PROFESSORS PRINCIPLE! Have we been too hard on our cable shows? Consider what Turley said: // link // print // previous // next //
SATURDAY, MAY 23, 2009
PROFESSORS PRINCIPLE: Some say weve been too tough on our progressive TV shows. We understand, but we disagree. We think progressives deserveneedmuch stronger logical frameworks than we tend to get on these programs.
Consider Jonathan Turleys appearance on last nights Countdown. Turleys the current go-to guy on all torture topics. He appeared last night to discuss Obamas recent fleeting remarks about possible preventive/prolonged detention. (To watch the segment, click here.)
Would prolonged detention be a good idea? For ourselves, we wouldnt judge at this time. Obama hasnt proposed anything yet. At this point, we dont have a clear idea what he might have in mind.
But Turley took a different approachoffered a different framework. As is his wont, he rejected the notion out of hand, based on matters of principle. (For Turley, these things almost always come down to matters of basic principle.) But in the following presentation, wed have to say that Turley gets the basic notion of principle wrong. Sorrythis just isnt the way principle works in most peoples actual lives. Nor is it clear that principles should work the way Turley describes:
As the conversation continued, Turley started to thunder. Preventive detention is just a fancy way of saying...were not going to apply the rule of law, he said. Soon, things became even more Turleyesque. If we allow the president to create this special category, we are inviting something that is nothing short of tyranny, the professor informed.
But its often like this on our cable shows. At weeks close, Cheney was getting close to treason. Obama was flirting with tyranny.
Is preventive/prolonged detention a good idea? For ourselves, wed be inclined to wait for the argumentsto wait for some specific proposal. But Turley takes the idea off the table with his statement about what it means to be principled. Basic Turley: Being principled means you hold to your principles, no matter how distasteful the consequences may be. But thats just almost totally wrong. At present, its a familiar way of framing progressive arguments. But that statement just doesnt describe the actual role of principle in most human livesincluding the lives of almost everyone watching last nights show.
In fact, there are very few principles to which people hold in the manner Turley describes. Lets consider a very basic principlethe principle which says its wrong to kill other people. Very few people hold to this principle in the way Turley describes. Your government kills people all the timesometimes in extremely large numbers. (Some are soldiers, killed deliberately. Some are civilians, killed as collateral damage, sometimes in massive numbers. Neither the soldiers nor the civilians have committed crimes.) But almost no one says boo about this, including those on progressive programs. In truth, very few people apply that famous foundational principle in the way Turley describes. Almost no one maintains that we can never kill anyone no matter how distasteful the consequences.
Its OK to kill (at times)but not to detain? Our logic may be breaking down.
Turley seems to know the law. On the other hand, he often strikes us as amazingly clueless about basic political reasoningand he tends to dwell in a principled realm which isnt part of the actual world. Ten years ago, this impulse led him to thunder loudly about the need to remove Bill Clinton from office. Very few pundits screamed louder or longer about the damage that would occur if we abandoned our lofty principles in this particular matter.
Turley became a Famous Cable Pundit during this period. Along the way, he picked up a regular column in the Los Angeles Times. Below, we offer chunks from three of those columns. For the record, impeachment occurred in December 1998; Clintons senate trial occurred in February 1999. Along the way, Democrats proposed censure as a saner alternative. But Turley stuck to his lofty principles, no matter how distasteful the consequences. For our money, his love of pure principle led him to reason unwisely. By the end, he felt like road kill, thanks to the judgment reached by all us unprincipled rubes:
As weve often said about Turleythough only in love: If he likes a president, he wants him removed. If not, he wants him arrested.
We assume that Turleys a thoroughly decent person. We assume he knows the law. On the May 14 Ed Show, he flatly misstated Obamas stated reason for withholding those torture photosbut thats the only time we can recall seeing him misstate a fact. But Turley tends to be found inside Platos cave, dreaming dreams of some imagined species of absolute principle. We thought his judgment was bad ten years ago. Were often amazed by the way he approaches some issues now.
Again: The framework he offered on last nights Countdown is just pretty much wrong. Very few people apply any principle in the manner he described. When we take that framework as our own (on preventive/prolonged detention, lets say), were working our way into a corner where little real life goes on.
For ourselves, well wait to see what Obama proposes. At present, we have little real idea what hes talking about. If he actually makes a proposal, it may turn out to seem unwisewrong. But its hard to know until more has been said. In real life, people do adjust their principles depending on the consequences. People who refuse to do so tend to end up thundering as Turley did ten years ago. We like to ridicule such peoplewhen theyre found in the other tribe.
We shoot and kill soldiers all the time, although they have committed no crimes. We have always detained POWs; they hadnt committed crimes either. Very few people really believe that you never kill anyone, no matter the consequences. So were allowed to killbut not to detain? Well wait to judge Obamas proposal. But we think the professors logic has already broken down.
In our view, the professor was living in la-la land when he dreamed of Clintons removal. In general, we think he tends to offer dreamy frameworks on our TV thingy now. But much of what we see on these progressive programs seems to play an unfortunate, hidden role. Presentations seem designed to make us progressives feel extremely moral and good. This is a good way to please the demo. But in seeking such feeling, we may remove ourselves from the logic of the real worldthe actual logic of actual people, including people like us.
Final point: We think progressives are currently getting an odd assortment of gurus on these progressive programs. One of our leading gurus is the guy who assembled Powells UN report; another one of our go-to gurus begged for Clintons removal. Each guru may well have something to sayTurley more than Wilkerson, in our current view. But we think they make a slightly odd couple. Are they just there to make us feel good?
As with you: A question played in our heads as we listened to Turley: WWOORWS?
RW, of course, is our own Richard Wolffe. We think you can take it from there.