved with him is probably as bad an idea as Guys #1-70? At what point does it become not only defensible but rational to say, about your sister’s choice in guys, ‘if she’s for him, he’s probably a bad idea’? If no discriminating filter is in evidence, and no standards whatsoever seem to be applied, reactionary resistance can become the only sane option.

A rebuttal to this would consist of establishing that this time, the sister has chosen the guy on the basis of careful, deliberate consideration, taking the choice and its ramifications seriously, and weighing objectively some rationally-defensible standards and values of some sort. But, alas, I see no evidence of this whatsoever on the left; all I see is a Pavlovian salivating response to the word ‘treaty’ (a treaty very few of these lefties were talking about or presumably had even heard of two months ago) and to the generic concept of weakening the United States. It’s quite clear to me that, to many if not most lefties, ‘weakening the United States’ is all they need to know. About anything, really. And to me, that doesn’t betray a huge amount of taste or discrimination in treaties – thus merits no deference.

Again, though, I am prepared and perfectly willing to be proved wrong. It just hasn’t happened yet.

9 Comments so far
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One of the major points you make in many of your faux serious political pieces is how little those of us who form our own pseudo-serious political opinions actually know about the subject on which we have an opinion.

That is actually a subject for serious inquiry.

Most of us believe we have some sort of philosophical foundation upon which to base our opinion, and give short shrift to the idea that the truth is going to be found in the details.

In other words, we believe we can recognize the structure based upon it’s philosophical foundation.

This may be foolhardy.

I recently changed my mind, for instance, on the DREAM Act. You see, I am against the philosophical idea of granting amnesty to illegal aliens already living in this country, until we have stopped the flood of new illegals over the border.

But then, I found that the details of the DREAM Act are simply that it gives the children of illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

One of the foundational ideas upon which this country is based is that children do not inherit the sins of their fathers. We believe in pragmatism in this country, not blood. A man is what he makes of himself.

Thus, the DREAM Act is, in my opinion, firmly in the American Tradition. Young men who are the children of illegal immigrants are given the opportunity to become citizens if they will serve this country.

Now, all that aside, there could be other details in the DREAM Act which would cause me to change my mind back in the direction of opposition.

I wonder if many of us refrain from demanding to know the details so that we will not become confused brooding Hamlets incapable of making a decision.

Oh well, whatever, nevermind.

Comment by Pastorius

Yes this subject pops up a lot in what I write, but I would diagnose the disease differently. One of my recurring themes is that people form their opinions in large part based on tribal allegiance, then spend the rest of the time coming up with rationalizations to cover that up.

If there were a philosophical foundation behind most of the left’s views, as foolhardy as the result might be, at least there’d be something to discuss. But there’s no philosophical foundation behind ‘if it’s a treaty, and weakens/disarms the United States, must be good’ – assuming one agrees with me that that is their tacit thinking, of course. (Obviously START supporters will deny this, but that’s what I’d expect them to do.. ;-)

To your DREAM Act example – my position on the DREAM Act is that I haven’t had one, because (by my own admission) I don’t know jack about it. If I hadn’t learned the details it’s not because it would paralyze me, it’s because I don’t consider it imperative to form and establish a ‘position’ on every single issue under the sun. Anyway, you just taught me just now everything I know about the DREAM Act. So, like you, I’m content to switch to provisional support based on what I know from you. But also, like you, I’m open to the idea that there’s some Trojan horse in there that I just haven’t learned about yet, which would make me change my mind further. Etc. Unless I have some strong views on a subject for whatever reasons, I try to approach such things with an understanding that issues are complex, but also – and perhaps more to the point – I’m quite conscious of the fact that what I think about the DREAM Act fundamentally doesn’t matter all that much. It’s going to happen, or not, based on a zillion and one variables none of which have more than half an iota to do with what my ‘position’ is on it.

Anyway, that is not the sort of political stance I’m complaining about, if only because it’s not very common to see such hedged ambivalence (some would say complacence, if not irresponsiblee indifference) in public discourse. Maybe it’s only because the squeaky wheels get the spotlight (to mix metaphors), but what we instead usually get are extreme and passionate half-informed viewpoints formed on the basis of who-knows-what. Well, I think I know what, and what I think is, it’s a cliqueish tribalism that underlies most political stances. In the DREAM Act example, I suspect most people support the DREAM Act not from first principles, but simply because all the right people support it, and it’s a thing that’s on the table – a front in the ongoing battle – and (therefore) the right people should win.

