Himself reports a conversation with a "fellow leftist" who apparently has only a single brain cell more than a retarded sea-slug. Yesterday I wrote a post in reaction to a blogger (who shall remain nameless) denouncing Iraqi defeatists as "lickspittle liberals".
The old left/right, liberal/conservative dimension is simply too simplistic to capture modern political debate. The whole debate, even among supposedly smart people, is degenerating into the fallacy of mediocrity: Two people have some feature in common, therefore they are identical in every respect.
I am passionately, vitriolically, totally opposed to the war in Iraq: It is immoral, illegal and is causing tremendous human suffering and death. Well, the Islamic jihadists are also against the war in Iraq. I am not, however, an Islamic jihadist. Just because I'm against the war in Iraq does not mean I'm for the Islamist agenda. Contrawise, I loathe Islam. The religion is absurd, the culture hateful, violent, stupid, oppressive and misogynist. But just because I loathe Islam does not mean I support the war in Iraq.
I'm a fairly tolerant person. I really don't care if you're gay, Catholic, collect Hummel figurines, enjoy bowling or golf, or eat escargot. It's no skin off my nose, you're not hurting me or anyone else. I neither approve nor disapprove; it's none of my damn business, really. But just because I happen to tolerate a lot of things does not mean I have any common cause with those morons who fetishize tolerance itself, who feel it wrong to judge or criticize any behavior—except, of course judgment or criticism.
Just because I consider the Republican party a blight on even the low standards of American politics does not mean I must therefore endorse the spinelessness and flaccidity of the Democratic party. Just because I resist ridiculous government intrusion on my private life does not mean I'm an Ayn Rand-deifying Libertarian; and just because I think we have positive ethical obligations to our fellow citizens and fellow human beings does not mean I'm a Karl Marx-worshiping Communist.
As Lincoln said, "The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present." All of these dogmas—conservatism and liberalism—are not only inadequate but bankrupt. We are constantly trying to put square pegs in round holes, and, in the words of the anonymous wag, we end up only with the stupid and the very strong.
Many people, I suppose, don't want to think about anything particularly complex, at least outside their own area of expertise. I don't expect anyone, for instance, to think much about the complexity of the computer programs that I write: Does it work or not? Is it easy or is it hard? Does it deliver or does it drop the ball? We can't expect the ordinary person, working a job, raising a family and going to the odd ball game to consider every political question in the billions of individual nuanced dimensions. But neither can we any more afford the simple binary distinctions of left/right, liberal/conservative, Democratic/Republican, pro/con.
Worse yet, the traditional liberal/conservative dichotomy does not represent a fundamental, or even a real, distinction. The distinction represents a degree of change; and not even a real degree of change, but the illusion of change. Liberalism represents the illusion of change; conservatism represents the illusion of stasis. But change or stasis by itself isn't fundamental. What do we want to change? What do we want to keep? Why? And, more importantly, how?
Human societies are ecological and, in a sense, evolved. They aren't designed, at least not in the largest sense, and everything is interrelated. Just on general principles one should be "conservative" in the sense that you can't make large changes to any ecosystem, biological or political; if you do, you'll be swamped with unintended consequences. On the other hand, ecosystems are always changing; they are in dynamic equilibrium; it is as much a mistake to try to keep everything exactly the same as it is to make large changes. Furthermore, it is a naturalistic fallacy to conclude that just because something exists in an ecosystem it is therefore "objectively" good. Everyone—everyone rational—"should" be a little bit conservative and a little bit liberal, at least as far as change is concerned. The authority of the past is purely instrumental and tentative; the authority of the future is speculative and uncertain; there's ample justification against accepting the authority of either as a foundational moral principle.
The old dogmas of liberalism and conservatism—insofar as they reflect an attitude about change itself—are bankrupt: Both should be replaced by a rational attitude towards change as an instrument to achieving other purposes. There are simply objectively correct, rationally determinable right ways and wrong ways to change a society. We must look deeper and start to discuss what we want to change our society into.
