06 May 2013

Climbing up the slippery slope: do we need to get angry first?

The Time magazine columnist Joe Klein was thrilled to see the President get angry about something after the failure of the recent gun-control bill. Klein believes that more Americans need to get angry, and not just at the Senate or the National Rifle Association. He hopes that Obama's outburst will spark more widespread anger at "the plague affecting--no, paralyzing--our public life: the ability of well-funded extremist groups to thwart the will of the overwhelming majority. This is a problem that goes well beyond the gun issue." He'll certainly offend Democrats by writing that the problem " has infected liberal and conservative lobbying groups alike." He has in mind anyone who opposes any cut to entitlements, as well as "public employees' unions that won't change their work rules." He typifies the "both sides are at fault" approach so despised by Democrats by damning "both sides of the abortion debate" and characterizing the "civil-libertarian lobby" as a doppelgänger to the gun lobby. But Klein's target isn't really "both sides" but a particular tendency that can be seen everywhere: a "maximalist" resort to slippery-slope rhetoric that predicts the worst-possible results from the mildest-possible reforms. In his own words:

The oil barons and financial wizards and labor unions all use the same maximalist tactics on their targeted politicians: If you oppose us, even a little bit, we'll slide the slippery slope toward socialism (or whatever)--and you will pay come election time.

If Klein is right, what seems immediately necessary isn't anger toward extremists from moderates -- by definition they're probably incapable of much anger -- than a wholesale rejection of slippery-slope reasoning wherever it's found. That may be easier said than done, since the slippery slope is the point of convergence of liberal anxiety and reactionary paranoia. Too many people seem afraid that any inconvenient measure is but the first step in a relentless march to dystopia. Is that simply because they distrust a perceived enemy, or is it a habit of mind that can be unlearned? We should hope for the latter. Slippery-slope reasoning is a form of bad faith, the antidote for which should not be an appeal to faith but an appeal to reason. It does not require blind faith in our politicians (thank goodness!) to reject the slippery-slope assumption that any reform or retrenchment is the Beginning of the End. It may require some old-fashioned short term pragmatism, a greater focus on what we need now without assuming that we'll always need it or will be stuck with it regardless. Whether self-conscious moderates already have the mental tools necessary for this approach, as proven by their apparent moderation, remains to be seen. But it might be worth trying, though it might be better done as an appeal to contempt than an appeal to anger. We might get more of a response if we identify the problem not as government by extremists, but as government by idiots. That might be cause for anger itself, but if reflexive anger is part of the problem already, more anger might only prove fuel on a fire. Wouldn't it be great if we could laugh all the fools out of office?  Wishful thinking, yes -- but it still is a free country.


Anonymous said...

The problem is, it isn't government by idiots. It is government by greed. And Americans have long since removed greed from the 7 deadliest sins list. But let's assume you are correct and it is government by idiots. Then it is equally reasonable to say, since that government is elected by the people, then the people are also idiots. In which case no appeal to reason will ever work.

No - I think Mr. Klein is correct. Americans are motivated by anger. Unfortunately that anger is all too often and all too easily misdirected at government. It should be directed at lobbyists, their employers and big business in general, all of which exists to exploit the people, not to make their lives better or easier.

Until we can figure out a way to get the people to understand this, accept it and to direct their anger or contempt or whatever at the correct target, nothing will change.

I will end by stating if the bottom of the slippery slope is socialism, grease up the skis, strap 'em on and let's go for a ride.

Samuel Wilson said...

If slippery-slope reasoning prevails in so many quarters, wouldn't it be more accurate to say Americans are motivated by fear? Wouldn't the "moderates" be those people who aren't paranoid or ruled by fear of any other group? But it remains to be seen whether moderates are capable of the anger that seems necessary to motivate action.

Anonymous said...

I refuse to accept the notion of a "slippery slope". People who use that as a threat are simply idiots too lazy to take anything on a case-by-case basis and want a "one size fits all" solution, which is simply impossible in this country.

Moderates are simply those too afraid of "rocking the boat" to take a firm stance on any issue - until their lives are directly affected by that issue.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that pure socialism is the answer to our current woes, but I am sure that a strong socialist party in this nation would act as a powerful motivator for big business to become more labor-friendly.