The Politics of Cruelty


As usual, Will Saletan has some good rhetorical analysis from last night's debate. Chuck Freund's piece from our May issue on politics and "media intimacy" is also interesting to reread in light of the debate.

What strikes me here is that we're getting a Republican version of a mode of thought that conservatives used to love to mock when liberals deployed it. That is, you get the sense reading certain lines of argument in defense of social programs that whether or not they're effective is secondary: These programs are (as Robert Nozick famously noted in an essay from The Examined Life that fueled the belief he'd gone apostate) a way of signalling a kind of collective caring about the plight of the badly-off. Opposition to them is a sign that Republicans are mean, regardless of whether any particular critique is on point. Similarly, any suggestion that some people are badly off because of bad choices they've made risks "blaming the victim." That position always struck me as a kind of metastasis of a good rule of interpersonal etiquette: If a friend calls to tell you he's lost his job because of poor performance or chronic lateness, your first response (even if you might more gently raise this point later) is not to say, "well, it serves you right, slacker," rather, you commiserate.

A similar attitude now seems to be prevalent in foreign policy apologists. The problem with negative appraisals of the situation in Iraq isn't that they're wrong, as such, but that it's somehow cruel to the families of soldiers to suggest they've died for an error. And if you point out that the U.S. is bearing the brunt of the war costs in both blood and treasure, you're debasing the contributions of our allies.

In both cases, independent of which side is ultimately in the right, this seems distinctly unconducive to serious and frank discussion of either domestic or foreign policy.