Itching To Get Beaten

Austin Dacey is a philosopher by training and an active secularist not only by conviction but by profession as well: He is a representative at the United Nations for the secularist Center for Inquiry.

That he has written a book titled “The Secular Conscience” is not surprising. That his book is subtitled “Why Belief Belongs in Public Life” has lifted quite a few eyebrows — to say nothing of his claim that “secularism has lost its soul” by putting a “gag order on ethics, values and religion in public debate.”

Mr. Dacey argues that secular liberalism has come to hold that because conscience is private or personal, its moral conclusions must be subjective, and because conscience should be free from coercion, its moral conclusions must also be free from public criticism.

This combination of what he calls the Privacy Fallacy and the Liberty Fallacy has led to the conclusion that controversial religious and moral claims are beyond evaluation by reason, truth and objective standards of right and wrong, and should therefore be precluded from public conversation.

This has also led to what Mr. Dacey calls the Bracketing Strategy, apparent in Roe v. Wade when the Supreme Court decided that it could settle the question of abortion rights while bracketing, or setting aside, the issue of the status of fetal life. The success of the Bracketing Strategy, Mr. Dacey argues, “has convinced generations of secular liberals that the way to deal with moral problems in our shared life is not to deal with them.”

But in fact the Bracketing Strategy has left abortion rights “in constant peril,” he writes, because it “circumvented a broader public debate on the moral issues that might have produced a more stable national consensus.”

Don’t know how many folks may have caught this article in the New York Times over the weekend.

It gets to a few issues that are very important to me as well. I agree with Austin Dacey that there is a regrettable tendency among those on the left to appeal to courts other than the court of public opinion. So much so that it sometimes seems that those on the left have completely lost the gift of rhetoric (rhetoric as in persuasive speaking, not as in bullshit).

Examples: the degree to which the leftist agenda (particularly in the 1960s and 1970s) moved forward through court cases. Granted, these cases do sometimes have had a legislative basis, but often (as in Roe v. Wade) these cases have involved novel applications or interpretations of constitutional rights. Granted, too, that some of these “novel applications” were pretty much there but unacknowledged (I would put the right of privacy in this category).

This reflex to circumvent or countermand politics has not only led to a great deal of resentment of liberals, it also has to some degree crippled the left–we no longer seem to know how to win consistently in the political realm.

Another example would be the degree to which academia has absorbed the energies of political radicals. Academia has become something of a wildlife preserve, where political species rarely if ever seen in the wild seem to thrive. While I think that there may be something to be said for the “hothouse” environment of academia, I think the freedom from criticism and question many beliefs enjoy in academia is unhealthy . . . and I don’t think the isolation of academia does anyone any good. But leftists seem to value this fiefdom greatly, and spend a fair deal of energy defending it. In spite of the fact that from a social standpoint their fiefdom is irrelevant and probably doomed.

So, yes, liberals DO have too strong a tendency to “bracket,” as Dacey says.

But on the other hand, Dacey doesn’t seem to realize that bracketing is absolutely essential to liberalism. The idea that people have inalienable rights to, say free speech, regardless of what the present day consensus on the matter is is bracketing. Liberalism has always held that the majority should rule and they’ve always held that the rights of the minority should be protected against the power of the majority. THAT is what liberalism means.

John Stuart Mill wrote long ago on tolerance–and here again, tolerance is a bracketing technique, where you say that certain disagreements are just to be set aside and aren’t to be made the subject of constant (and useless) public dispute.

The bracketing can be strong or weak–we may frown severely upon religion or politics as dinner table conversation; or we may engage in religious and political dispute knowing that there is no existential question at stake–we know as wrong as a religious or political idea might be, our opponents have a right to hold it.

When to invoke bracketing is a judgment call. It’d be illiberal (and insane) to just throw it away.

This hostility to bracketing is quite similar to the general hostility to the liberal tradition we see in neo-conservative thinkers like Leo Strauss and in harder to classify anti-statists like Sheldon Wolin.

One curious thing is that Dacey’s hostility to bracketing dovetails with the pugnaciousness of the new atheists and points out again that many folks of the Dawkinsian stripe are either a) neo-conservative or b) make very big assumptions about the liberal order: that it is natural or that its existence can just be assumed (as H. Allen Orr points out in his review of Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate).

Not only are these folks itching for a fight they’ll probably lose, they don’t understand what’s at stake.

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Classic Record-Eaglism

Complaining about the newspaper can get kind of tiresome, but I couldn’t resist commenting on this editorial:

After all, they’ll reason, a Meijer attorney has already said the firm committed possible criminal violations of state law and a host of people may have perjured themselves; but if the secretary of state doesn’t seem to think that’s a big deal, why should we? Incredibly, that’s also the attitude of state Sen. Michelle McManus, R-Lake Leelanau, who uttered one of those totally inane assertions that serve only to change the subject: “Campaign finance laws are about transparency, they are not about criminal action,” she said. Right. Except when they are about criminal actions, of course.

