Monday, November 2, 2009

Speaking Truth From Power

President Obama's Senior Advisor recently announced that the administration was going to "speak truth to power." This is, of course, ridiculous, since the administration is power (although I recommend you read the linked article anyway, as it is amusing). I'm not going to focus on the obvious logic lapse in this incident, but rather the assumptions implicit in the idea of "speaking truth to power," because they underlie a great deal of liberal reasoning. It might seem contradictory that liberals support freedom for all manner of violent, abusive, and perverted speech while, at the same time, promoting speech codes on college campuses; but I will give them this much credit, that some liberals, at least, are aware of the paradox, and have an answer for it: the rules are different depending on whether you are in power or not. The poor and downtrodden are allowed to do almost anything because they are poor and downtrodden, and therefore don't have a fair chance to express their views on society. We have to let them bend the rules in order that they might be heard. And, by extension, liberals who support the downtrodden are allowed the same freedom.

Why is it okay for Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to make derogatory comments about Jews, but not okay for whites to make comments about blacks (even completely innocent comments such as using the expression "catch a tiger by the toe")? Because whites are in power and blacks are out of power. Why is it okay for women to talk about men as Neanderthals, but not for men to make condescending comments about women? Because men are in power, and women are not. Why is it okay to submerge a crucifix in urine but not to make fun of Islam? Because Christians are in power and Muslims are not. Why is it okay for liberals to speak out against George Bush, even alluding to (or frankly recommending) assassination? Because Bush was in power.

Here we hit a stumbling block, because Bush is no longer in power, and Obama clearly is. The rationale for suspending the rules of rational discourse is over, and yet the desire remains. What is a liberal to do? One option is to embrace power and decide that it isn't so bad as long as a liberal is in charge. Therefore, anyone who opposes Obama is a hooligan, a racist, etc.; there are not only no liberties to be taken when speaking truth to power, but actually fewer liberties than those in power have to expound their ideas.

Some liberals have adopted this approach. However, it is difficult for many liberals to accept the idea of being in power. The whole idea behind liberalism, at least that branch of it going back to the 1960's (in which many current leaders were bred), is resistance to authority. Therefore, you get ironies like Valerie Jarrett, the senior Obama advisor referenced above, talking about "speaking truth to power." If one were to ask her to clarify what she meant, I bet she'd justify it by reference to the supposedly dominant white, male, Christian, conservative culture, as though the existence of a Democratic president and Congress meant nothing against the murky background of a vast, right-wing conspiracy. I expect to see more evidence of this sort of thought in the remainder of Obama's presidency.

I should add that I don't think liberals are entirely mistaken that the rules should be bent in certain circumstances. Women do get beaten by their husbands, a lot less now than historically, I would suspect, but it is still a problem; I think it is worth being more careful about not seeming to endorse wife-abuse than not endorsing husband-abuse, which I doubt seriously will ever be an endemic problem anywhere. Where I differ is that I believe the law is blind, and should not be changed to give preferential treatment to certain groups of people, even if historically oppressed; and free speech is free speech, regardless of how unpleasant. I put the burden on the private individuals and institutions in the country to promote civility; moreover, I call for civility from everyone, not just those historically or presently in power.

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