Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Partisan Blindness: A Case Study

Tammy Duckworth at the World War II Memorial

Tammy Duckworth was born to be an American soldier.  Her ancestors fought in the Revolution, World War II and in Vietnam.  She entered the ROTC program in graduate school in 1990 at the age of 22.   In the Illinois National Guard, she chose to become a helicopter pilot because it was one of the few combat positions open to women.  In 2004 she flew over 120 combat hours in Iraq.  But on November 12th of that year, while flying over the Tigris River valley, a rocket-propelled grenade fired by insurgents hit her helicopter directly below her seat.  Her legs were blown off and her right arm was terribly damaged.  During her lengthy and painful recovery, she never lost her spirit and her optimism; she learned to walk on prosthetic legs, and she even hoped to return to her pilot duties.  She didn’t fly again, but she did become a champion of veterans, helping to create a rehabilitation center for wounded veterans and serving as Director of the Illinois Department of Veteran Affairs and the Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.  She is presently a member of the United States House of Representatives from the 8th district of Illinois.  Her determination, professionalism, patriotism, courage, and dedication to duty should make every American proud.  She is a genuine hero.

She recently received attention for her amazing verbally beat-down of a veteran’s benefit cheat.  On June 26, Duckworth sat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform as it questioned businessman Braulio Castillo as part of its ongoing investigation into whether Castillo had obtained a $500 million IRS contract because of his personal friendship with an IRS deputy director.  But what caught Duckworth’s attention was that the IRS had assigned Castillo’s company that lucrative contract as part of a program of contracts set aside for firms owned by disabled veterans.  Castillo’s claim to disabled veteran status was that he twisted his ankle playing football for a military prep school in 1984.  That’s it; there’s no more to it.  Castillo dropped out of that prep school after less than a year and subsequently went on to quarterback his college football team.  He never served in the military in any capacity and he waited 27 years to make an official claim of any lasting physical injury.  An obscure regulation allows him to be treated as a veteran, since he received his “disability” at a military school.  But he is the Holy Roman Empire of bureaucratic classification: a disabled veteran who is neither disabled nor a veteran (nor much of a human being).  So Duckworth, as seen in this amazing video, just tears him apart.  She reads from a letter Castillo wrote to the Veterans Administration explaining his condition: “These are crosses that I bear due to my service to our great country and I would do it again to protect this great country.”  Duckworth’s follow-up is a masterpiece of outrage and sarcasm:  “I’m so glad that you would be willing to play football in prep school again to protect this great country,” she mocks. “Shame on you, Mr. Castillo. Shame on you. You may not have broken any laws but you certainly broke the trust of this great nation. You broke the trust of veterans.”  Watch the video and you will be gratified to see a genuine hero smack down a callous fraud.

Duckworth is a genuine hero, even a righteous hero, but did I mention that she’s also a liberal Democrat?  That shouldn’t matter in this case, and the vast majority of conservative commentators have either supported Duckworth in this instance or ignored the matter entirely.  But there is a small minority of conservatives who actually have defended Castillo and condemned Duckworth.  Consider a writer from the hard conservative website RedState with the pen-name streiff, whose post on Castillo’s shaming calls Duckworth a “Political Hack, Professional Victim, Schoolyard Bully”.  He spins like a top to avoid applauding Duckworth and condemning Castillo.  First he blames the system:

These special carve-outs in contracting laws are wrong on every conceivable level, other than creating a feel good moment for the Congress, and one can no more be shocked, surprised, and upset when they are manipulated than one should be shocked, surprised, and upset when you are hit by a car when walking across the freeway.

So Castillo has no personal responsibility here, he’s merely the victim of overpowering liberal government temptations.  But, somehow, that same evil liberal government must not be questioned: “Regardless of what ‘Doctor’ Duckworth might think of Mr. Castillo’s injuries, the facts are that he applied for the disability rating and the VA granted him that rating. She doesn’t get a vote on it and no one should lionize her for her asshattery.”  So even a democratically-elected, badly-disabled, war-hero congresswoman shouldn’t express her anger when someone tries to steal benefits meant for genuine veterans?  The VA rules were handed down from on high, those rules have spoken and we can only submit.  We can be sure that the fair-minded Mr. streiff would just as categorically defend welfare cheats and frauds.  According to his genuinely wearing-your-ass-as-hat logic, if a government program follows its own rules then its results can never be questioned.  Anyone who does so is merely being a “hack” and a “bully”; they can’t possibly be a responsible public servant rightly condemning dishonesty and policing a public program.  It’s fascinating that such a self-proclaimed and such a self-congratulatory “firm believer that the government is our servant not our master” makes such an absolutist and appalling argument for submitting without question to those same government masters.