That’s why state law, as weak as it is, allows the secretary of state to ask the attorney general to conduct criminal probes of suspected campaign law violations. Her stance is pure nonsense. But it’s the kind of nonsense that ensures continued good relations with Meijer and state Republican leaders. McManus is believed to be positioning herself for a run for Land’s job two years from now.

And then, immediately following this . . .

Current law actually reflects McManus’ elitist “no harm is too big” attitude. The law — which appears to have been written by campaign fundraisers — instructs the secretary of state to pursue “soft action” to resolve violations through informal agreements. Once such an agreement is made, further prosecution is impossible.

As much as I don’t like Senator McManus, and as much as I respect her as a regular source of “nonsense,” I have to say I find it amusing that the writer of this editorial didn’t perceive the irony in telling us in one paragraph that McManus’s comments were “nonsense” and then telling us in the very next paragraph that they actually reflect the spirit of the law.

The fact is McManus is right: the law was not written to encourage criminal prosecutions, it was written to make investigations (and subpoenas) possible and to lead ultimately to slaps on the wrist.

The Record-Eagle may not like it–it may mean that the paper won’t be able to tiresomely drive this story into the ground for the next 2 years–but I’m afraid the editorial board of the paper has been thoroughly outclassed here by Senator McManus as far as grasp of the facts and reasoning power go.

Can we imagine a more powerful indictment of this group of people? The different brands of stupid on offer in RE editorials make me think they are written by a committee of eight people with maybe half a brain amongst them.

Just to fill you in on the background, this potential prosecution has to do with the supermarket company Meijer and their long-sought second outlet in the Traverse City area (in Acme township, to be particular).

This new Meijer outlet has been bitterly and closely contended before the zoning boards, the courts, and the electorate. Meijer has had limited success so far in shepherding their plans toward fruition.

A few months ago Meijer had to concede a legal harassment lawsuit against one of the anti-Meijer Acme trustees AND was outed for having funded a recall effort against said trustee and his allies.

This last is a crime in Michigan, but not a particularly serious one, much to the Record-Eagle’s chagrin.

The newspaper has been persistently anti-Meijer throughout the struggle. A couple of years ago they ran a story of the proposed Meijer building site at Lautner Rd. & M-72, and they ran a picture of the site. Understand that this site is a few hundred yards up the road from one of the busiest and (in Summer) most congested intersections in the region.

The Record-Eagle ran a picture pointing the other direction (toward the several disused farms/future construction sites to the East) calling it “a rural area.” The “rural area” of Acme is served by its own sewage treatment plant, a rarity around here. And there are three more shopping centers planned within or bordering on Acme. (Admittedly, the capacity of the sewer plant would have to be considerably enlarged to accommodate all the planned development.)

The newspaper has spent most of its time cheerleading for anyone who is against the evils of development, even if they are–as is the case with some of these Acme folks–duplicitous, unreasonable, delusional, and selfish.

For years, these same folks dragged their feet on encouraging residential development (unless it was at the near-seven-figure mark) and then when the school district axed their school because of the low potential enrollment in their area, they–lo, and behold–suddenly became interested in housing development.

And now they tell us that they must stop the Meijer development because they have all these great plans for a real downtown (just like the 100+ year old towns of Suttons Bay and Elk Rapids) that will be ruined by a modern shopping development.

Only, there’s no way in hell any such “real downtown” is ever going to get built. And, in all likelihood the best they can hope for is another project they’ve been obstructing for years that Meijer used to be involved with.

The fact is that the anti-Meijer forces in Acme have a (not so well-kept) secret agenda: to obstruct any and all commercial development in their area. It is essentially a not-in-my-backyard movement: eventually all the developers will get frustrated and move on and build in the next township over–Williamsburg.

In short, some folks would rather see regional sprawl than see Acme become more developed.

The newspaper has done a very poor job of reporting on what motivates the anti-Meijer folks in Acme, and has done a very poor job of questioning their tactics. What they’ve mostly done is gladly accept selective leaks from one of the commissioner’s lawyers.

They haven’t had much time to ask questions like: Is the Acme board of trustees and zoning board enforcing existing zoning law or enforcing their personal preferences? Or, have the Acme trustees ever violated the open-meetings act by, say, discussing active matters outside of board meetings? And just what has the role of outside advocacy groups been in making zoning decisions for the township? What will ultimately be the effect of Acme fighting to keep it’s idle or barely utilized farms undeveloped?

But how much can you expect from a half-wit paper?