Thursday, February 13, 2003

Cognitive Dissonance and the American Left

Howard Zinn, noted liberal historian and author of A People's History of the United States, spoke at NMH today; in person from the eleventh row, he looks exactly like Howard Zinn should. A thin tired man in a shabby brown sports coat, olive vee-neck sweater, collar-opened chambray shirt, he approaches the podium in the center of the vast and empty oratory looking old but moving spryly and purposefully; as if he were being swept forward to the podium not by the physical mechanics of heel and toe, but purely by will. He pauses at the podium and runs simultaneously his handsandfingers through his closecropped gray hair. He speaks, in an accent of the New York Boroughs, firmly, almost gently. He speaks. I take notes:

History should disclose resistance. History is found in fugitive moments of compassion, not in lists of wars and winners.

To stand off from the present and the past is to collaborate with it. Instead, be a positive force in history. We can't be neutral on a moving train.

The word class doesn't enter easily into the American vocabulary. There's rich people, and poor people, and a whole lot of nervous people in between.

We disguise, with language, issues of class...We talk about National Security and National Defense as if everyone has the same interest and need for things. I'd argue there is no "national interest."

I agree with all of this. How can one not agree? It is in my nature, we tell ourselves, to be kind, to be generous, to be peaceful, to be fair; I want a world similar, yes, surely.

But then, as if these truths proved it, suddenly, Zinn is advocating for pacificm: one should always advocate against war, even what he calls Good wars, by which he means WWII, since he fought in it, and since it was against fascists determined to take over the world. And the reason we shouldn't fight even when madmen threaten to and are capable of destroying us is that innocent civilians will be killed, the assumption being if an innocent could die, one should never act to save millions of innocents. This isn't liberalism, it's insanity, not because it is absolute, but because it assumes that a) all enemies will negotiate and be willing to compromise, and b) it is better to sacrifice freedom, one must assume, than to kill a few innocents in trying to kill those who will not rest until they get to decide for us what freedom is, and whether we should have any.

He says the power in democracy rests with the people, not with the government, which is something not as partisan or radical as he thinks it is, but something most people believe, liberals and conservatives alike, and thus is either is so obvious as to not be worth saying, or it makes no sense -- in a democracy, the people are the governed and the government -- yet gets a standing ovation, as if it were revolutionary to say "democracy is people" like Charleton Heston yelling about Soylent Green.

He makes the common error of assuming that all conservatives are anti-protest (we're not; both Zinn and I agree that they are major forces in driving policy and raising public opinion and discourse and should thus be preserved), and that the government is inherently anti-protest (which is just silly), and dismisses reasonable doubt. I get frustrated, as people who assume stuff about me that isn't true, especially people who proclaim that they know my motives for action and belief comprehensively, are a pet peeve of mine.

In my mind, I begin to get cocky. I stop taking notes. He says that no wars should ever be fought. Ever. If a madman is at your door and can't be reasoned with? No such thing, apparently -- words and compromise are always the answer. Zinn has been offering criticism so long that you realize he is offering no solutions, only critique.

Suddenly he is finished.

To those who don't understand math and society, standing against someone who stands for peace equals standing for the opposite of peace. This is what Zinn claims, forgetting, as he himself said at the beginning of his talk, that there are many and multiple ways to see things, and we must try to include them all. But we must remember that Zinn stands for not just ideals, but specific methods of reaching those ideals. Zinn, like the rest of his far-left, almost socialist liberal peers Chomsky and company, believes in a particular kind of peace, because of his particular biases towards the universe. He himself acknowledges, in his speech, that history is biased, that the choice of whom and what to represent flavors what we mean by history, that he believes that class is the important lens. But surely, by inference, no single text could possibly be definitive, or even more correct than another, but also, the broader the spectrum of choice, the fairer. And if that is true, he is in no position to suggest, as he did to one querent at the end of the program tonight, that cognitive dissonance is somehow both the reason that anyone might be in favor of a war, ever, and somehow absent, solved, in those who believe that peace is always the answer in the short term, even if it brings ruin and utter devastation in the long term.

I prefer to aim for long-term peace. That is why I am a moderate conservative: I am a realist. Unlike Zinn, it would seem, I recognize that my point of view of history may determine the way I understand the present -- but it doesn't suddenly make the present what I want it to be. I recognize that social science is a lens, not a physics of the behavioral universe. Magritte might say that the painting of a pipe is not a pipe, it is a way of seeing a pipe.

The true fundamental cognitive dissonance in his own argument? How can one man, one political platform, believe both that it is important to oppose the results, including sexism, torture, and worse, of what WE see in our imperialism as "weaker" value systems of others in other cultures, through organizations like Amnesty International -- and also believe that it is always going to be possible to reason with those who lose out in such scenarios when they come for our blood? If you want to change the world in the image of freedom and justice, you must be willing to assume some people might not WANT freedom and justice for all. And sometimes, those people have both the wherewithal to kill you and your wife and your brother and his wife -- and the determination to try.

To put this all another way:

A bunch of kids are mad that the school cancelled a trip to NYC this weekend for the big protest:

Students: Why are you anti-protest?
Me: There's a difference between being anti-protest and being committed to preserving the lives of the protesting community. I, for one, think it would be a great loss if the main body of organized protesters in the US were to fall to a single terrorist act merely because they "forgot" that banding together in one place makes them an easy target, and that there is a real and present danger from terrorism right now even as we commit our energies as protesters to other issues, such as the possibility of war in Iraq. Sure, such a terrorist act would have a strong short-term impact on public opinion, but we'd have lost those who can often best guide that opinion in the long term.

Give me liberty or give me death is a noble idea, but it's hard to exercise your liberty later on when you're dead now, and it doesn't excuse painting a big target on your butts, guys.

posted by boyhowdy | 9:41 PM |

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