And he shamelessly misrepresents the cause of Duckworth’s anger:  “Duckworth took umbrage at the fact that Mr. Castillo has a VA awarded service connected disability rating of 30%.”  Actually, no.  She “took umbrage” because Castillo lied about his condition, wasted the VA’s time and resources and received gobs of IRS money that was supposed to go to actual disabled veterans.  Watch the video and that is utterly clear.  She just used Castillo’s 30% rating to make her larger point: Castillo gamed the system without regard for actual veterans.

But streiff must know all that – it’s all there in the video included in his piece!  So why does he twist himself up into such ridiculous logical pretzels to avoid the truth?  Conservatives constantly speak of “personal responsibility”, but Castillo should not be held responsible.  Government is our servant, but we must obey it without question.  It doesn’t matter if Castillo “gamed” or “defrauded” the system.  Really?  It’s not relevant?  Why does streiff recoil in such horror from that most conservative verbal instrument: the moral harangue?  He abandons all his conservative principles in his desperate need to avoid what even most conservatives find obvious: Duckworth’s condemnation of Castillo is exactly the sort of moral clarity that our political discourse is crying out for and she’s just the person to do it.  It would easy to dismiss streiff’s piece as pure partisan misrepresentation, just a shamelessly dishonest attack – particularly from a website and a writer that have in the past attacked Duckworth and defended her Republican opponent.  Clearly, that is part of what’s going on, but I believe there is something more: blinkered inability to accept a liberal Democrat as a moral authority.

In streiff’s world only conservatives are allowed the moral harangue, because only conservatives are moral in essence.  Obviously, there are liberals who believe that liberals are moral in ways that conservatives are not.  And – as the Duckworth episode shows – most conservatives are easily capable of seeing moral authority in non-conservatives.  But the essence of modern American conservatism consists of these notions: that all issues are moral issues, that all social and political problems can only be addressed by the sufficiently forceful application of simple moral principles, that only morally correct individuals have both the moral clarity and the moral strength to impose those principles, and that moral correctness is itself an essential part of an individual.  Put simply, only a good man knows what’s good.  To the kind of moral simpleton such as streiff whose ideology is unqualified by any pragmatism or generosity – that is, to a constricted and thoughtless conservative – moral correctness and conservatism are the same thing.  To be a liberal is to have a blemished and polluted soul and no such degenerate can possibly be a moral authority.  Nothing can redeem a liberal, not love of country, not love of her fellow soldiers, not courage in face of unimaginable pain and suffering.  All of these are superficialities, distractions from the underlying evil essence that every liberal soul bears like the mark of Cain.

This is the ugly, distorted face of partisan hatred.  It fascinates because it’s such a pure specimen.  And it’s in such a widely read venue.  Liberals, of course, are just as capable as conservatives of being shrill rhetorical bullies and hacks – sadly, both sides amply demonstrate that every day.  But conservatives and liberals tend to bully in different ways, each befitting their natural ideological inclinations. When a liberal slips into the deep end he becomes an egalitarian crusader slaying the dragons of privilege and authority, or a captive of anarchic fantasies.  An extremist conservative sees all politics in terms of authority that must be respected; an extremist liberal denies that any authority deserves respect.  And liberalism, with its pragmatism and meliorism, can just as easily slide into anti-ideological extremism; it can become too ready to sacrifice means to ends, too dismissive of principle; it can become relativist and cynical. Excessive avoidance of idols can itself become idolatry.  But all extremism results from the same fault: the overpowering need to purify and simplify.  The fanatic discards mitigating and conflicting principles and facts and reduces the complexity of life to a single conviction; examples abound: “all politics is class warfare”, “the state must enforce God’s commands”, “nothing should constrain great individuals”.  The logic of fanaticism leads inevitably to seeing all dissidents as enemies of the one shining truth.  And when a fanatical American conservative reviles his opponent this is how his ideology demands he do so: he denies them any moral respect, no matter how well earned.

1 comment:

  1. Tom, nice post! Although, sort of shooting fish in a barrel, no? Anyhow, the one thing I might take exception to:

    "But the essence of modern American conservatism consists of these notions: that all issues are moral issues, that all social and political problems can only be addressed by the sufficiently forceful application of simple moral principles, that only morally correct individuals have both the moral clarity and the moral strength to impose those principles, and that moral correctness is itself an essential part of an individual."

    I'd say that's an overly broad statement. Conservatism has its factions and while your description might fit a certain sub-group, you've got your corporate welfare types that are nearly amoral, libertarians (yes, often very moralistic, but not the way you mean above), and so on.

    But, all in all, good stuff. Keep it coming.