I have discerned two deep threads in political and ethical conversation: ethical authoritarianism and ethical universalism. I call myself an "anarcho-humanist" because I'm against authoritarianism (anarcho) and for ethical universalism (humanism). What is good is not established by any authority, political, philosophical or religious, but rather by individual conscience. But what is good I hold is good for everyone; when faced with an ethical dilemma, I raise the level of abstraction until I can find a principle I can endorse universally. If you like vanilla and I like chocolate, a dilemma, I'll abstract the problem to "eat what you please": I think everyone should (pretty much) eat what they please.
Even authoritarianism—ceding the definition of good* to an authority—is in a nontrivial sense a matter of individual conscience: You have to choose to believe that the Bible, or the Catholic Church, or Western Civilization, can define the good. But even so, we can still draw a meaningful distinction between those who do cede authority over the good, and those who do not.
*As opposed to the instrumental cession to an authority to define what is lawful.
Both authoritarianism and univeralism—pro and con—are choices: All four positions in any paired combination are logically and physically possible; there is no scientific or logical reason to consider any objectively true. Therefore, the choice is existential, and a matter of politics, not objective science; the only science involved are the subjectivist sciences of psychology, sociology, and anthropology. I can't argue for anarchism and humanism, I can only promote them.
So, counting rationality/irrationality**, there are three important axes of political discourse. Three axes is still complicated, and causes much confusion.
**If you object to the pejorative implication of "irrationality", you can substitute science-based and faith-based reasoning.
For instance, the war in Iraq is a struggle between two concepts of authoritarianism; an ethical anarchist such as myself has no sympathy for either side. Furthermore, it is a conflict between the more universalist authoritarianism of Islam and the exceptionalism of Western imperialism and colonialism (as well as domestic class exceptionalism). It is also, because it is a dramatic change to a political "ecosystem" (and the political ecosystem of the Middle East is particularly fragile) irrational a priori: We're guaranteed to cause unintended consequences to the detriment of everyone; it is being pursued incompetently as well. (Incompetently, at least, with regard to the publicly stated goals of its proponents; as a mechanism to simply loot the treasury and taxpayers it seems to be clicking along quite competently.)
The trouble is that if you criticize the war along one axis, you risk by your silence on the other axes to be held in agreement. If you criticize the war as irrational, it sounds like you would approve of its aims if only they were being pursued competently. If you criticize the U.S. conduct of the war on moral grounds, you sound like you therefore approve of the morality of the opponents. If you criticize Islam, you sound like you're in favor of the war. (I myself was accused of being pro-torture because I virulently criticize Islam.) If you try to criticize the war on all three axes, 90% of your audience will simply mutter TLDNR*** and move on to something simpler.
***Too Long, Did Not Read
There are two recommendations I would make, one structural and one intellectual.
The structural recommendation is to simply eliminate the Electoral College and pick the President by majority or plurality of the popular vote (perhaps with some sort of instant run-off voting). The Electoral College isn't even an anachronism, it was a bad idea from the start. Its effects are subtle but pervasive; I'm convinced the American winner-take-all two-party system, which forces every question into the utterly fictional Democratic/Republican dichotomy, is a direct result of the Electoral College. With a direct popular vote—especially with instant run-off voting—additional political parties representing varying points on all the important axes have a chance to gain traction.
It's not a big change, nothing nearly as radical and dramatic as, for instance, switching our whole political apparatus to a Parliamentary system, and there should be plenty of time for the rest of our political system to adapt naturally.
The intellectual recommendation is to my fellow bloggers and mid-level political analysts: Try to see not only your own positions but also the positions of those with whom you disagree along all three axes: authoritarianism, universalism, and rationality. Don't simply try to force every position into your preferred axis, and especially don't assume that if two people agree or disagree on one axis, they therefore must agree or disagree on both the other axes.
I'm tired of being called a "lickspittle liberal" or an Islamic apologist because I oppose the war in Iraq. I'm tired of being called a Soviet-style Communist because I think we do have some positive obligations to our fellow human beings. I'm tired of being called an apologist for torture because I loathe Islam. I'm tired of being called intolerant, racist and sexist because I criticize authoritarianism, exceptionalism and irrationality in anyone, male or female, left or right, black or white, gay or straight, Western or Middle-eastern, religious or atheist.