June 4, 2003

My Little Hobgoblin

Eric Rudolph—assuming he’s guilty of the crimes of which he stands accused, something that I think there is at least as good a reason to believe is a fair assumption as there was to believe Osama bin Laden the mastermind of 9/11 in the months following that attack—is a terrorist. There seems to be broad agreement about that in the public sphere. Not just a terrorist, but one who is morally indistinguishable from the other targets of the war on terror. His fatality count is lower than al-Qaeda’s, but that is not the measure of whether one is morally guilty of terror.

Eric Rudolph appears to have had the aid and sympthy of more than a few people in the area where he conducted his fugitive existence. It also seems there is broad agreement among pundits and bloggers that this is a vexing thing. Am I wrong in thinking, however, that conservative commentators have had, on average, only a small proportion of the vehemence they would have had about such sympathy in comparison to what would happen if there were a number of people spotted in Santa Cruz, California with “Go Osama!” t-shirts on? Andrew Sullivan is quite clear that Christian fascism and intolerance is as bad as any other form—but where is the equivalent of his “Sontag Award” ? Where is the red meat feeding-frenzy over signs in Murphy, North Carolina expressing support for Rudolph? Where is the pulpit-pounding? Where are the bills in Congress proposing to rename Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer "Liberty"?

More than anything else, this is why the disease of partisanship in American public discourse disturbs me so greatly. It is not because I believe being “in the middle” is somehow an intrinsically good thing, or that everyone should seek balance, or that neutrality and objectivity are desirable and achievable. Strong sentiment and distinct philosophical positions are a good thing. Bland, safe, calculatedly moderate arguments carry no necessary virtue.

I am viscerally repelled, however, by the profusion of thinkers and speakers, bloggers and otherwise, who seem unable to recognize that once you make a stand on principle, your flag is planted there for all to see. If you’re going to surrender your principles and lower that standard, then have the guts to say so. If you’re going to continue to hold other people accountable for moral and philosophical inconsistency, then have the courage to hold the line when the fault lies with people you normally count as allies. In fact, that’s when it matters most to speak up and be counted. It is no big deal for a neocon to hammer liberals all the live long day. That takes no effort and it takes no cojones. If a particular blog or opinion column or politician’s speeches are 95% bashing of the usual suspects and a meek 5% of the time involve some modest peep of self-reflection, then you’re in the presence of someone whose public thought degrades rather than elevates the life of the nation.

Consistency is no hobgoblin when it is about matters of fundamental ethical principle. I have no problem with someone who wants to understand the roots of Eric Rudolph’s actions and approach his sympathizers with an honest desire to comprehend their faith—but if so, you must display the same sense of ethnographic curiosity in approaching al-Qaeda. I have no problem with someone who approaches al-Qaeda and any sympathizers with uncompromising moral fury—but they then need to be equally dedicated in the pursuit of Eric Rudolph’s fellow travellers.

There are two absolutely basic things that a public intellectual is obligated to do. The first is to seek out issues, questions and problems which are highly relevant to your basic principles and philosophies , and apply those philosophies with rigor and honesty, making your core views as transparent as possible in the process. The other is to seek out those problems and questions which your own philosophies cannot deal with adequately, to expose and confess your own contradictions and limitations. Most public thinkers fail both tests, often badly, pursuing only the easy chance to score points for their own team.

It is time to play a different game, to take back public life from the stunted, withered, corrupted spirits who now rule the field. That is what the defense of liberty now requires: an incorruptible willingness to go wherever we must, even if we find the trail leads to our allies—or ourselves.