Saturday, May 14, 2005

Devaluation: Can we talk? Pt I

My brevity muse is on vacation this morning. Writing and the thinking that should precede it are not my strengths, so I am told. Longer essays are far enough beyond my power and patience that you won't have to worry about browsing here and finding yourself stuck reading my choplogic for ten minutes. I've been hatching this ramble about why I write the Executioners Thong for quite a while but others have echoed my concern so the time is right to join them and address the underplayed matter not so much of whether liberals and progressives have values, but why they don't clearly put them forth.

To stave off the chaos that stalks my paragraphs, an outline:
  1. intro
  2. why progressives might not be inclined to talk up values
  • we prefer action to words
  • we are cynical about overuse of words like morality
  • we are diverse, one message won't fit all
  • values are dynamite why touch a dangerous topic
  • we don't believe in absolutes
  • we don't like vague generalities
3. why we should
  • our silence is contrasted to the PR campaign of the right
  • our silence is a vacuum the right is happy to fill
4. how we should
  • avoid arrogance
  • avoid negative statements of value…we have plenty of bloggers saying what ISN'T right.
  • subtlety doesn't work well
  • sarcasm is mean fun but it is not communication.
  • rudeness:Civility itself is one of the values of a civilized people.
Sections 3 and 4 are still to drafty and I just gotta get something out for comment. Here are sections 1 and 2. I wish Bloggger's spellcheck worked for me, sorry.

Introduction: Yes, I do think there is a problem.
I've heard it said that liberals are inclined to avoid the V word. We think it is abused and steer clear. But others are using it. Most galling to me is that it is claimed that U.S. voters, tipped by the appeal of a "clearer message about values", gave the bush league its "mandate" to roll back years of progress and to mix religion with politics.

With a lifetime of ignoring politics and barely time to sample the
blogging at PBA and a little MSM, I am not really in a position to
accurately characterize the volume and themes of output that name or
espouse the "values" of progressives. My impression, FWIW, is that
there are implicit ethical views in most of what I read in the PBA and
my comfort with those views is WHY I write here. But our clearest
thoughts about values are expressed in the disgust at the abundance of
glaring ethical lapses of those in power and those grabbing for power.

Not good enough! Regarding clear simple statements of what behavior
is incumbent on any member of society and to a lesser extent, what
behavior a society should permit any member, I do sense a Silence
of the Left. I see a number of conditions that may all play into this

2. Some possible reasons why progressives don't spout value talk.

We prefer action to words.
When all gets said and done, what was said is remembered more
clearly than what was done.

I have heard it said progressives tend to focus more on action, on
pitching in more than on ideology. Thats a good thing but not a
completely effective mode [assuming its do I know?] to have
impact beyond your own neighborhood. When we talk, or write, we talk
about what to do more than what to say. Its true that doing is
the ultimate espousal of a value but it is not the same thing as
communication of that value.

We are cynical about overuse of words like morality
Far worse than stating a principle you uphold and being shown the
error in it would be to state a principle which, due to culture and
convention, people were afraid to call BS on, but which few actually did
or could live up to themselves. Gradually such tactics encumber all
discussion of principled living in a thick fog of cynicism.

The worst conservatives, giving religion a bad name, shout about moral behavior and values from their pulpits and anchor desks until it is an empty, toxic caricature, a suit of armor from which the body of ethics has been removed.The term "family values" is about as vague as they come if you have no context. If it is honestly explained to you, you might say to yourself "oh, its just a code word for a policy that Leviticus was the last word that ever needed to be written on sexual behavior". The long history of abuse of high sounding phrases by many politicians of all stripes has left a nation jaded. A value should not be used like a politician's promise. The principls themselves have to be on the table for examination. It is easy to be skeptical when the moral backbone of some program or agenda is declared unassailable and left out of the discussion. I suspect that the already deep cynicism about values can only worsen with the degeneration of popular [i.e. not official] political discussion in to a bash-fest devoid of any respect for the other guy. In this atmosphere values are only up for attack, not discussion or analysis.

While we have far to go before principled public policy could be the promise of politics as an enterprise, we can move it in that direction. To the extent that reluctance of liberals and progressives to tout their own values may be collateral damage from cynicism about overblown value statements from the right wing, liberals are just going to have to take it upon themselves to reverse cynicism and restore the benefits of "standing for something". Make sure the principle is something real people could actually live up to and that it can be derived from common sense notions of right and wrong and put it out there.

We are diverse, one message won't fit all
If an army cannot hide behind one champion, then each warrior must fight.

