Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else
Don’t let Columnists Arrogate your Moral Agency
06/20/2014Posted by on
A week and change ago, a group is Islamist militants called ISIS (or ISIL), stormed Mosul, Iraq, conquering considerable land while the Iraqi army fled. ISIS has since instituted brutal and repressive governance, murdered many Iraqis in religio-enthic cleansing, and has declared its intent to wage war in order to destroy rival religious shrines. They are now marching towards Baghdad and may have in fact started a regional war that will be temporally coterminous with a massive spree of ethnic cleansing.
Anytime something horrible happens in Iraq, you can count on the usual suspects saying the usual things and so they have. We’ve had two genres of column filling the papers and the blogs: “why we must militarily intervene in Iraq” and “how can you possibly consider military intervention in Iraq?!?!?!!” Even with the bias of being an interventionist in my heart-of-hearts, I’m pretty sure all of the slaughter creates a natural, even healthy impulse to intervene. I’m reminded of the famous lines of the serenity prayer.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
You’ll note that the call for serenity is not a call for a hardened heart. It may not be wise to intervene in Iraq, but there is a particular cruelty in dismissing the case outright.
Hardened hearts seem to be a common affliction, as the argument raging seems to treat the moral price of war (killing on a mass scale) and inaction (standing by as killing occurs on a mass scale) as a convenient prop for establish relative worth as a writer, thinker, policy leader, or person. Cue James Fallows:
Working hypothesis: no one who stumped for original Iraq invasion gets to give ‘advice’ about disaster now. Or should get listened to.
— James Fallows (@JamesFallows) June 13, 2014
Look, I get it. The chutzpah of those who advocated for an Iraq invasion, unchastened by their blunders in percieving reality, is surely as annoying as it is bewildering. So too is their unwillingness to serve their audience by acknowledge the credibility debt they’ve run up. Yet, none of it infuriates me quite the same way as the inspiid misplaced opprobrium of an opponent who insists that blame for the war lies with a handful of columnists (or bloggers, or other opinion writers). Andrew Sullivan is particularly bad, having claimed to have the blood of hundreds of thousands on his own hands, as he generously shares it with all who, like him, made the mistake of supporting the Iraq war a decade ago but, unlike him, have not since recanted.
This moral indictment of the columnist (from another columnist) is fundamentally an aggrandizement of writers by way of arrogating moral agency from the reader and common citizen. How else can Sullivan indict himself and his fellow opinion writers, but not the millions of Americans that advocated for war around their dinner tables? Until policy making authority becomes a part of your purview, the difference between a passionate pounding of the dinner table among friends and the opinion pages of the New York Times is how far the voice carries – a matter of degree, and not kind. The opinion writer has a longer reach than the rest of the common citizenry, but neither grasps the levers of power.
The opinion writer, on his very best day, makes a compelling argument. The best columnists and bloggers I read help me think, introduce new information, and shape my language. That is not nothing, but the most brilliant column is not a sufficient cause of anything, least of all war. You cannot be convinced without your consent, and so to will you maintain your sense moral agency and the responsibility until you consent to its loss. Then, and only then, can an opinion writer aggrandize themselves at your expense. And aggrandize they will.
During a very interesting talk sponsored by the Veritas Forum, Peter Thiel observed “we often get mistaken conceptions when opposite sides agree on things”. The shared assumption too many opinion writers on the Left and Right is that the the world should spin on the credibility and right thinking of opinion writers. Don’t you worry about it reader, just leave the thinking to us.
Enough of that nonsense. It has always been the responsibility of all citizens, of all members of a polity to be engaged in the course of their state. We need to argue about ideas and right and wrong, and opinion writers by hook or crook will be a part of that. Some will be better than others, and some will have louder voices with more reach. Let them set down the markers, suggest the topics, and shape the language if you must. But they are not your masters, and they do not steer the ship. Don’t let their delusion of grandeur be your mistaken of inferiority complex.