13 August 2013

Stupid, Evil or Crazy?

Time magazine profiles Sen. Cruz of Texas this week, highlighting the freshman Republican's lament that "there is a tendency to describe conservatives as one of two things: stupid or evil." He later thinks of a third option, "crazy," and flatters himself by supposing that liberals coined that label to describe him personally, forgetting that almost fifty years ago, Democrats said of Barry Goldwater, "In your guts you know he's nuts." An online version of the interview upon which Alex Altman based the profile allows Cruz to address this point at greater length.

A conservative is either stupid — too dumb to know the right answer — and even worse, if they actually know the right answer, then they’re evil. They want people to suffer. I suppose I feel mildly complimented in that they have recently invented a third category, which is crazy. It’s the alternative to stupid or evil. And now crazy is the third one, because it seems inconceivable that there could be Americans who believe in free-market principles and believe in the Constitution and are working to defend them.

You wish that Altman might have followed up by asking Cruz whether he does want people to suffer, by trying to preemptively defund Obamacare, for instance. To Cruz himself, I'm sure, the answer is a self-evident no, while to his ideological opposites it's an even more self-evident yes. Describing someone else's wants, or even one's own, is inevitably subjective. In a political or ideological context, describing suffering itself is probably subjective. A Republican may say sincerely that he doesn't want anyone to suffer, but he might say just as sincerely that he can't help it if people suffer, whether because of the decisions they make or because life is unfair. Some avowed conservatives (I won't put words in Cruz's own mouth) have suggested that suffering is necessary if people are to learn lessons. Commenting on Detroit's bankruptcy a few weeks ago, and arguing against a federal bailout of the city, George Will wrote that unless failures are penalized (presumably by suffering), failures will multiply. If the assumption is that suffering is the inevitable consequence of failure or error, then whether anyone wants suffering may seem irrelevant. But to the extent that liberals are hedonists, -- and that extent shouldn't be underestimated when compassion is considered a citizen's supreme virtue -- the "evil" of suffering may seem to outweigh the good of any lesson learned from it. Their assumption is that it's always possible to alleviate if not prevent suffering, and that people should accept personal responsibility for refusing to do so, no matter what their rationale.   From the middle ground it might be asserted that suffering of some minimal sort is part of a necessary discipline of life, or even the only way some people can learn certain important truths, but the necessity of the discipline Republicans insist on is always subject to political debate. Their notions of social or individual discipline, and whatever notions they have of the suffering appropriate to breaches of that discipline, are tied to ideological notions about mutual responsibility and collective purpose that will always be contestable so long as civilization is considered distinct from the state of nature. Cruz probably thinks it either stupid or crazy (though perhaps not evil) of liberals to think that he wants people to suffer, but as long as we can conceive alternatives to his socioeconomic ideals that would involve less necessary suffering, it's natural (if perhaps not fair) to equate his preference for a different order with a preference for more suffering, and it's understandable if people resent that "evil" preference in moralistic terms. 
Hedonism (which I understand as something distinct from "greatest good for the greatest number" utilitarianism) is a hidden factor in American politics, the two major parties really promoting alternative hedonisms. Liberals always seem out to minimize suffering, at least according to the "bleeding heart" caricature, while Republicans and libertarians are more concerned with breaking down all limits to the pleasure individuals can earn. Considering how much the Founders distrusted "luxury" and considered frugality conducive to civic virtue it's hard to imagine them embracing either side in the present debate, but they might resent our modern Republicans more for thinking themselves (as Cruz clearly does) faithful custodians of the Founding ideals. Hedonism may keep liberals from thinking as clearly or objectively as they might about some issues, but it's also one of the few reliable standards for measuring social progress. Hedonists may not be right all the time, but their concerns should always be welcome in political debates, even if they insult the alleged intelligence of solons like Sen. Cruz.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't know about "stupid, evil or crazy", but Cruz is not an American. Or, rather, not a "natural born" American, since he was born in Canada. Therefore he is not eligible to run for the presidency.