Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Rhetoric of Choice

Robert M. Jeffers considers the case of Robert Daniels, who’s been detained in an Arizona hospital ward because he’s infected with drug-resistant TB, and has apparently failed to comply with “voluntary” infection-control measures:

{T]his is the kind of fear and ignorance I am much more concerned about than the abstractions of who is dominating our "mainstream discourse" with what ideas.
In my own post on this subject, I described the stance of Wendy McElroy, a libertarian who believes it’s indefensible for the state to isolate Daniels, and therefore wants the matter to be handled privately (i.e., by vigilantes who’ll “ensure” his isolation, by force if necessary).

My kneejerk view is that it is arguably acceptable for the state to defend society by isolating Daniels, so long as it’s done “humanely” (which, as Jeffers states and I believe, is not the case in this instance).

And yet. I recognize to my dismay that this stance implies that there’s a humane way of being inhumane, so long as one makes a few rational compromises (much like the one McElroy makes in order to sustain her ethics from a point completely outside it). Naturally, one wouldn't dream of doing such things if it weren't for the common good (as identified by, or with, some appropriately "wise" wielder of power).

I've heard a similar logic applied to Iraq, come to think of it: Why did we invade, when the more humane policy of containment and sanctions was working so well? Or to put it another way, why bomb and shoot people when you can isolate and starve them?

In Resurrection (1899), Leo Tolstoy wrote:
If a psychological problem were set to find means of making men of our time--Christian, humane, simple, kind people--perform the most horrible crimes without feeling guilty, only one solution could be devised: to go on doing what is being done. It is only necessary that these people should he governors, inspectors, policemen; that they should be fully convinced that there is a kind of business, called government service, which allows men to treat other men as things, without human brotherly relations with them, and also that these people should be so linked together by this government service that the responsibility for the results of their actions should not fall on any one of them separately.
Tolstoy's conclusion was that one must take responsibility, by opting out of a system that fights evil with evil.

Of course, that's impossibly highminded. And besides, it'd hardly be rational to choose a philosophy that's potentially incompatible with our long-term survival. (Unless there were serious money to be made.)

Speaking of rationality, David Klinghoffer argues that what PZ Myers has dubbed “uppity atheism” is essentially religious, because it’s based on a metaphysical certainty about the nature of reality.

Which I could live with, if Klinghoffer were willing to grant atheism-as-religion the respect he demands for religion per se. He wants atheism to be a faith - complete with its gospels and priests – but simultaneously wants to claim that it's not a real commitment, and provides no meaning or comfort to its believers. Atheists are intolerably arrogant and self-satisfied fundamentalists, and undernourished souls “racked by despair at life's apparent meaninglessness," depending on which stance is more effectively dismissive at a given moment. Heads he wins, tails they lose.

Elsewhere, Klinghoffer says that "Iraqis...should not be regarded as hopelessly enslaved to their culture -- nor to the legacy of Saddam Hussein. They can be liberated in soul as well as in body, turned into the first democrats in Arab history, if America wills it." In this, he agrees nicely with the “uppity atheist” Christopher Hitchens who uses the horrors of religious fanaticism as an alibi for supporting the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq (while implicitly supporting its strategy of exploiting religious hatred to gain support for the “War on Terror”).

Still, let's give credit where it's due: Hitchens may be a drunken, rage-addled, warmongering, morally bankrupt coward who's incapable of admitting his mistakes, but at least he doesn't have an "invisible sky buddy." In this, if in nothing else, he's chosen to be rational.

In what I see, perhaps unwisely, as a related argument, Sheelzebub points out that there’s a difference between the ideal and the reality of “choice,” and that this difference has something to do with power:
When we have punitive laws aimed at poor women, the rhetoric of choice rings hollow. When we have a history of pushing sterilization, Norplant, and Depo on mainly poor women of color (and damn the ensuing health problems), the rhetoric of choice rings hollow. When we hail lower birthrates among the poor as what will save the poor, and ignore things like economic justice, the rhetoric of choice rings hollow. When we insist on punishing addicted women for not magically kicking the habit while pregnant and simultaneously turn them away when they seek help (since, you know, we have better things to fund with our tax dollars, like the Iraq war), the rhetoric of choice rings hollow. When we threaten to take away the children of poor women (many of whom are women of color) because of circumstances beyond their control, the rhetoric of choice rings hollow. When welfare-to-work policies are coupled with expensive daycare and the demonization of poor mothers as “welfare queens,” the rhetoric of choice rings hollow.
Which brings us back to Jeffers’ point: What do we allow to happen to other human beings - and to ourselves - while we haggle over our pet abstractions, and grind away at whatever's left of our rhetorical axes?

And to his other point, which is that my blog sucks:
If left blogistan has proven anything, it's proven that it's always easier to complain than to construct, to tear down rather than to build up, to propose wholesale replacement of the bums in charge with our bums, because once our bums have the power, they'll use it wisely!....

Power cannot be used wisely. It can only be used.


Rmj said...

Actually, my blog sucks. Yours is ok.

But quit posting these long, thoughtful pieces I don't have time to digest. I need a quick, harried, off the cuff post of pre-digested CW that I can agree with after the first sentence!

Now I'll have to come back again and again. That's so annoying!

Phila said...

But quit posting these long, thoughtful pieces I don't have time to digest.

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye!

I can assure you, at any rate, that this post is extremely harried.

Interrobang said...

Hey, I didn't have to read further than the title. You had me at "Rhetoric," in fact. ;)

Phila said...

Hey, I didn't have to read further than the title. You had me at "Rhetoric," in fact. ;)

Another victory for protherapeia!