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Free Liberal: Coordinating towards higher values

Free Liberal

Coordinating towards higher values

Forgiving Politicians: A How-To Guide

by Micah Tillman

Whether you focus with Barnes on ten things Bush got right, or with Lowry on ten things he got wrong, Bush needs forgiveness. (Needs, not necessarily deserves.) Yet some of us find it easier to forgive certain things than others.

Reading through Mr. Barnes's list, for instance, you find him forgiving Bush for waterboarding and warantless wiretaps. Barnes even quotes Lincoln in support of such forgiveness. He writes:

"Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?" Lincoln asked. Bush understood the answer in wartime had to be no.

But what's so special about wartime? What magical properties does it have that enable it to make certain things forgivable that wouldn't be otherwise?


If Barnes were a progressive, he would not be forgiving Bush for the two "w-violations." What, then, is it about being a conservative that makes those violations forgivable for Barnes?

The answer has to do with what Kierkegaard called "the teleological suspension of the ethical." Though we should live our lives by the rules of the ethical, Kierkegaard argued, sometimes we encounter a conflicting higher purpose (or "telos"). In such cases, the ethical might be temporarily suspended, so that that purpose could be followed.

The conservative view, as I have argued before, is that government is (a) first and foremost a physical power, whose job is (b) to act as a neutralizing counterbalance to all the other physical powers that could threaten us.

Therefore, while the government should follow the ethical (i.e., "the law"), periodically the more fundamental purpose of government (its "telos") calls for a suspension of the ethical. Barnes seems to think this happens in wartime.

Barnes belief would seem to be that when its citizens are under unusual threat, fulfilling its purpose may require government to take unusual, ethics-suspending measures.


The trick to forgiving a politician would seem, therefore, to be the appropriate choice of "telos." If you want to forgive a politician, simply pick a view of government that would make whatever the politician did look like a "teleological suspension of the ethical."

Usually, of course, we are not that explicit and wilfull about forgiving politicians. Often, we don't even notice that we've forgiven a politician for anything.

It's often not until we encounter someone who has a problem with something that we realize there could be a problem with it. Therefore, it's often not until we've encountered some acquaintance who hasn't forgiven some politician that we notice that we have.

Our view of government subconsciously turned the politician's violation (whatever it was) into a teleological suspension of the ethical. We forgave. Our acquaintance's view of government, however, afforded the violation no such mercy. He forgave not.


What's strange about Barnes's list, however, is not that he forgives Bush for physical transgressions. That might be expected, given Barnes's conservative outlook. What's strange is that Barnes also forgives Bush for non-physical transgressions as well: No Child Left Behind, and the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit.

From the conservative point of view, both initiatives represent an absurd non sequitur: "The government has the most and biggest guns. (That's what makes it the government, and not just one among the many mostly rich, mostly European-American, mostly male conglomerates in our country.) Therefore, it should be involved in nurturing."

One might expect a progressive to forgive politicians for overstepping in the name of nurturing. After all, progressives -- as I have argued before -- see government as (a) first and foremost an economic power, whose job is (b) to initiate and facilitate two-sided (i.e., mutually-beneficial) exchanges with its citizens.

Given Barnes's conservatism, and the fact that he is showing signs of progressive forgiveness, I can only see two possible conclusions. Either Barnes has joined the new Heterodoxy Movement in conservatism, or he is, like Bush, a "compassionate" conservative. I'm not sure which would be more flattering.

(Perhaps there's a third option?)


This, however, brings up an interesting point. It would seem that the compassionate conservative could forgive politicians for more than either conservatives or progressives.

Given that compassionate conservatism is a confused mixture of both the conservative and the progressive views of government, government has -- for the compassionate conservative -- both a conservative and a progressive telos. This opens the way for suspensions of the ethical in both directions.

But if compassionate conservatives can forgive politicians the most, who can forgive them the least?

Wouldn't that have to be libertarians?

Or maybe anarchists?

Well, either way, your prospects of finding yourself in a forgiving mood when it comes to politicians are not good, if you're either a libertarian or an anarchist.


So the lesson is:

If you want to forgive politicians, stay as far away from "government-limiting," "freedom-centric" political philosophies, and get as close as possible to "government-expanding," "take-care-of-everything-centric" political philosophies.

Micah Tillman is a lecturer in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

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If we assume "they know not what they do," -- that they are severely misguided, even insane -- then forgiveness is a piece of cake.

One can prefer liberty and at the same time not be angry! In fact, I'd suggest that advocating liberty in the broadest sense is all about peace.

# posted at by Robert Capozzi

Forgive him, sure - after he goes to trial for directing torture and violating the Geneva Convention, both of which are crimes under U.S. and international law. If the U.S. won't try him, then the Hague should. Need I even mention that Cheney et al should join him as well in the docket?

# posted at by Michael Bindner

Maybe Obama should pardon Bush and Cheney, giving them the Nixon treatment.

# posted at by Robert Capozzi

That won't help them in the world court. Also, Ford needed to pardon Nixon for the nation to heal. Someone needs to try Bush and Cheney so the nation can get closure and so that justice is done for those who got hurt.

# posted at by Michael Bindner

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