Saturday, September 13, 2008

Socrates and the Election

A theme of Plato's dialog Gorgias, it seems to me, is the fundamental meaning of language and communication. Specifically, is language ultimately about power or truth? Perhaps this question is the basic question not only of the Gorgias, but of Platonic philosophy in general.

Among the arguments Socrates deploys on behalf of the position that language is primarily about truth, not power, is that those who know are more powerful than those who are ignorant. In other words, power depends on truth. The course of the current election cycle seems to bear out the Socratic argument.

The left came to the similar conclusions after their losses in the 2000 and 2004 Presidential elections: They had lost because they were too nice. The Republican attack machine, it was said, had spread lies and distortions to which the Democrat campaigns had failed to respond. John Kerry had been "swift-boated." They were not going to allow this to happen in the 2008 election. This time, the gloves would come off and the left would respond immediately and decisively to any attacks on the Democrat candidate.

This analysis, especially after the 2004 campaign, struck me as fantastic. John Kerry was just a terrible candidate. He made his Vietnam experience the center of his campaign, then told some easily refutable lies about it. He claimed that his experience in Cambodia during Christmas 1968 was "seared into his memory", for example, but it was not hard to prove that his unit never was in Cambodia. 

The result of the left telling itself self-serving falsehoods about the 2004 election is that Barack Obama became the 2008 Democrat nominee for President. Whatever one thinks of Obama, every candidate has strengths and weaknesses, and Obama has some obvious and perhaps fatal weaknesses for the general election. The biggest is that he is simply inexperienced and has virtually no record of accomplishment on anything significant. The second is that, what record he has, is as far left as anybody's in mainstream politics, much further left than the center of gravity of American politics. Were Hillary Clinton the Democrat nominee, a doctrinaire liberal but not of the kooky left, this election would already be over.

But the left believed its own propaganda, and believed that they could nominate a far left candidate and win, if only they were ruthless enough when it came to the general election. So when Sarah Palin was nominated for vice-president on the Republican ticket, they jumped at the opportunity to show how they would not make the "mistakes" of 2000 and 2004, and came at her with no holds barred. It's already conventional wisdom that these attacks dramatically backfired. This is the manner in which ignorance manifests itself as weakness. 

It also provides a "moment" in which the left has the opportunity to face the truth. Their efforts to lash out on behalf of Obama have undeniably hurt Obama rather than helped him. There must be more to power, then, than merely conviction, resolution, and strength of will. The missing element is truth, for the ignorant are weak no matter how strong they may appear or what their strength of will. They are weak because their efforts are as likely to backfire on themselves as hurt their enemies. For the left to help Obama rather than hurt him, they must put aside their myths about the American electorate and Obama himself, and take honest stock of his strengths and weaknesses, and how those characteristics are seen by the American public.

Bill Clinton, whatever his faults, was not a man who believed his own propaganda. He may have publicly equivocated on the word "is" in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but in private counsel with his political advisors I am sure he held no truck for such equivocation. He called in the outsider Dick Morris prior to the 1996 election because he knew he needed the truth about the state of politics in the country; he knew Morris would tell the truth (to Clinton) about Clinton's strengths and weaknesses as a politician, where he stood with the American electorate, and what he needed to do to win in 1996. Among other things, Morris convinced Clinton that he could not run as a candidate of the left and win; thus the famous Clintonian "triangulation." Clinton managed to keep separate the sophistry with which he argued in public, and the hard-headed rationalism with which he managed his career in private. 

Obama seems to have some awareness of this distinction, but the activists on the far left "supporting" him seem to be entirely unaware of it. The old cliche about not needing enemies with friends like these seems appropriate here.

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