Regarding Moral Seriousness

Of course no one wants to be accused of not having any real moral seriousness, but we love to make that accusation. Those who opposed the Iraq War accused the Bush-Cheney crowd of not having any of that – you just don’t wage a war on the wrong people using questionable rationales, to prevent what you think might happen in the future, even if most people think your vision of the future – nuclear weapons from Iraq raining down on America – is as nutty as your assessment of the past – that Saddam Hussein was secretly buddies with that Osama fellow, even if all the evidence pointed the other way, that they were enemies. War is a serious business. You just don’t start a big one on a whim. That’s hardly moral seriousness. That’s amoral politics – something to keep your side in power. Or really, it’s immoral. There were other ways to deal with the guy and his regime.

And that was countered on the same grounds. Oppose the war and you obviously prefer to keep a brutal dictator in power, and he gassed his own people, and he tried to kill Bush’s father, and he sent money to people who don’t like the fact that Israel even exists and used that money to fund suicide bombers and rocket attacks. He was a bad man doing bad things. And anyway, the Iraqi people wanted to live in a Jeffersonian secular democracy, with a largely unregulated free-market economy – everyone does, and God wants that freedom for everyone (God’s gift, as Bush said), and it’s immoral for people not to be free on those specific counts. So you can hardly claim moral seriousness if you can imagine Saddam Hussein remaining in power – he had to go. And then you got all the talk about Neville Chamberlain and Munich Agreement regarding the Sudetenland. Neville Chamberlain said he had worked things out – Peace in Our Time, and all that – and then we had another World War and six million dead Jews and all the rest. And you were told that Neville Chamberlain was immoral – had he any moral seriousness he would have told Hitler to stuff it, or pulled out a small pistol and shot him dead right then and there in Munich. And that’s why we don’t talk to those who disagree with us, and we mock our allies who suggest we should. If you’re morally serious you kill the bad guys, or at the very least topple their governments. People who are morally serious do not work things out. They change things.

And that is how we argue. It’s the same with capital punishment – it’s wrong to kill someone, and not the state’s right to do that, as a matter of moral seriousness – and it’s wrong to let them live, given what we think we’ve proven they did, as a matter of moral seriousness. It’s the same with abortion – it’s wrong for the state to intervene when a woman is facing the agonizing and complex decision about having an abortion, and to treat her like a child who doesn’t know a damned thing and can’t think straight, and just tell her to forget it, even if she and the child may die – and it is wrong to murder children, or small groups of a few cells that could later become children, because no one knows when they become children, and morally serious people don’t allow others to kill children.

And at the other end of life it’s the same thing – morally serious people wanted to keep the body of Terry Schiavo fully functioning, and other morally serious people wanted to respect what she had once said she wanted – if all that’s left is a large mass of tissue and all else is gone, pull the plug. Morally serious people said the husband wanting to follow her wishes had no right to do that, and that her parents had the right to keep what was left of her body alive. They pulled in Congress and the president – the only time Bush interrupted a vacation in his eight years – and claimed moral seriousness. They passed a law that it didn’t matter what she once said she wanted and what the husband thought about anything. The husband claimed moral seriousness too, and had the courts and the law on his side – and claimed what the government was doing was not what the government should be doing. But he was told that the government was acting out of moral seriousness, and he was obviously just not a serious person, nor had been his wife it seems. That didn’t work out well for anyone.

And on it goes. I’m morally serious and you’re not – that’s now how we talk about things. Each side snorts derisively and then smirks, and then turns to the crowd and points to the fools they have to deal with. Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush were masters at that, but folks on the left can do that too – see a site like Smirking Chimp.

And this week brought the Senate hearings on Goldman Sachs – and no one quite knew what to make of what they said they had been doing. They make markets for big players, and if someone wants to sell something, they figure out a way for them to sell it, even if it was crap based on crap based on aggregated crap and the seller was buying hedges to make money as it failed completely, as it had been designed to do.

