Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Why the ‘Culture War’ is a Bad Model for Discussion of American Politics

February 21, 2006

You hear it all the time in the media; I’m guilty of using it as a metaphor myself. There are two viewpoints available in social and political discussions, and they are engaged in a “Culture War.” Whichever side you pick, you are instantly locked in to a position on abortion, taxes, the War on Terror, private school vouchers, Social Security, civil rights, and a host of other controversial issues. The red state, blue state mentality frames the ongoing political discussion in America as a fight to the death between two mortal enemies, a battle that will end with the total victory of one side by achieving the other side’s total annihilation. This is bad.

Just a reminder: no issue in American politics is limited to two extremist, absolutist sides, and it’s all too easy to frame it that way for a knee-jerk reaction. Abortion, for instance, is not threatened with complete annihilation by the increasingly possible overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court. Instead, the death of abortion as an extension of the Constitutional right to privacy means one simple thing: States get to choose whether abortion will be legal and how it may be regulated. I’m against that for a variety of reasons, not least among them my concern for any rollbacks of the Constitutional right to privacy when Uncle Sam is proving himself so well-informed already, but to hear the debate rage, it sounds like there are only two choices: Roe stays and everyone gets abortions or Roe gets overturned and no one does.

That’s just not how it works; instead, the idea is that the federal government just butts out, which in principle fits pretty well with my preference for free personal choice in areas of ethical controversy. Unfortunately, it also means the State government butts in, and that’s just as bad. Any government intrusion into so controversial and personal an ethical choice is risky at best; society is perfectly capable of resolving the problem without the paternal hand of Führer Bush. Being from a small town, I know there is a strong disincentive to have even a legal abortion when the people around one disapprove. Many in more accepting areas refuse on the basis of their own beliefs even when those around them think a child is a very bad idea. Each situation presents extremely hard and very private decisions that differ from those problems posed by the other, and if prevailing norms come to dictate more widely that the practice of abortion is unethical, we will know because its use will dwindle without the necessity of any government intervention. Let the People decide.

The issues of national security and personal rights have also been framed in a duel-to-the-death dichotomy. Either the President will personally read your e-mail with his morning coffee every day and probably tell your wife that you’re cheating on her with that hot little secretary at the office or the terrorists will be able to coordinate their attack plans in real-time using Yahoo! Messenger and you can expect your local elementary school to be nuked at the exact instant that the entire city of New York is obliterated. But the continuing barrage of legal argument from the administration over the NSA’s warrantless wiretaps is more than a government attempt to cover its own ass after breaking the law in conducting its investigation; it’s an underlying legal strategy of the entire Bush White House to claim extended Executive power, immunity from law on the basis of executive privileges, and a wide-ranging authority that is not only potent where Congress has not spoken but also louder than the voice of the People itself.

Richard A. Posner, a judge serving on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals who is famous for his economically focused opinions, has proposed a solution to the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping, and at first glance it looks reasonable. Allow the President to wiretap suspected terrorists as he likes, but refuse to allow any evidence so gathered to be used in prosecuting crimes unrelated to terrorism. It’s not perfect, but it’s a simple and at least partially effective solution to this problem. This looks like a good idea—if you’re caught up in the mindset of security versus civil liberties. The plan preserves your right to not be prosecuted for your private acts—as long as you’re not the one they’re looking for.

Even in defusing the public’s fears of being haled into court over their private phone calls, the rationale of such immunization requires an expansive reading of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress in the wake of 9/11. The absurdly broad reading the White House is trying to push proposes that the AUMF grants the President extra authority by putting him perpetually in his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces when dealing with terrorism, subject solely to internal review and authorized to do everything “necessary and proper” to bring the perpetrators to justice—including signals intelligence gathering like the NSA wiretaps. Thus it makes sense to exclude information unrelated to terrorism and the President still avoids the law.

Nixon famously said, “When the President does it, it’s not illegal.” Bush essentially argues, “When the Commander-in-Chief does it, it’s not illegal.” The plain language of the statutes themselves provide no basis for the argument, and something tells me that this exception was not imagined by Congress when they passed FISA or the AUMF, but now, in an attempt to exempt itself from charges of even having broken the law, the Bush regime is going so far as to suggest that the FISA regulations they are accused of violating may not be Constitutional themselves precisely because they limit Presidential power contrary to the theory of the Executive Branch that the Bushies advance.

And it’s such an easy issue to polarize! Ask anybody on the street whether she thinks the President ought to be able to simply ignore the law when it suits his purposes, and she will almost certainly say no. Ask her if the President ought to be able to bend the law to save lives and you can expect a yes. Ask if she supports broad authority for the office of the President at the expense of the power of the Congress and you get a much more interesting discussion. What could he do before and why doesn’t that work now? How broad an authority does he seek? How do we balance the two? Well, now there’s a whole universe of possibilities, and the applications are much more important.

And unfortunately, this isn’t what you hear in politics, and certainly not from the partisan hacks in the mainstream media. You hear “listening to your phone calls” from one side and “could blow up a school” from the other. Nobody reminds you that the man in office now will not stay there; even if you believe Bush is a good man who will steer the country well, remember that his successor could be much less careful with the broad powers you gave to the last guy. By forcing ordinary people to come down on one side of the “war” or the other, you shut down the discussion of the important issues; you stop people from thinking and encourage them only to fight. Not argue, fight. Everyone knows the underlying arguments for Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security and the “alternative” of nationalizing health care, so why bother arguing for anything else?

Noam Chomsky, a man with many strange ideas and a couple good ones, said of politics, "The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum - even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate."

Nothing is a more limited spectrum than a dichotomy, and when identification with one side implies adherence to a host of doctrinaire positions, the possibility of results-oriented thought goes right out the window. What’s worse, some of the current issues have been so simplified and stripped of their significance by sensationalist political framing that the screaming matches aren’t even about the important questions. You can love your country, believe the War on Terror is a just and noble cause, and still be against broad powers for your President to overrule the will of the Congress. You can believe that equality for all means food and basic healthcare for all, support strict environmental regulations, and still believe in a powerful President to protect our nation from harm. Think for yourself. Just a reminder.

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