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Analyzing the elephant in the House

Murray Biggs (Jinjin Sun/YH)

Murray Biggs (Jinjin Sun/YH)

Murray Biggs (Jinjin Sun/YH)

The best thing about the current triumphal march of the Republican Party up Capitol Hill is that it’s not united. Still, it has an ideological center neatly theorized by a New York Times best-seller released two years ago: Liberty and Tyranny by Mark R. Levin, a lawyer and national talk-show host. Since the publisher of this conservative manifesto claims that it has sold over a million copies, it is time to examine what has essentially become the voice of the Republican House of Representatives. Levin’s text is important, and ultimately dangerous, because it is clearly conceived and almost always articulate: readable in the most literal sense. It is often persuasive about bureaucracy in general (if not always in particular), immigration, and the balance of federal and state powers. Furthermore, its suggestions for the economy and taxation give further support to those already predisposed to its ideological position.

Let’s look at Levin’s arguments about for example, the Constitution, religious faith, global warming (and environmentalism in general), and foreign policy. On the last, he is unusually brief and evasive about the invasion of Iraq, presumably because he does not want to publicly disown the Bush-Rumsfeld “mighty man” posture. Yet he has to see that, by his own cost-benefit calculations, any “gains” from the war have hardly proved worth its military, financial, political, and human costs on so many fronts.

Our occupation of Iraq should also contradict Levin’s “Manifesto Number Eight” that the US should exert itself beyond its borders only when its own interests are obviously and directly affected. Levin declares that the US must be “prepared to win any war,” with nothing said about either the inherent faculty of the UN to moderate many contemporary wars or the crucial importance of diplomacy and other means of resolving international conflicts.

Levin’s notion of a nationally appropriate “faith” is at least implicitly a Judeo-Christian one. (I’d like to know what he thinks about Israel.) That is no smarter than it is to assume that “American culture” (“Manifesto Number Six”) is as monolithic as it was before the great waves of multi-ethnic and, later, multi-racial immigration that have continued to re-define our body politic since the 19th century. Similarly, Levin writes simplistically about juridical “originalism,” forgetting that conservative judges have often been as activist as liberal ones. Never mind that “originalism” as an absolute makes no sense, because it depends on the original contexts and circumstances still being in place, which of course they are not. Good jurists have to interpret the spirit as well as the letter of the Constitution and, when pressed, give priority to the first: This is what makes responsible judging so difficult. Even diehard originalists have rejected the Constitution’s implicit support of slavery. But to admit even a single weakness in any fundamentalist faith is to dissolve the premise on which it is built.

Levin is simply naive, as well as inconsistent, about global warming. He wants no government supervision of environmental practice (even at the local level, apparently). Yet, he assumes that other kinds of education and educational policy are a due responsibility of government, though not the federal one (“Manifestos Number Two and Number Five”). He succumbs to one of many logical errors when asserting, with typical confidence, that there is “no consensus” about global warming or its causes, adding that “even if there were a consensus, science is not about majority rule. It either is or it is not.” This sounds clever—and true—but it’s a logical sleight-of-hand. Scientific judgment is about the consensus of experts and its testing by continued experimentation, even if not every scientist in the world agrees with a particular set of informed conclusions. Scientific truth is not generally either/or deductive (as in 2+2=4) but inductive or empirical. If we didn’t go with the best evidence available, there could be no scientific—and therefore no human—progress at all. Unfortunately for Levin, since his book’s publication in 2009 there has been further confirmation that the earth is on the whole getting warmer (and dangerously so), a phenomenon in which human activity plays a major role.

But the main flaw in Levin’s party treatise—and therefore in the current rhetoric of Republican leaders—is its basic premise. His “Statist” is a straw man, the “Modern Liberal.” This simplistic, upper-case equation allows Levin to set up its opposite, “The Conservative.” Neither abstraction has any value since, as we all know, there is a wide spectrum of both liberals and conservatives (lower-case!). When Levin begins his tirade with the proclamation that “The Founders believed, and the Conservative agrees, in the dignity of the individual,” is he asking us to suppose that “the Liberal” (whoever s/he is) disagrees? Or that “for the Statist, liberty is not a blessing but the enemy?” From that false and (for Levin) fundamental dichotomy between “Liberal” and “Conservative” the rest follows, and finally collapses on itself. Is it too much to hope that Boehner, et al, will come to realize that fallacy for themselves?

Murray Biggs is an Associate Professor of English and Theater.

  • Susan D. Cranley

    Unfortunately, it may be too much to hope for. Boehner and company listen only to those who agree and support. If he (they) reconsider any premise they espouse, they will have to examine all their premises. Entrenchment is easier.