Friday, February 10, 2017

Malevolence and malice

Here is one lawyer's very erudite, well-argued reading of Trump's migration order.  As the title implies, he argues that the migration order's intent was shockingly malevolent, but that this malevolence was only tempered by the incompetence with which it was drafted.  While this gives us a stay on the worst effects of this particular executive order, it bodes ill for the republic in the long-term, since neither the malice nor the sense of haste behind it are becoming of a president, yet neither of them shows any signs of diminishing with time.  The competence with which this urgent, malevolent agenda is executed, on the other hand, will surely improve as the President hones his approach.

Says the author, "Put simply, I don’t believe that the stated purpose is the real purpose...When do you do these things? You do these things when you’re elevating the symbolic politics of bashing Islam over any actual security interest. You do them when you’ve made a deliberate decision to burden human lives to make a public point. In other words, this is not a document that will cause hardship and misery because of regrettable incidental impacts on people injured in the pursuit of a public good. It will cause hardship and misery for tens or hundreds of thousands of people because that is precisely what it is intended to do."

For the past few years I have slowly begun to articulate a trend I'd been observing for some time before.  In a sentence, I would say that public discourse in the US, mainly in Right-Wing politics but also in many other spheres of society, has tended toward a malicious desire to hurt.  I'm not just talking about the tone or lack of decorum in the words people use, though that is ugly too.  No, I mean in the content of what is proposed, insofar as it is now commonplace to knowingly promote ideas that are inherently damaging, demeaning, or oppressive to large swaths of the population. 

I imagine that from the beginning of organized society, leaders have frequently been faced with the archetypal dilemma of choosing what is best for the common good, even when you know that some people will be hurt by that decision.  In such situations, the appropriate attitude to assume (whether it's sincere or even if you're just bullshitting because you know it's what people demand of you) is one of reluctant gravitas, of begrudgingly accepting a solution that you know is not ideal but that after much thought you have deemed to be the best one.  Big examples are things like dropping the atom bomb on civilians because you calculate that it will ultimately cause fewer casualties than a protracted amphibious invasion and occupation, or enacting Civil Rights laws even though you know it will cost you and your party politically.  On a smaller scale, parents make all sorts of decisions that may be burdensome for their children in the short term, because they believe they are better for the child or society at large in the longer term.  In short, a true leader must be ready to make difficult decisions that may cause hurt to some, if she believes that the decision is morally correct or ultimately beneficial to the common good.

I feel though that the Right has gradually conflated hurting people, which is often the unfortunate corellary to a noble decision, with the noble decision itself.  In other words, there is now some inherent merit or desireability in hurting people.  This is a totally twisted version of what I've described above.  Politicians and citizens in this new, sick mold love passing laws that humiliate the poor, even if the policy (like mandatory drug testing for public aid recipients) actually costs more money than it saves.  So instead of imposing an unfortunate trial on the poor for the sake of saving money for the rest of society (and ultimately being able to more efficiently help the poor), you are just maliciously imposing additional hardship on them for its own sake.  Instead of following a screening system set up and constantly improved-upon by experts in defense, human rights, terrorism, and migration, you propose a refugee ban that is at once infinitely nastier and more hurtful, yet exponentially less effective at ensuring the security of the nation and the goodwill of our neighbors.  The collateral human damage has gone from being the unfortunate side-story to being the end goal unto itself.

When a person is operating on these terms, when they are simply trying to cause hurt because they get a perverse glee out of it, then I don't really know what to do.  You can't talk reason, you can't even talk enlightened self-interest to someone like that.  They're just bent on destruction.

I've talked a bit about all this before, in terms of the cynical tendency to label positive things like honesty, belief in the common good, and defense of the oppressed, as negative traits like gullibility, weakness, or political correctness.  I've also recently written on our society's instinct to blame the victims or the losers in our rigged economic system, as well as the disconnect of the Right Wing from the real issues affecting most people in the States.  I guess the present post is just my distillation or my connecting-together of these different trends, as a disconnect from reality means we don't even care about whether a policy remotely begins to meet its original stated goal, a natural urge to blame and oppress the weak leads us to delight in their suffering, and a cynical attitude salves our conscience by convincing us that everyone else is up to the same nastiness as we are, but they just put on a show of false decency.

Anyway, the author I linked to at the beginning, Benjamin Wittes, really ties together his analysis very neatly, using a legal framework to articulate some of the points I've been trying to get at for a while.

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