In the first two posts (part I & part II) in this series I described how control issues, which are so significant in development (recall that what heralds the development of the self is the negation, "No!", of the child who will no longer do what he is told to do) can continue to exert their power even as a relatively healthy individual becomes an adult. Many highly successful people are overtly controlling of others. These people are often unpleasant to be around, but we learn ways to deal with them. Of more concern to me are those successful people who have learned to use various language based defenses to hide their need to control others. This is typical anywhere free speech is abrogated in the West.
John Leo has an article in the US News and World Report titled "Double-standard trouble" in which he describes the danger of the intellectual who can blind himself to his own unconscious need for power and control. He writes:
I spend some of my time brooding about people who seem addicted to double standards--those who take an allegedly principled stand on a Monday, then switch firmly to the opposite principle on Tuesday if it is to their advantage. A lot of this is considered normal today: free-speech hard-liners who support the severe speech limitations of the campaign reform law, people who were outraged by the campaign that bumped CBS's anti-Reagan made-for-TV movie off the network but not upset by a similar campaign that forced the cancellation of Dr. Laura Schlessinger's planned television show.
At this point we generally assume that our politicians are duplicitous opportunists, which is one of the reasons they are held in such poor repute, and one of the reasons so many people have trouble truly believing that George W. Bush is as genuine as he appears to be and actually means what he says. Whether you support or decry Bush, it is hard to make the argument that he does not say what he means and means what he says. Bush may make mistakes (and will not publicly admit them, which is no different than any other politician who wants to keep his job; the press savage any politician who has the temerity to change his mind) but he doesn't lie. I am still waiting for someone on the anti-war side to come up with documentation that Bush lied about WMD. I suspect most of our politicians, like most people, have some bedrock principles, and other principles that are less vital to their sense of who they are; the problem is that they are so afraid to be seen as changing their minds or admitting an error, that they must use pretzel like logic to appear to maintain their principles while changing their positions. One reason Kerry was a poor candidate is that he never settled on a coherent position, principled or not, and stuck with it; similar to Clinton, many of his positions were more related to polling data and focus groups than to any convictions, but unlike Clinton, he lacked charm.
None of this is news to anyone who reads or thinks; however, I do see current dangers to our free exercise of speech that are worth addressing. Principles are extraordinarily hard to hold onto when one's own cherished desires are at stake. Those of us who are old enough can recall Michael Dukakis's disastrous response to a question about capital punishment during his debate with George H.W. Bush. Dukakis's response to this question is typically cited as the second most significant gaffe he made during his campaign, yet one does not have to agree with his position to admire his courage (if not the inelegance of his verbal construction) in holding to his position. (Take a look at this article from last fall, by Roger L. Simon, favorably comparing Dukakis to Kerry.) For a comparison, anyone who has spent time reading Andrew Sullivan over the last year or two would have seen the unmistakable signs of a man trying to find ways to reconcile some of his stated conservative beliefs with his increasingly imperative desire to legalize gay marriage (which is neither conservative in process or outcome). For Sullivan, his personal desires trumped his principles. There is really nothing unusual or terribly troubling about this; people are human and in the face of our desires, we often find ways to excuse our principles. This is one reason societies make laws and develop means to enforce them. The trouble arises when people can not tolerate the idea that they are being less than completely faithful to their principles.
Last year saw, for the first time, the full effects of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, a seemingly noble effort to reduce the influence of "Big Money" on our politics. In the interests of full disclosure, let me add that I was a strong supporter of McCain-Feingold when it was up for discussion. However, I have sadly concluded that we have not repealed the laws of human nature: it did not reduce the influence of money during the campaign; it did not elevate our discourse; it did not enlarge our freedom of speech. In short, and McCain-Feingold is a disaster. If anything it has seriously eroded our level of discourse since now a candidate can claim either plausible deniability for anything said in a campaign ("I didn't call my esteemed opponent a pederast, that was that darn 527") or has, in fact, no control over the spending of large amounts of money on his behalf (which tends to make it much harder for a candidate to "tack" back to the middle.) In recognition of this, the forces in favor of campaign finance reform are now trying to pass further restrictions on free speech (there have even been threats to attack blogger's rights to free speech, a chilling, though ultimately useless, endeavor.) Since money is fungible, and people with money will use it, there is no way this can work; lets accept that we made a noble effort to control money in politics, it hasn't worked and it's time to move on. One obvious response would be to use the internet and allow as much hard money as people want to give, publicize who funds whom and what, and battle it out in the marketplace of ideas.
On a related note, it is interesting that the "grassroots movement" to change our campaign finance laws was anything but grassroots. John Fund in the WSJ last week reported on the efforts of a small group of liberal interest groups to secretly corrupt our legislative process with large sums of (disguised) money. Astroturf Politics How liberal foundations fooled Congress into passing McCain-Feingold is a "must read." Of course, these groups were doing exactly what they don't want anyone else to do, but since they are unable to recognize how their own self interest effects their behavior (or they were even more sleazy than I give them credit for), they are left in the curious position of claiming to represent the interests of the "grassroots" which they created. I suppose one could argue they are liberals, and therefore smarter and more principled than conservatives, but this is not an argument that would withstand much scrutiny in a court of law. Ryan Sager, at Tech Central Station has quite a bit more on this particular point, in Free Speech For Me But Not For Thee. (Hat tip: No Left Turns)
There should be no great surprise that some politicians and many others want to limit free speech; that is a chronic problem from groups on both sides of the spectrum; what is most chilling is that the people who are supposed to protect us from just such threats have bought into the rationalizations and intellectualizations of these people and are allowing them to succeed. I continue to puzzle over how the Supreme Court can hold that money is the equivalent of speech and conclude that it should be limited only in the political sphere. We can not control child porn but we can control political speech? Many conservatives suggest that the Supreme Court has lost its way since the Burger court triumphed an activist approach to enlarging our rights. In order to do this, they had to invent novel interpretations of the constitution. Since many of their decisions were decisions I supported, I never had much occasion to wonder about their jurisprudence, but lately I have become quite worried. In my earlier post on Political Deification, I wrote about how we need to have something greater than ourselves to feel safe in a dangerous world:
We are better equipped than our distant cave dwelling ancestors to understand the world, but on an individual level, we remain surrounded by monsters and magic. Fate can separate us from our loved ones in an instant and we have no mommy or daddy who will hug us and tell us everything will be all right (which our children might believe; even if someone tries to reassure us, we can not even comfort ourselves with the reassurance because we know better.) The only way we can keep our irrational (and sometimes rational) fears from destabilizing our minds is to find something more powerful than ourselves to believe in; we need God, and in the absence of God, we will invent the equivalent to protect us.
We also need something greater than ourselves to anchor our morality; otherwise morality is just opinion. In our secular world, we have had the tremendous advantage of some rather brilliant men who put to paper, over 200 years ago, a set of principles which have served to protect the kinds of personal freedoms that have never been seen before for so many for so long. If we replace our reliance on the words they left us and instead rely on what we want the words to mean, we are endangering our freedoms, almost always with the best of intentions. When Justice Kennedy writes that his recent decision on executing minors (a decision I agree with, by the way) is in part based on the opinions of the international (ie EU) elite, I see us moving into dangerous territory. We need Supreme Court Justices who are humble men, who do not see things in the words that are not there. If our freedoms depend on the opinions of nine fallible individuals, I would prefer to rely on individuals who recognize how little we really know, even about ourselves, and how little we really can know. We should be extraordinarily careful of altering something which has worked well, if not perfectly, for over 200 years. The Constitution is difficult to amend for a reason and the unintended consequences of creative interpretation of the Constitution are quite frightening.