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The price of loyalty

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, October 13, 2004

The most important fact to notice about the political books which reach The New York Times bestseller list is that while they come from both ends of the political spectrum – never the center – they all have something in common. In every case it is possible to discern not just the book’s subject matter but also the author’s conclusions without opening the covers. Jack Huberman’s “The Bush Hater’s Handbook” must surely represent the limit-case, but Coulter’s Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism isn’t exactly cryptic. Dante, you will recall, put traitors in the ninth circle of Hell, closest to Lucifer.

These books are designed to be judged by their covers, allowing us to pick our politics a la carte. We don’t read to discover whether Bush is the anti-Christ – we know that he is – we just need to be reminded of the evidence, preferably in a large typeface and with plenty of bullet points. Or conversely, since we already know that everything that is wrong with America, and possibly everything that has ever gone wrong anywhere, is the result of the malevolent influence of liberals, it would be nice to be equipped with a knock-down argument for use with colleagues who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge Sen. Ted Kennedy’s responsibility for the 1989 San Francisco earthquake.

Many of these books are rich in facts and statistics. Not all of them are false, but they are all pre-screened. You are more likely to catch malaria in Boston than encounter a statistic which might cast the slightest doubt on the author’s views. We all know that it is possible, even easy, to mislead with statistics and facts ripped from their context, but chose to temporarily forget this when we read Coulter or Moore. To the facts and statistics of our opponents we respond with the refined skepticism of the ideologue, who sees only what he believes.

Partisanship is not the same thing as extremism, nor is it taking one’s own side in an argument. The defining feature of the partisan is that he subordinates, consciously or unconsciously, his judgment to the views of his party or faction. That is why George Orwell said that a writer cannot be a loyal member of any party. His support for a party cannot supersede his obligation to be honest with his reader or he will have betrayed his craft.

Paul Krugman, a professor of economics at Princeton, has written over 400 columns for The New York Times. Not once has he written a column in support of a Republican politician or policy. You can find less partisan Democrats in Congress.

In a representative democracy such as the United States – and, now, such as Afghanistan – citizens vote for whichever candidate or party they think is the best of those on offer. Since each party must seek to appeal to a variety of very different groups, often with differing interests and views, we should not expect to find a party that we can support unreservedly, just one that we think will be better than the others.

For many this vision of democracy is not enough to justify their emotional investment in the process. The appeal of partisanship is that by identifying a party’s cause with all that is good and just most easily achieved by thinking as little as possible about that party and focusing entirely on the sins of the other(s) – it makes it easier to see politics as a fight worth entering, or to justify time and effort already sacrificed.

But, as Orwell saw, the price of this unqualified loyalty is high. Krugman’s columns, collected under the unintentionally felicitous title, “The Great Unravelling,” are best read as a cautionary fable in which, week by week an extraordinarily talented economist – tipped by many as a future Nobel Laureate – slowly gives up his wit, his style, and his economic expertise for his cause.

In Monday’s New York Times, one of our own professors wrote an editorial in which he argued that if Catholics honestly examined the issues, they might return to their Democratic roots in the forthcoming election. I am not Catholic and shall offer no an opinion about whether a good argument could be made to support that claim, but the argument in the article did not even come close. Leaving aside a variety of other objections, the argument depended crucially on a misunderstanding of the Church’s teachings so elementary that it is hard to read it as anything other than a deliberate attempt to deceive the reader. Coming from an accomplished scholar, arguments that bad illustrate the true cost and final demand of partisanship: the mortification of the intellect.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the philosophy department. He is not eligible to vote in the forthcoming election and prefers not to endorse either candidate. He can be contacted at pwicks@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.