Sarah Palin is fun to think about because she’s such a stark illustration of the role tribalism plays in peoples’ views. Palin haters can’t possibly articulate rationally why they hate and fear her so much (and usually don’t even try), and similarly you don’t have a chance in hell of understanding their reaction to her solely on the grounds of merely her ‘policies’ and ‘views’ (most of which, despite some recent posturing one detects in her to play to the crowd, are boringly moderate Republican, as far as I can tell).

But it’s perfectly understandable in terms of tribalism – she’s not one of us, and elevating her status would represent a loss for our tribe. In this sense it practically doesn’t matter what she supports or says or doesn’t say. By the same token, her supporters gravitate around her and elevate her beyond all objective accomplishments for precisely the same reason: she’s one of us.

A less extreme but equivalent example was George W. Bush, who had achieved the previously-held record of being hated by the left. If you ask a college student why they hated W. so much, you’ll hear stuff about wars and ‘stupidity’ etc., but if you try to dig a bit deeper into which particular policies bothered them so much, eventually what they’ll do is reach into the bag of Standard Gripes Against Republicans – such as harming/squeezing the poor through not enough government spending. The objective fact that W.’s administration was characterized by a gigantic amount of government spending will not come into play. W. is still on the wrong side so he gets no ‘credit’ for that at all. (This is why “compassionate conservatism” was ultimately a dumb tactic)

To take another example, try Richard Nixon. Nixon was of course hated by the left, and the only defenders you’ll see circling wagons around him are on the far right. This makes complete sense if you look at Nixon the person, because his political career and obsessions were characterized by his sense that he was some sort of heroic everyman self-made outsider standing against an Ivy League (and, Jewish-influenced) elite establishment – this aligns quite well with the fault lines re: who rallied around him and who considered him a devil. On the other hand, in terms of actual policies, Richard Nixon was one of the most socialist Presidents in recent history. Did this make socialists like him? Or conservatives dislike him?

Course not. It’s amazing how it doesn’t seem to matter, or even to figure in anyone’s calculations. In fact it’s inexplicable – unless you see politics through a tribalist prism, as I do.


Comment by Sonic Charmer

I HATE OBAMA for many of the same reasons, and in many of the same ways you describe Lefties hatiing Nixon and Palin.

“I swear that I don’t have a gun.”
— Kurt Cobain

Comment by Pastorius

I only wrote the above comment so that I could use that Nirvava lyric.

Comment by Pastorius

Anyway, when I say this is a subject for serious inquiry, I am not kidding.

There must be a way to quantify the actual factual details upon which people’s opinions are formed, and then measure them against estimated templates of the Left/Right divide and the political allegiances of the people’s opinions are studied.

“Our little group has always been, and always will be until the end”

Comment by Pastorius

I don’t even know which way I think that experiment would turn out (i.e. whether left or right is more tribalist). I know it occurs on both sides, and I probably notice it more coming from the left, for obvious reasons.

Bryan Caplan looked at something similar to what you describe in his book ‘The Myth of the Rational Voter’ – basically as I recall he took a measure of knowledge, and compared it to political economic views – the result being that the more people knew, the more laissez-faire they tended to be.

But that’s a bit sideways from what I’m talking about. For example, I think you can be very knowledgeable but also tribalist. In which case it’s almost impossible to objectively separate whether you formed your views ‘based on the knowledge’ or based on tribal allegiance.

Comment by Sonic Charmer

“If the United States signs the treaty, and abides by it, and Russia cheats like holy hell – my sincere and honest impression is that the left would take this as a perfectly desirable outcome.”

I have to disagree. I think the Left would believe that to be a highly undesirable outcome. However, they would draw entirely the wrong conclusion from it. Remember, Leftists think that everyone who isn’t Them is essentially a malleable, easily-influenced child. All They need to do is provide a good-enough role model, and the children will follow en masse. Thus, instead of concluding that the Russians can’t be trusted, and that treaties that can’t be enforced are basically worthless, the average Leftist would conclude that we weren’t a good-enough role model, and we need to give up more in order to convince the Russians (or the Iranians, or the Chinese, or whoever) that they should emulate us.

