Freedom from Blog

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Torturing Dick

Was anyone else reminded of the scene in the movie Dave where the Rovean former chief of staff, Bob Alexander (Frank Langella), awaits a pivotal presidential speech by Dave, the naif, expecting to be lifted up in triumph by his enemy's implosion, only to be unmasked as an authoritarian fraud?

Despite the artificiality of its media framing, there was something deeply historical and even "essential" about the Oba-Cheney "debate" today over national security and civil liberties. Modern thought, as we all know, revolves around the rise of "the individual." Since the beginning of the modern Anglo-Saxon politics almost 400 years ago, during the English Civil War, two competing visions of that individualism--the Hobbesian and the Lockean--have vied for preeminence. No matter how much the GOP waves the flag of founding "originalism," they will always be Hobbesians at heart.

Cheney's speech today was pure Hobbes: we live in a dangerous world where enemies are out to kill us; for freedom to survive, we need an absolute and unquestioned executive authority to secure our lives. In the war against those enemies, no legal rules or moral boundaries can possibly apply, since they would undermine the ability of the sovereign to mount an effective defense of his people. Once that leader has absolute freedom to act, the people will bask in his reflected power and will see themselves represented in him, whether or not they had any role in choosing him. What irony of a recent-but-former VP launching an unprecedented attack on a new president? Obviously, Obama is a usurper. Cheney has never accepted democratic norms, and, like Hobbes, his conception of legitimacy has nothing to do with the niceties of legal process and everything to do with projections of raw might. Indeed, those legalities are signs of "weakness" and hence work to undermine one's claim to power. Fear and Dick, to twist the old line from Hobbes, were "born twins."

Hobbes is often held up as a founder of modern "liberal" thought thanks to his intensely individualistic premises. But his thought is better described as "authoritarian individualism." It is a reaction against the first stirrings of "Jeffersonian" liberal democracy, appearing in England's Leveller movement, obsessed as the latter was with democracy, natural law, and due process. Hobbes may be modernity's original reactionary and its eternal doppelganger, co-opting the assumptions of his opponents to subvert their larger ends. Most of the right-wing thought over the subsequent centuries has followed a script first sketched in Leviathan: the American Tories (Seabury, Leonard, Boucher, Chalmers), the Social Darwinists (Spencer, Sumner), the existentialists (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche), the Fascists (Mussolini, Schmitt), and the contemporary right (Coulter, Cheney) all offer variations on his central theme. We must choose between apocalyptic and unmediatable opposites: peace vs. war, capitalism vs. communism, faith vs. damnation, friend vs. enemy, "real" Americans vs. terrorists. Moderation, pluralism, and practical reason have no place in a world of absolutes, which is why authoritarian individualists bear so little resemblance to the philosophical "conservatism" of an Aristotle or a Burke. As Cheney said today, "In the fight against terrorism, there is no middle ground." If there's any question whether the libertarians belong in this rogue's gallery, note that Cheney's speech today came at the American Enterprise Institute. Libertarians do not revere capital-ism, they worship capital-ists. In Hobbesian fashion they gaze upon great power and see themselves represented. Call it "vicarious freedom."

Obama's speech, by contrast, was pure Locke: a measured appeal to reason and the rule of law in recognition that, even in a state of war, the laws of nature--great respecters of persons in their personhood--must be upheld. Of course, Obama also inherits the messiness of Locke's proposed solution. Rather than embracing the Leveller position, which called for legislative supremacy without royal discretion, Locke invented a hybrid model that combined legislative supremacy with a separation of powers, intended to preserve some measure of executive "prerogative," especially in matters of war. Locke also gave one of history's great rhetorical defenses of individual rights, while in practice entrusting those rights only to the determination of the majority in parliament. Which sounds a lot like Obama's effort today to have it both ways: to affirm the rule of law and the "co-equality" of the branches while avoiding torture investigations and forging ahead with military commissions and "prolonged detentions," all of which quite reasonably strikes our civil libertarians (heirs to the Levellers and Algernon Sidney) as watered-down Bushism.

Or, it is law vs. politics. As president, Obama needs to pick his battles, and he cannot afford one with his own bureaucracies (CIA, Defense, etc.). So he's deferring the big questions until he's got a surer hold over his own branch. His power vis-a-vis Congress is greatest now, so he needs an immediate focus on his legislative agenda: health care, cap and trade, etc. But his power over the executive departments is lowest now, so his ability to alter the legal framework of the War on Terror is modest. In the meantime, let the civil libertarians howl. If they can build a groundswell of political pressure to shift the political ground over the next few years, all the better, especially if the Dems can pick up more seats in Congress in 2010 or 2012. Maybe that's too complex a bank shot to be a plausible explanation. It may also be the mirror image of the risky GOP strategy of putting all their chips on Obama failure.

Either way, these are the political trade-offs left us by a Lockean tradition where the pluralism of politics trumps the singularity of power of which Hobbes dreamed, one based in the awesome will of the unconstrained individual. I can only hope that the arc of a Lockean presidency will bend toward freedom.


At 8:12 AM, Blogger fronesis said...

VERY nicely done, tmcd!

At 10:08 AM, Blogger Will said...

I agree, very nicely done!

At 11:56 PM, Blogger said...

Wonderful, loved it. Great title, excellent analysis, nicely composed.

Also 'Kiss me Cato' (from three years ago (!) but just discovered). Terrific summary of the Trenchard/Gordon letters.

Will keep watching. Best wishes,


At 12:45 AM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

Thanks, all, and always good to have a new reader, Peter.

And thank you all for not noting my central flaw: the Locke frame in the post allows me to finesse my fundamental ambivalence b/w (a) my trust on Obama and his political judgment (which, coincidentally, traces my usual pragmatism) and (b) my strong sense that the civil libertarians have got this dead right on matters of law. All well and good to bash the Bushies, but now that we have to govern there are tough choices we've been able to elide for years.

I also need to do something with the notion of "vicarious freedom." I'm sure this has been said before and better, but I do like my coinage.


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