And the Goldman guys were pretty much told they had no moral seriousness, as that sort of thing had crashed the economy. But their testimony was pretty much that if you’re going to bring up moral seriousness, you obviously have no idea of what they do for a living. They said they broke no laws and were being financially responsible by buying insurance – going short or buying credit default swaps or whatever – on what they held and knew was going to tank. They were not responsible for what other people decided to buy for whatever reason – those others were big boys too and could take care of themselves. There was a bit of a disconnect of course – both sides are supposed to claim moral seriousness. Goldman Sachs wasn’t playing fair. But that’s okay. When they got into the excruciating detail of what they had been doing no one knew what the hell they were talking about. After the hearings there was the usual parade of senators on all the news shows, claiming moral outrage. But that’s our default position.

You can see that as in response to Arizona’s somewhat draconian new immigration measure, Raul Grijalva, the Democratic congressman from Arizona, called for a boycott of his own home state. Then on Fox News, Steve King, the Republican congressman from Iowa, was asked if there was anything wrong with that, and King said their certainly was:

Well, it looks like the case is that, that he’s trying to scare the businesses out of Arizona, or he’s trying to get the businesses to change their position and press the legislature to reverse the law that was just signed by the governor the other day.

I’m wondering if we look at the map of Congressman Grijalva’s congressional district if we haven’t already ceded that component of Arizona to Mexico – judging by the voice that comes out of him, he’s advocating for Mexico rather than the United States and against the rule of law, which is one of the central pillars of American exceptionalism.

King called Grijalva a traitor. Grijalva is giving part of Arizona to Mexico, a congressional district where they’re all traitors anyway. King was outraged. Morally serious people don’t betray their own country.

Or you could look at another way. There’s Pat Bertroche, a Republican congressional hopeful in Iowa, who sees things this way:

I think we should catch ’em, we should document ’em, make sure we know where they are and where they are going… I actually support micro-chipping them. I can micro-chip my dog so I can find it. Why can’t I microchip an illegal? That’s not a popular thing to say, but it’s a lot cheaper than building a fence they can tunnel under.

Here we’ve moved in to moral relevance – these folks are no more that dogs. There’s no need to be serious about them at all, even if the far edge of far-right Republicans have always been against involuntary microchip implantation as it is now secretly done by our own government. But we’re talking about dogs here, of course.

In the Washington Post, Michael Gerson tries to sort out all of this:

Few Americans would happily tolerate living near a porous border with a failed state, or, in this case, a Mexican state that has failed in certain lawless regions. Portions of the border have descended into an arid state of nature – a vacuum of authority filled by drug gangs, human traffickers, roving vigilantes and desperate migrants who sometimes die in the desert or in drainage ditches. It is offensive to find such chaos under the American flag.

This is an argument for effective border enforcement. It is also an argument for a guest-worker program that permits an orderly, regulated flow of temporary, migrant laborers, allowing border authorities to focus on more urgent crimes than those resulting from the desire to provide for one’s family.

But chaos at the border is not an argument for states to take control of American immigration policy – an authority that Arizona has seized in order to abuse.

But somehow this all got caught up in moral seriousness, or lack of it, to no good end:

This law creates a suspect class, based in part on ethnicity, considered guilty until they prove themselves innocent. It makes it harder for illegal immigrants to live without scrutiny – but it also makes it harder for some American citizens to live without suspicion and humiliation. Americans are not accustomed to the command “Your papers, please,” however politely delivered. The distinctly American response to such a request would be “Go to hell,” and then “See you in court.”

Maybe so – but many people instinctively associate suspicion and humiliation with moral seriousness. The path to God is through humiliation. Be humble before Him – and forget your petty concerns. And Original Sin, which you must overcome, is all about suspicion – you’re guilty until you prove to God that you are innocent – or close enough, because you have repented your sins, and also repented those you got as a freebie for just being born. So living with suspicion and humiliation is, for a good Christian, how you live in this world, and should live. There’s a bit of that behind this law. Suspicion and humiliation are good for you, really.

But then Gerson adds this:

The Arizona law – like others before it – does have one virtue. It sorts Republicans according to their political and moral seriousness.

That depends on what you consider moral, but Steve Benen runs with this:

At this point, the serious GOP contingent is quite small, but it’s slowly growing. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) criticized Arizona’s awful new immigration law yesterday, and was soon followed by former DHS Secretary Tom Ridge and California gubernatorial hopeful Meg Whitman. Florida’s Marco Rubio also doesn’t care for the odious Arizona measure, and even former Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado believes it goes too far.