The concept that “the only law in international relations is the law of the jungle” is simply not comprehensible to a Leftist.

Pastorius: regarding the DREAM Act, I think you’ve fallen prey to one of the classic blunders. No, not “never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line” ;-), but rather “never assume that the intended consequences of a law will be the only consequences of that law.” The problem with the DREAM Act, as with any amnesty, is verification. How can you prove that this 28-year-old came here involuntarily at the age of 4, and is therefore qualified under the DREAM Act terms, while that 28-year-old sneaked across the border two weeks ago, and is therefore not qualified? The answer is, you can’t. Ask for documents, they’ll be forged. Ask for witnesses, they’ll lie. And when federal judges routinely strike down “voter ID” laws on the grounds that requiring people to prove they’re qualified to vote is a violation of their rights, I expect it wouldn’t be long at all before the ‘documentation’ requirement in the DREAM act was neutered, if not actually thrown out.

Comment by wolfwalker

I think the Left would believe that to be a highly undesirable outcome. […] the average Leftist would conclude that we weren’t a good-enough role model, and we need to give up more

I agree with the latter, but it doesn’t seem to be in conflict what what I’m saying is their mindset – which is that the most important thing is for the U.S. to weaken itself.

Does the Left ever make a distinction between our weapons and theirs? Or do they speak in terms of simply reducing the raw # of weapons out there? I think it’s the latter. Hence, I think that if we reduced our # of missiles, but [whoever] didn’t, they’d look at it as a partial win.

They also have an consistent approach to geopolitics according to which we’re supposed to focus on ourselves (and this is exactly what you’re saying) because ‘at least we can control what we do even if we can’t control others’ – this is their response when questioned on double standards they display when it comes to their (lack of) criticism of certain rogue regimes, compared to how much they criticize the U.S. Wishing for the U.S. to reduce her arsenal, regardless of what others do, goes right along with that mindset.

I think that in order to get these sorts of treaties passed they feign an interest in reducing, oh, Russia’s arsenal – and pretend that’s what they’re aiming at – purely as political cover, because they know that will make the medicine go down easier. (It’s similar to the reason the left pretended to be all hawkish on Afghanistan – ‘but we need to focus on Afghanistan!’ – when an invasion of Iraq was in the cards.) I don’t think they genuinely care about whether Russia’s, China’s, etc arsenals get reduced as a result of these treaties, at least not in any real sense other than – as you point out – the extent to which they could use such failure as propaganda for arguing for further U.S. weakening.

Again, if they did genuinely care about the arms-reduction outcome, they would show some interest in the inspection and verifiability side of these treaties, and would evince some degree of realist understanding of the nature of e.g. Russia’s government and the likelihood of cheating. They do not (or if they do – I have never seen it).

Comment by Sonic Charmer

“Does the Left ever make a distinction between our weapons and theirs?”

No, they don’t. The attitude of the modern Left (or more precisely, the post-modernist Left) toward war was forged in the Second World War, in which both sides used basically the same weapons and tactics, and both sides caused devastation on a continental scale. Indeed, it could be said that over most of Europe, the Allies did more damage than the Axis did. For men and women who lived through the destruction of Hamburg, Dresden, and Berlin, and then saw a very real possibility of racial extinction in the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was remarkably easy to conclude that all fighting was equally bad, no matter the reasons behind it, and had to be ended forever. Invasion and conquest, no matter how bad it might be, was still preferable to the alternative of all-out WW2-style warfare. So they set about trying to eliminate both the reasons for war and the means of waging war. Carry the one forward to the present day, and you get the concept of political unity for Europe, and eventually for the entire world; carry the other forward, and you get the desperate drive to eliminate all possible weapons of war, from ICBMs all the way down to handguns.

“I don’t think they genuinely care about whether Russia’s, China’s, etc arsenals get reduced as a result of these treaties…”

I don’t agree. I think they do care, it’s just that they don’t know how to turn their caring into action … largely because they don’t understand why it’s necessary. They think that caring, and demonstrating that caring, should be enough.

“Again, if they did genuinely care about the arms-reduction outcome, they would show some interest in the inspection and verifiability side of these treaties,…”

As I understand it, they do. Leftist-written arms control treaties generally do include some sort of verification process. What they don’t include is any real method of enforcement, which isn’t the same thing.

Comment by wolfwalker

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