“But who versus? Who are we doing it versus?”

The finale of the fourth season of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia opened with Charlie bursting into the bar, carrying a messy stack of paper, and telling his friends that he wrote a musical—just because he wanted to. They’re skeptical. “Nobody writes a musical for no reason; that doesn’t make sense,” says Dee. But Charlie protests, so they decide he’s playing an angle: “Who’s the mark?” “Whose face are we shoving this musical in?” “Who versus? Who are we doing it versus?”

As you might expect from a show whose main characters are terribly amoral, Charlie does have an ulterior motive and the angle he’s playing ends up completely explaining his ridiculously weird musical. Only in the world of It’s Always Sunny would someone ask who a musical is “versus”—but “who versus” is a pretty good question when you’re talking about politics. Of course, many people make no secret of who they’re fighting, whether it’s the d—ed socialist liberals with their wealth redistribution or the right-wing ideologues with their Christianist legislation.

Since this is my first post at the league, I’d like to tell you who I’m versus. I’ve already wasted way too much time trying to find the right political label for myself, so I’ll just try to be straightforward about who I’m against. Here it is: I’m doing this versus the unduly confident. I believe the people who pose the biggest danger to good government and the current and future health of the Republic are those who refuse to come to terms with the intrinsic limits of their own knowledge.

Modern movement conservatism took shape and gained strength only because mid-century liberalism overreached. Hubris with regard both to the Great Society and to Vietnam made an opening for an increasingly ideological opposition from the right on economics, and from the left on the war. How much mileage did economic conservatives and other dissidents of the time get out of “unintended consequences” arguments? And how many on the anti-war left understood clearly that it was worse than foolhardy to regard war as a manageable instrument of foreign policy?

Andrew Bacevich, in The Limits of Power, argues that the primary political function of ideology (not a word I like, by the way) is to serve as a broad rationale for action. Daniel Larison quotes this passage often. I puzzled over this take on ideology until I realized that an ideology offers not only a system for interpreting the present, but a schema for predicting the consequences of events. Someone who clings to an ideology will be sure that action X will result in consequence Y, never considering the possibility of consequence Z. So when Z happens, the ideologue always explains it away as a function of some other action or interference on the part of some other agent.

I use “ideology” as a pejorative. We all need some kind of framework for interpreting the world around us and for guessing at the consequences of our actions, and we need to acquire these frameworks from those who came before, even if we modify them in the process of application. Such a framework I prefer to call a tradition. The key feature of a vibrant tradition is its continued grappling with its own internal problems and contradictions. Traditions always change and grow over time. A tradition that ceases to do this is a dead tradition, and a tradition that is dead or near death I will call an ideology. (Most of this stuff comes from the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. I’m sure I’ll be citing him often in posts to come.)

Undue confidence is one of the vices that can be found on either side of the virtue of proper confidence. On the other side, there’s indecision. The politically indecisive person is the one who is paralyzed by a complete inability to make decisions in light of limited knowledge of consequences. The virtue is proper confidence, which, when coupled with political courage, is the disposition to take stances on what one believes to be right while watching for signs that one may in truth be wrong.

All of this is a layer or two removed from actual politics, and for that I apologize. I tend towards treating ideas abstractly, mainly because I rarely have the knowledge to be specific about policy particulars, but I’ll try to avoid doing it too much when I write here. So I’ll close with two examples of undue confidence. Frank Schaeffer at the Huffington Post offers a sad example of overconfidence in President Obama’s ability to control the economy. I worry that you’ll think I’m the kind of guy who takes cheap shots, but this is the kind of thing I’m talking about:

“Great times are coming in the form of one of the biggest sea changes in American history: we’re about to shift to a vast trillion dollar entrepreneurial green economy. We’re about to rebuild our infrastructure. And for the first time in decades the super rich are being asked to pay their fair share, which will make this country a fairer and therefore, richer and happier place.

“The dishonor that was foisted on our military by President Bush, who turned some of our men and women in uniform into torturers, is being reversed. (I note this as the proud father of a United States Marine.) We have a president with remarkable courage who is tackling everything from environmental concerns, the economic bailout, military restructuring, the ending of one war and the intelligent prosecution of another war, the recalibration of our tax system, and health care reform all at once. This total reinvention of America will create a huge new pool of jobs and opportunity.”

There’s absolutely no reason to be so confident in the face of an utterly unprecedented expansion of government power over the economy. Schaeffer has a bit of a point—better to be here than to be many other places in the world—but he just ruins it by refusing to consider that no matter how smart Obama is, what he’s attempting might be impossible. Better to argue that what the government is trying could go wrong in all sorts of ways, but it’s still the best available option. (Whether it actually is the best option is beside the point of this post.)

But Schaeffer’s just an erstwhile evangelical and an excitable memoirist who’s got a blog at HuffPo. Overconfidence from policymakers is actually dangerous, and arguably most dangerous when it involves the United States occupying other nations. Architects of such wars would assure us that they’ve got the contingencies under control, but war is war, and in war victory can require awful actions. I think we can be confident about this: human beings will always underestimate the cost of victory.