Our blogging shows that a collection of interests need not be monolithic nor funded by corporations to have a voice. But the conservatives have shown how it helps in making messages that get an audience. Progressives don't much go for litmus tests and put out a lot of little messages rather than a few sledgehammer slogans. Our bumper stickers are clearest about what we are NOT. We are not bush supporters. Progressives are a diverse lot to say the least but we really are united by more than sharing a dismissive opponent. Our bumper stickers would paper the back of a bus. That is a drawback for a national campaign of one-way communications to a broad unknown audience. Remember you always have two messages. You each have some bumper sticker at the heart of YOUR issue and if you are a progressive person, a tolerant person, a liberal person, then that bumper sticker is not likely to be at odds with the messages of others who are also inclusive in their thinking about how to secure their needs and rights in a pluralistic world. So go ahead and do the embarrassingly obvious: state the relation of your cause to the more liberal mindset and then deliver your bumper sticker. You are leaning on the strength of our combined numbers and simple priorities when you do that and at the same time you add to them.

Values are dynamite. Why touch a dangerous topic
You are either in a community or you are in a brawl

Values have importance beyond their being literal statements of what
is important and guidance for personal choices. They define
communities. Just this business of having one root in community and
one in the personal makes values hard to teach and talk about. And
they inform life beyond the communities in which they are doctrine. I
could not set forth some notion of principles of common, decent
citizenship without, for instance, repackaging a fair number of the
better precepts and practices of Christian teaching...they have soaked
into the fraying fabric of American culture [well, the precepts
anyway] But "better" would be according to my judgment of what is
benign and enlightened or some generally accepted metric of societal
benefit. We live in a world of communities within overarching
community of a nation/society. Shared values of the overarching
community, particularly those calling for fairness and tolerance and
respect for persons and their privacy are the planks and nails of
which our social contract is constructed. They often go unarticulated
until breached or laws and jurisprudence bring a society's walk in
line with its talk. These bonds that keep pluralistic society from
falling to pieces with militias, pogroms and boycotts are frail. Its
ironic how that falling to pieces runs on incitement of one sect or
faction couched in terms of reducing the threat posed by the "wrong"
values of the other sects or factions: "values" and them/us identities
are readily and disastrously miscible. There is a fundamental
inconsistency in such a process of undoing the bonds of a pluralistic
society: appeal must be made to powers above the good of all to
justify breaking the truce between factional value schemes...but
those powers are only defined and declared sect by sect for the good
of a few and generally held to be above review, appeal or even logic.
A sectarian value scheme can only be advanced as an obligation on the
society as a whole at the cost of removing the primacy of "the good
of all" This undercuts the notion that tolerance protects ones
freedom to apply his particular sect's or group's values within the
sphere of ones own community. An individual must recognize they are
a member of a community and accept the burdens to deserve and maintain
the benefits. This parallels the status of constituent communities
within the larger community. So, yes, your instinct to tread
carefully in making value statements is valid. It /is/ playing with
dynamite. How else do you move mountains? Just be careful.

Individual and community are yin and yang. If there is one that can
only be defined in terms of the other, if you simply cannot have one
without the other, then seeing opposition between the two is an error,
an unbalanced focus.

We don't believe in absolutes
There are two ways you can constrain your path through life: use Values as guidance or use absolutes as leg irons.

Only the most basic notions of right and wrong even approach
"absolute" so don't back off from values because they offend
progressives when stated as absolute but also offend conservatives
when spoken of as relative. They are guidance, rules of thumb. A
progressive should know when to simply note that there are exceptions.
We confront fundamentalists and other self worshipers in godly robes
who are not interested in any analysis as such analysis is going to
place the analyzed in some greater context and that is
adimit that they are just one of a bunch of competing isms makes the
illusion of absolute rectitude and certainty blow away like so much
smoke...this is why they have to control their debate with us...with our
loose alegiences to isms...because for them, every cent is at
stake...its also why the debates must end up with the true believer
gloating at their triumph over reality even as they press their hands
over their ears.

We don't like vague generalities
You can never say exactly what you mean. But that's a dumb reason to play dumb.

Consider the following example of a value statement. It is one so
obvious that many would not feel the need to state it let alone
justify or elaborate it: Actions ranging from one person's choices
about a conflict of interest to a community imposing a regulation on
its members should always be weighed critically on the scale of "the
good of all". That's a bit vague, but general guidance is
necessarily so. Perhaps progressives are leery of generalities and
more trusting of the specific. Still, who would argue against that
statement? Don't you think that an attempt to apply it to particular
cases will, on the whole, be a benefit to the health and harmony of
the community in which the particular case arises and gets worked out?
Who would be put off if they knew that is where you were coming from,
so to speak?

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