But all of those Republicans have one thing in common: none of them currently hold public office.

What he’s getting at is that’s it’s easy to display moral seriousness when you’re not in office, and when you are in office, all you’re left with is political seriousness.

Benen points to Amanda Terkel keeping track of Republican lawmakers who’ve stated their public position on Arizona’s new law, and she only found two – in the House, Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida, and in the Senate, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. They are the only two currently in office who have been willing to criticize the Arizona law.

As for the others, Benen notes that Politico’s Kasie Hunt reports they’re playing dumb:

Democrats can’t shout loud enough about how much they hate Arizona’s harsh immigration law. But Republican lawmakers are hedging, dodging, and reaching for nuance – anything to avoid taking a strong stand on Arizona.

House Minority Leader John Boehner says it’s a state issue and, well, it has 70 percent support in Arizona. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) is “sympathetic.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), caught between Texas’ large Hispanic population and his job running national Senate campaigns, thinks it’s “probably constitutional.” …

Even the normally outspoken Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) was subdued. “You know I haven’t even really been following it to tell the truth,” she told POLITICO when asked about the law.

Benen adds this:

If the issue is a test of Republicans’ political and moral seriousness, it appears most of the party caucus on the Hill is content with an “incomplete.”

Here’s a thought: what about a non-binding resolution expressing a sense of Congress that the Arizona law is a legally-dubious travesty? Why not get every member of both chambers on the record?

Republicans tend to love pushing these kinds of resolutions, hoping to put Democrats on the spot. Perhaps Dems might be in the mood to turn the tables.

But getting into a pissing match over who is more morally serious doesn’t fix much of anything.

But James Fallows compares Arizona’s new immigration law to China’s handling of foreigners:

Here’s the point of comparison between the impending Arizona situation and China: it’s no fun knowing – as citizen and foreigner alike know in China, and as Hispanic-looking people in Arizona soon will – that you can be asked to show proof of your legality at an official’s whim. But if it’s sobering to think that the closest analogy to a new U.S. legal situation is daily life in Communist China, we should also look on the bright side. With some notable and serious exceptions, I typically did not see Chinese police asking for papers on a whim. Usually something had to happen first. Maybe soon the Chinese State Security apparatus can travel to Arizona and give lectures to local police and sheriffs. They can explain how to avoid going crazy with a new power that so invites abuse. “Civil Liberties: Learning from China” can be the name of the course.

Andrew Sullivan comments:

I think what we’re seeing in Arizona is a glimpse of a possible Republican future: a police state directed against dark-skinned immigrants, legal and illegal. It’s the creation of a sub-class of suspects who are guilty until proven innocent. It was the same attitude toward terror suspects. I do not believe that torture would have occurred in this country if the victims had been white.

But on the current conventional right, Byron York doesn’t see what all the fuss is about:

No, we are not confronted by actors with heavy German accents demanding our papers. We are instead confronted routinely by people of all stripes asking to see our driver’s license. When we board an airplane, we are asked to produce a government-issued photo ID, usually a driver’s license. When we make some credit- or debit-card purchases in department stores, we are asked to produce a driver’s license. When we enter many office buildings, both private and government, security guards often ask us to produce a driver’s license. When we go to doctors’ offices and hospitals, we are asked to produce a driver’s license. When we check into hotels, we are asked to produce a driver’s license. When we purchase some over-the-counter drugs, we are asked to produce a driver’s license. If we go to a bar or nightclub, anyone who looks at all young is asked to produce a driver’s license. And needless to say, if we have any encounter with police or other authorities, we are asked to produce a driver’s license.

And one of Andrew Sullivan’s readers bugs the not-yet-a-US-citizen Sullivan with this:

It’s already federal law that all legal immigrants must carry papers and produce them upon demand, no? The new law may be ridiculous, but if this is the provision that makes you think Arizona has become a police state, then the entire nation has been a federal police state since at least June 27, 1952, when the federal law was passed.

