Friday, May 20, 2005

Maintain Balance

My Dad and his wife have been visiting me for the last two days. My father is a pretty charismatic guy--easy to get along with, happy to meet my friends, and generally curious about everything. He inspired a lot of my interest in Philosophy through countless conversations throughout my childhood. I have to say that to this day I find it rather remarkable that he always encouraged and nurtured my intellectual development. Perhaps he did it because he wanted to have the sorts of conversations that we always ended up having during long drives together.

As I have gotten older and more committed to my political convictions, I try to be careful about certain discussions with my Dad. He loves Fox News, Time Magazine and Christian Theology. I am pretty sure he is pro-life, but I just don't ask.

Yesterday, however, we ended up having a rather long and intense conversation. The heart of his comments were to caution my recent activism. His fear was that I was going to be used or compromised by the people in the "Left" (his word) organizations that I supported. I got angry, of course. I found myself bristling when he asked why so many academics do align themselves on the left, or when he would rejoin my criticism of Tom Delay with accusations that Democrats are just as bad. Partly I was annoyed because I thought he was engaging in a game of red herrings; the point is Tom Delay is corrupt. Why not admit that? He also pressed me to consider that most of the excesses of today will be resolved in the future: "if you would just take history as your guide you would not be so angry right now."

Angry! Passionate! Activism! My father is concerned that the end result of my actions will be my transformation into a xenophobe. Boy, that pissed me off. Partly because I found it more than hypocritical. I also wondered if he held onto some sort of Hegelian view of history, wherein human actors are claimed and utilized by Geist to bring about the ultimate goal of human freedom. I asked him: "do you think there is an invisible hand guiding history, or rather folks like me who stand up and demand history to change its course?" I still don't know what his answer is to that question. But, I think I might have succeeded in getting him to reconsider the "nuclear option" as a violation of free speech (i.e. it consitutes what J.S. Mill called the "tyranny of the majority.")

Anyway, our conversation ended when we arrived at the National Civil War Museum.
The first exhibit depicts "average" citizens views of the ensuing civil war. I was struck by how similar the reasoning was (whether it was abolitionists, states' rights folks, modest Southern farmers or Northern bankers) for or against the Civil War to our current "war" in Iraq. In particular, I was struck by the cynicism that modest Southern farmers had toward this war, and how torn they felt about fighting for or against the Confederacy. I was also pretty moved by how committed many southerners were to protecting their institutions and values from regulation by the Federal gov't (afterall I had just been passionately defending "minority rights" and "free speech" minutes earlier in the car with my Dad).

I started wondering if I should listen to my Dad a little bit more. I blame my training in Philosophy for this self-criticism that washed over me. After all, true students of philosophy need to TRY to purge themselves from ideology as much as possible when evaluating arguments.

Am I--as my Dad fears--succumbing too much to anger and outrage that I am losing sight of the "good folks on the 'right'"? I hope not, but let's face it: it's a real possibility!

This really struck me as I read Joan Didion's piece, "The Case of Theresa Schiavo," in the current New York Review of Books. Didion points out that at the heart of the case over Terry Schiavo were serious moral questions that neither side engaged, particularly because they were overshadowed by previous political maneouverings: the absolute defense of life or the right to die. I have to admit I am guilty of not considering more carefully some of those moral questions independently from my deep desire to protect a person's (woman's) right to make her own decisions about her body. Ok Dad: I heard you!