Thom Stark on Radical Centrism and Plato’s Republic   Leave a comment

When Thom Stark and I finished our conversation last week, I finished with this salvo. Lela

I look forward to exploring how a centrist who believes in the “common betterment of the greatest number of fellow citizens” can reconcile a civil libertarian stance. We’ll come back to it next week.

Thom StarkAgain, I think its probably a propos here to point out that my political views are different than those of William Orwell Steele. On the issue of civil liberties, though, I think his position and mine are pretty closely aligned. What puzzles me is your apparent belief that my more-or-less Utilitarian philosophy is somehow incompatible with impassioned advocacy of civil liberties – because I see them as perfectly complementary.

Recall that I said I believe elected officials in a democracy have a duty to strive for political solutions that provide the greatest benefit for the largest number of their fellow citizens, without thereby infringing on the rights of the minority. In my view, that last bit is every bit as important as the first part. If you can’t come up with a political solution without stepping on the minority’s rights in the process, you haven’t managed to achieve an acceptable solution at all. Of those rights, I hold the most important to be free speech, and preserving that right is of the highest importance to me, personally. That’s not in aid of some vague, selfless crusade, either. As a writer, the freedom to write about whatever I wish is central to my identity. Without the freedom to point out that the Emperor isn’t wearing pants, you, me, and every other aspiring scribbler on the planet is relegated to the status of mere entertainer – a jester in the service of le roi, fit only to lampoon the foibles of his most risible chamberlains, but never, ever to impugn the dignity of the king himself.

Screw that.

I completely agree with that.

The freedom to say what you please – and to act as you please, too, so long as no other person is harmed by your behavior without their explicit, advance permission – is key to what it means to be an American. It’s built into our self-image; a part of our cultural DNA. That’s why I was so apalled at my fellow citizens’ reaction to the 9/11 attacks: it seemed like they were lining up to abandon the Bill of Rights in exchange for the mere illusion of greater personal safety from terrorism. The rise of civil asset forfeiture as a routine butress to civic coffers, granting the NSA and the FBI sweeping exemptions from the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, prosecuting journalists for disclosing classified information, serious, chronic, widespread prosecutorial overreach under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, increasing militarization of civilian police forces, the warrantless use of law enforcement facial recognition and license plate databases, have all exploded since September 11, 2001. But, as the Boston Marathon bombing demonstrated, none of these Constitutional transgressions has done anything to make us safer from terrorism. They have merely added to the climate of fear and oppression in this country, without providing any demonstrable benefit to society as a whole.

DSC01494I also totally agree with that. Here in Alaska we’ve had several federal prosecutions of people whose only “crime” appears to have been venting about the federal government. 

As a radical centrist, I’m convinced we need to roll back these infringements on civil liberties, before we become too accustomed to them. That’s an essential element of preserving the rights of the minority: pushing back against the curtailment of civil liberties, and embracing greater, rather than lesser liberty of speech and action. The Westboro Baptist Church bigots sicken me – but I’m grateful that my nation sees the importance of allowing them to speak, regardless of how hateful their speech is. There’s a saying among the Ancient Internauts: “The proper response to distasteful speech is more speech, not less.” I’m all about that. You don’t defeat a philosophical opponent by forbidding him to talk – you beat him by allowing him all the rope he requires to hang himself in the court of public opinion.

As a Baptist myself, I wince every time the Westboro Baptists do anything. I’m embarrassed as an American and as a Christian by their existence. They are not representative of what Biblical Christians, Baptists or fundamentalists believe. They give all of us a bad name and reflect badly on the God they claim to believe in. What they believe does not have a basis in God.

I assume you’ve read Plato’s Republic? It made me want to take a bath – and it wasn’t so much the staggering conceit of his proposal that “philosopher kings” would somehow magically be wise and benevolent rulers, as it was his complete contempt for civil liberties that made me want to wash off the slime. A police state, with poetry as a capital crime, rigidly-enforced social immobility, and a total lack of regard for human aspiration as a central governing tenant – and that philosopher king governance model – sounded a lot like Soviet socialism to me. I think we both know what a profound failure that experiment was. The thing is, while economic central planning was key to the Soviet collapse, I think the Politburo’s restrictions on social mobility and free speech were at least equally responsible for the fall. Governments are like Tinkerbelle. When the people they supposedly govern stop believing in them, they simply go away.

I try to keep posts in this conversation to 1000 words, so I’m going to break it here and post my response next week. Thom has given me much to think about. Lela


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