Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Going in circles

Ta-Nehisi keeps the Willingham story alive. If you missed it, here is the New Yorker story that started all of this. In essence, a man was executed for a crime he almost certainly did not commit--as certain as science can make it.

Ta-Nehisi writes:

Texas justice is essentially sorcery, and there will be people who say that we can perfect it, that we can close the loop-holes. They're wrong. The problem isn't with loopholes--it's with us. We are fallible. Conservatives, more than anyone, should know that--it undergirds their entire philosophy. They don't think government can perfect much of anything. What makes them think we can perfect murder? I'd have a lot more respect if they just came out and said, "Yeah, it isn't perfect, but it's a price we should be willing to pay."

At first blush, I didn't have anything to say about this other than "Amen." But then, of course, I read the comments, and we all know what happens when we read comments.

The first:

Oddly enough I have been thinking about just this lately, but I have seen it from the exactly opposite perspective: Conservatives appear to believe that humans are, in fact, perfectable, but too often choose not to be perfected -- that if only people would chose better, if only we force better choices on the people who do not choose by our lights, humanity could be perfected.

Whereas liberals appear to have twigged that, no, actually, humans are walking piles of contradictions and misunderstandings, fallible at each and every moment. So let's create a system that guards against that, and allows us the room to pick ourselves up and make better choices, if it turns out that we've made bad ones.

This sort of thing drives me absolutely batty. I have seen arguments structured exactly like this from both sides and it's bullshit every time. It's bullshit for one really simple reason: Conservatism and Liberalism/Progressivism are just different takes on the exact same philosophy. They both come out of the broader liberal political tradition (I'm sorry, that's what it's called in academic circles. Reagan, epistemologically speaking, comes out of a liberal tradition no matter how right-wing he is, because he's descended from Adam Smith and Rousseau. Deal with it.) So when one side or the other sets out to prove how Conservatives have this particular take on the human condition and Liberals have another and this is why one is so much more reasonable or realistic than the other, to continue that same comment:

All of which makes the angry conservative make much more sense to me -- if you believe that human falliblity can be stamped out but people are choosing not to, you probably have a lot less patience for it, not to mention fury when other people's fuck-ups mess up your own Glory-bound life.

And yes, it is very frightening that people of this mindset make life and death decisions. Because they often don't understand human reality.

It just makes me crazy. You could just as easily say that "forc[ing] better choices on the people who do not choose by our lights" is what Liberal government programs do, and "a system that guards against that, and allows us the room to pick ourselves up and make better choices, if it turns out that we've made bad ones" is exactly what conservatives want in a free market. This kind of quasi-theoretical assignment of one thing to this camp and another to that is almost always just an exercise in proving why your team is better, but in what sounds like philosophical terms. If we want to argue policy, I say let's get into it. That's an actual discussion about actual differences (in some arenas, anyway). But this kind of "well my team has THIS take on perfectability which is SO much more realistic than your team's" thing goes nowhere.

A near-perfect example from later in the comments:

The line that chilled me was when Fogg said, "Science does not matter." He stands by his gut, what he calls "living in the real world."

I can't help but connect his thinking to the anti-science attitude of the religious right. In an effort to defend creationism, they've made it okay--even heroic--to spurn fact, testing, and reason.

The "science doesn't matter" attitude is not limited to the religious right or to creationists (as we know them today). It reminds me mightily of some of the proto-fascist writings of Carl Schmitt and some of the ideology in existence under Mussolini.

I know I sound like a winger right now, blathering about fascists and Italian dictators, but honestly fascists aren't the point--I'm not out to make anybody in this situation the political pariah that wingers are usually invoking when they say "fascist." What I care about is that there is a preexisting tradition in liberal politics (again, I'm referring to the intellectual tradition, not a political coalition) of privileging emotion, gut, and "my experience" over science or formalized knowledge. It gets down to different criteria for what's real or makes something real, and how one knows something or does not know it.

If you read the original New Yorker article, these fire experts talk about fire like a spirit that talks to them. There is no scientific way to discuss fire like that--they're operating out of a totally different framework. Now on the one hand, we could sit back and say, well, it's pro-death-penalty Southerners (easy code among many for right-wingers--Lord knows I'd be surprised if these guys voted Obama) now, and it was fascists last time--sounds like a right-wing problem! Lefties, pat yourselves on the back.

But that, too, would be bullshit. Because how many times has the right wing criticized the left for overprivileging individual experience and worldview? What is moral relativism--with which I generally agree, for the record--if not the assertion that at least some important aspects of our reality are created by emotion, experience, and culture, and not by science or natural law?

The political coalitions we know today as Liberal and Conservative are not on a spectrum from one extreme to another. They're one iteration of many possible Venn diagrams, or cluster pairs, or arrangements around a circle--whatever image you prefer--that use all the same ingredients. Every failing of the right's can be found to be a virtue of the left's, and vice versa.

Which is why I hate it when people get into this thing about who understands human nature better. We all pretty much understand human nature the same. It's what we think that understanding means later that matters, and unless we're talking practical applications I don't want to hear about which party is better. They're the same. They're fraternal twins: all the same DNA, slightly different appearances. Use the same DNA a couple other times and you'll get other, slightly different appearances. On a genetic level, those differences are insignificant. On a practical level, it's how we tell the twins apart.

And that's all I really care about. Unless one of these two parties is currently proposing to abolish the death penalty, what good could it possibly do to debate which coalition better understands human nature or whose fault the Willingham travesty is? Neither party is doing anything about it; it's both of their fault, then. There's work to do, so let's quit yammering about Conservative vs. Liberal understandings of human nature and start trying to end executions of the innocent. People who want to sit there and yammer about the above are guilty of what gjeffries describes:

A man was put to death by us, as a society, under nothing more than character conjecture and those responsible for doing so merely shrug their shoulders and justify their actions? That's what affects me. It's not about the bias or ignorance; it's about the lack of reflection, lack of recognition of a higher purpose. It's not about them, it's about us. We can't let this happen.

If we were to reflect on it properly, we might come to a more productive conclusion about what's happening here:


I'd have a lot more respect if they just came out and said, "Yeah, it isn't perfect, but it's a price we should be willing to pay.

I think the subtext of so much of the behavior of the people responsible for Willingham's execution, at least as depicted in the New Yorker article, was a more chilling version of this. Killing him, whether or not he was guilty of the crime with which he was charged, WAS a price they were willing to pay. To them, Cameron Willingham was nothing but trash. Even if he wasn't guilty of murdering his three children in cold blood, he was guilty of being poor and distasteful to respectable white Texan society. Their world was better off without him cluttering it up, so why bother taking the necessary pains to provide him with justice under the law?

Doctor Jay

...we can't expect the people that perpetrated this to recant. They did what they did in good faith, believing that they were the instruments of justice, acting on behalf of the best interests of the community. And they made a terrible mistake. We do need to fix things, and get them out of the loop.

For starters, let's hope this goes somewhere.

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