And, speaking of which, do you have your papers on you, dear sir?

Sullivan responds:

Not always. I try to keep them at home so I don’t lose them. But, yes, whenever I go into the mini police-states with shopping malls we now call airports, I clutch my papers close. And I’ve taken the long legal route. Perhaps this helps me see things more from the immigrants’ point of view.

I’m not defending entering this country illegally. But I do think that making an entire sub-population afraid of all cops is unfair to the population and to the cops. It’s corrupting of a free society. And I think the “reasonable suspicion” clause is reminiscent of Jim Crow: Arizonans are demanding that their police officers deem every Hispanic guilty until proven innocent. I think this should end any faint chance the GOP ever had of winning back Latino voters. And rightly so.

That’s what Markos Moulitsas Zúniga predicts:

Arizona Latinos have gone, literally overnight, from being perhaps the most pro-GOP in the nation, to joining California as the most anti-GOP ones in the nation… Within a decade, Arizona will be as reliably Democratic as California is today. And when that day arrives, we’ll be able to trace it all to last Friday’s passage of SB 1070.

It’s all in the moral seriousness, perhaps. Or maybe not, as Andrew Samwick says you need to get your head in the right place and just be not that interested in personal liberty:

I think most of the negative reaction to the recently signed immigration law in Arizona has it exactly backwards. If you told me that by carrying personal identification and producing it when asked by state police, I could play some role in preventing one of my countrymen from meeting the same fate as Rob Krentz, I would happily do it. I would consider it a small price to pay, as I do each time I show identification at legal border crossings. The legal residents of Arizona, of whatever race or ethnicity, should be banding together to protect the other legal residents of their state, of whatever race or ethnicity, against harm that results from illegal crossings of their southern border. Failing to protect each other from violent crime – not from a request for identification from state police – is what “undermines basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans.”

Those were Obama’s words. Samwick is pretty much saying there’s no moral seriousness there at all, but Matthew Yglesias isn’t so sure:

When I was in Russia back 12 years ago, it was a situation where random policemen would demand that Americans produce our papers if they heard us speaking English. This was annoying on its own terms – and doubly-annoying when policemen would use it as a pretext to shake me down for a bribe on the grounds that my visa was somewhere out of order. It’s also really quite anxiety provoking to be in a situation where you’re constantly worried that if your documents are stolen or lost you’re going to be up the creek without a paddle. Personally, I actually do find America’s lack of a uniform National ID Card to be a bit odd, but I recognize that it’s part of the American spirit and I’m certainly glad that we’re not expected to be able to produce one on demand, at random, on pain of imprisonment.

Meanwhile, note that Arizona politicians certainly didn’t implement what Samwick is proposing – a race- and language-blind abdication of basic freedoms. Instead, the whole point of the law is that white Anglophone Arizonans figure they’ll never be hassled by this rule.

And see Sullivan on the Tea Party folks all in favor of the Arizona law:

More and more, this feels to me like an essentially cultural revolt against what America is becoming: a multi-racial, multi-faith, gay-inclusive, women-friendly, majority-minority country. The “tea-party” analogy is not about restricting government as much as it is a form of almost pathological nostalgia. That’s why there’s much more lashing out than constructive proposals. And yes, a bi-racial president completes the picture. And no, that doesn’t mean they’re all racists. Discomfort with social and cultural change is not racism. But it can express itself that way.

And when you when you think about it, it all makes sense. This effort to keep Hispanics at home, and worried, actually might be aimed at the legal ones – the Hispanic citizens who vote. Now they won’t, or they’ll think twice. There’ll be cops at the polling stations. Mission accomplished.

We’ll see if that happens. They can’t go that far, of course.

But whatever happens, each side will snort derisively and then smirk, and then turn to the crowd and point to the fools they have to deal with – and claim the mantle of moral seriousness.

That’s how we argue. And it’s a bit tiresome. Most of the time both sides are morally serious, in their own way, and the question is what works best to address the problem at hand. But now neither side can concede that – and we get the usual fuss and mess, and nothing much being done.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Arguing Past Each Other, Arguing with Conservatives, How We Argue, Illegal Immigration, Immigration Policy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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