I’m not saying that it’s bad to be partisan. I find myself caught between traditions, and I often wish I could commit to one. In short, I find myself wishing I were a better partisan. When you’re a part of a tradition, you need to commit to it. When I satisfy my doubts about which political tradition I’m entitled to claim, I’ll join the struggle of hashing out the central conflicts of that tradition and arguing for its superiority over other traditions. But contributing to the growth of one’s tradition requires the virtue of proper confidence. We live in a world where many people lack that virtue. And those people: that’s who I’m doing this versus.

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20 thoughts on ““But who versus? Who are we doing it versus?”

  1. Nice piece, Mr. Brafford.

    I'm not sure what I appreciate most, aside from the piece itself: That Larison deemed it to be worthy of linking and commenting, your superb contrasting of ideology and tradition, or that you managed to go from Sunny to Bacevich. Remarkable!

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  2. I'm incredibly troubled by this line from Schaeffer:

    "“The dishonor that was foisted on our military by President Bush, who turned some of our men and women in uniform into torturers, is being reversed. "

    To condemn President Bush for permitting/approving certain morally abhorrent policies is one thing, and a fair one at that. However, to suggest that he turned anyone in a tortures seems to be beyond the pale, to me anyway. Ultimately, the decision to torture or not to torture is one of conscience. A soldier can be loyal to a superior officer who offers an unconscionable order or he can be loyal to his conscience.

    I can't fathom what enduring court-martial might do to one's external honor as a soldier; however, I'm well aware of the ineffable sorrow one experiences when he dissents from his conscience on such a grave issue. I'd take my chances with the former, knowing that I'd done right by God and by country, before I'd go with the latter, knowing that I'd done right by the state.

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  3. I don't buy it, Nathan. Look, if the order hadn't come down the pipeline to begin torturing prisoners then nobody would have tortured prisoners and hence nobody would have been or have become a torturer. But the fact is, in an organization like the military you're going to be able to get it down, no matter how many consiencious objectors refuse. The individuals who did the torturing are of course complicit and guilty, but their superiors all the way up to the top are equally responsible, and probably more so.

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  4. I wouldn't try to parse Schaeffer's statements too closely. Most of what he says on the blog is too broad to be worthy of a close response. Click through and you'll see what I'm talking about.

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  5. Great job, William (is there a ceremony where you go from "Honorary" to actual "Ordinary"?). I need to second Nathan's comment about going from Sunny to Bacevich — and you've given me yet another reason to regret not having watched more than half an episode of that show.

    As far as "Who's responsible?" — I'm verging on repeating conventional wisdom that there's a dual guilt, applicable to both superiors and those carrying out the orders, but I don't think I could PROVE that E.D. is more right than Nathan — I don't know I could say HOW they're "equally responsible, and probably more so." (I've got a friend who's fascinated by that very question and is trying to set up a research project of some sort to look at it — I'm waiting for him to start and then finish, mostly so I can mooch off of his results — whether I'm agreeing or not — without having to do the tedious parts of the research myself.)

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  6. E.D.: "The individuals who did the torturing are of course complicit and guilty, but their superiors all the way up to the top are equally responsible, and probably more so."

    I don't disagree at all, and perhaps in my late-night, Scotch-fueled haze was problematically unclear. I don't mean to clear President Bush, or any other "superior" officer, of culpability. Not in the least. I'm just not comfortable with the verb employed by Schaeffer: Bush, et al. may have given the order, but, ultimately, the soldier forced to obey either conscience or c.o. turned himself into the torturer.

    Unless one makes the probably defensible argument that, before any particular situation arose in which he had to make this choice, the psychological impacts of serving (specifically in certain scenarios) already contributed to a certain moral deadening, or dormancy, a more direct result of decisions made by Bush and officers that turned the soldier into a torturer, or at least predisposed him to become one given the opportunity.

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  7. A lot to unpack here, but I'm really busy right now. One thing that seems pertinent to the discussion between Nathan and E.D. would be the argument in Philip Zimbardo's Lucifer Effect. There he makes a compelling case, based on an all-too-real experiment that he conducted (the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment), that systems can be set up in ways that make widespread abuse inevitable even where the abusers are otherwise good and ordinary people. I can't sum up the whole explanation, but it's a fascinating argument. He doesn't absolve the abusers of blame, but he makes a compelling case that it takes very little to make one of us into an abuser, even if the person setting up the system does not actually order the abuse. The people who are able to overcome these systemic incentives turn out to be rare indeed.

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  9. Thanks for reading my rather complimentary semi-related response.

    In thinking about your post, I wonder if ideology represents a sort of permanent vacation from the uncomfortable winter of our own cognitive dissonance. If that is the case, I wonder (and ask), if the role of ideology, pejoratively used in a political sense, is meaningfully different from the role of faith, more benignly used in a spiritual/religious sense?

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  11. I'm sure other commentors will disagree with me here, but I have to say that, although faith can be and often is used to avoid facing difficulties and contradictions in one's way of thinking, my reading of theology has me convinced that the faithful have just as often grappled deeply and subtly with the moral, philosophical, interpretive, and plainly theological weaknesses of their predecessors. Most of the theologians we remember, we remember because they resolved or redescribed an extant problem in such a way that progress was made towards its resolution. John of Damascus, Anselm, Aquinas, Newman, Barth: these men were not ideologues. You can think the revelation from which they claimed to take their bearings was utterly (even transparently) false, but the practice of reasoning from that revelation (and, I would argue, still is) a living tradition.

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