Sunday, November 25, 2018

Cynicism as "Realism" as Cowardice

Among the many, many terrible things Mort Klein has written -- well, I don't actually want to rank them, because there's a lot bad. But this is bad.
Indeed, it's not just bad. It is one of the more despicable rhetorical ploys one sees in politics today. It is cynicism dressed up as realism. But it's worse than that, because what it's really intended to do is to serve as a buoy, a life raft to allow people to ignore obvious moral obligations by pretending that nobody really follows them anyway.

First of all, as Jill Jacobs notes, it's not like anybody has polled these migrants, so we actually have no idea how they might vote if and when they become U.S. citizens. The blithe assumption that they'll obviously vote Democratic is itself a pretty brutal self-own -- "clearly, given how terribly we've treated immigrants there's no way they'd ever vote for us!" is now right-wing orthodoxy -- and the Republican extension that this justifies xenophobic policies is the epitome of murdering your parents and crying orphan.

But if we lived in a different sort of world -- one where Republicans weren't committed to explicit policies of gratuitous cruelty towards refugees and immigrants, one where bipartisan immigration reform had succeeded instead of being torpedoed by an ascendant racist right -- would these groups be automatic liberal constituencies?

I hardly see why. It wasn't that long ago that Latinos were a swing bloc. It wasn't that long ago that Asians were a swing bloc. It wasn't that long ago that Muslims voted Republican by crushing margins. To the extent these groups are now viewed as reliably Democratic, it's caused less by unalterable cultural properties and more by the GOP's increasingly brazen embrace of open White Supremacy.

And on the other side: there have been refugee groups whose politics have coded "right" -- generally those fleeing socialist authoritarian nations. Cubans and Vietnamese would fall into this category, as would (I suspect) Venezuelans more recently. Yet contra Klein, I've seen no evidence that Democrats have abandoned their generally positive pro-refuge stances as applied to these groups. Just because conservatives can't imagine not acting based on partisan motives doesn't mean nobody does it. It just emphasizes how morally bankrupt contemporary conservatism is -- it's lost the ability to even fathom a principled stance. And as for Democrats, when faced with new constituencies that might start off suspicious of progressive politics, you know what we do? We try to win their votes, by making the case that our policies are better. Our success in doing so has translated to flipping a few south Florida and southern California House districts -- and that's the way it should be. Oh boo hoo -- it's so unfair that you need to actually appeal to different constituencies, even when they're not White! Welcome to democracy!

What's going on here? Why is Klein making arguments of this sort? The specific answer, obviously, is that Klein is a xenophobic hack with a loose allegiance to factual reality. The general answer, though, is that it's offering conservatives a way to be moral cowards while saving face.

Here's the thing: everybody understands that morality makes certain demands of us in the political realm. And everybody also understands that those demands might sometimes incur costs, or cause dissonance, or otherwise make us feel uncomfortable. So we're all vulnerable to pied pipers suggesting that we can dispense with those commitments -- who tell us what we already long to hear, who let us recode our cowering instincts as a form of nobility, or at least savviness.

Klein's cynicism styles itself as realism -- the hard-headed political realist understands that all this noble talk about "loving the stranger" is only so much political posturing, you'd be a sucker to be taken in by it. It's an attractive message because it disguises moral cowardice for clear-eyed vision, and that's exactly why it's so despicable. Messages like these do immense damage to the moral fabric of our political world; they don't just unravel the sense that we have duties to one another that extend beyond momentary political advantage, they undo that sensibility in a way that is masked as a virtue.

But make no mistake: it is cowardice. Telling oneself that just treatment of refugees is a sucker's game because it's just Democrats playing politics is a way of avoiding an obvious moral duty. It exploits a vulnerability in our collective psyches to make our politics coarser and crueler, and that makes the activists who peddle it utterly beneath contempt.

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