Thursday, November 10, 2011

Empty Words Flowing From An Empty Head

Ron Paul, a true believer in the racial superiority of whites and the economic superiority of rich people telling the rest of us to suck it up and deal when the world makes lemons out of our lemonade stands, was asked to comment on Elizabeth Warren's recent comments that our social contract demands certain obligations from us even as it offers us opportunities for social and economic betterment. Paul's response - "Socialism!" - was so predictable, and the resulting revision and extension of his remarks so laughably inane, I thought they would make a good drinking game (every time he uses words like "market", "competition", "socialism" participants would have to drink; a ten minute interview would leave a heap of people waiting for the ambulance so they could have their stomach's pumped).

In the course of comments on Charlie Pierce's marvelous post on this same subject, a libertarian entered the fray to defend the idea that public services are socialist.

Things didn't go so well, mostly because the rest of the commenters were laughing at him too loud for him to be heard. That hurt his feelings so he took his toys and went home after telling us that we were mean and stupid and ugly. So there!*

A perennial complaint of mine has been the looseness, the vagueness, and occasional utter vacuity of our public discourse. Words that once meant stuff, words like liberal and conservative, freedom, socialism have become empty vessels, to be defined by whoever is using them. Never directly, of course. We have to guess that, say, when Ron Paul says that public education is socialism, he may or may not be talking about the same thing that Karl Marx or Vladimir Lenin (whose views on what constituted socialism were different, but that's the subject for another post) meant when they used the word socialist.

Now, obviously, one of the purposes of public rhetoric is to persuade, and persuasion is very often accomplished better when there is a confusion of terms. Folks who toss around words carelessly in order to get people to nod their heads and agree with them have accomplished their goal - "You like me! You really like me!" - but have made it that much harder to have a serious, honest discussion about matters or real importance.

When Ron Paul speaks, the English language dies a little bit. Language needs to have substance, referents, a common stock of mutually-agreed-upon definitions in order to be effective. Communication can only take place when all parties have at least general agreement that the words they are all using mean the same thing. Calling public education "socialist" fails utterly. Sitting and blabbing about home-schooling and vouchers and choice and competition are meaningless beyond stating one's personal preferences. Because there has yet to be a study conducted on the alleged benefits of competition in education that has borne out the claims of its proponents, intellectual honesty should, in a perfect world, force them to admit they support ideas that are about as useful as leeches in treating fevers.

The Constitution, for all its flaws, both originally and on-going, is a remarkable document. It is even more remarkable because it means none of the things Ron Paul thinks it means. Born from the minds and hard work and politicking of men steeped in an understanding republican ideals and virtues gleaned from reading Montesquieu, Locke, and other commenters upon the benefits of mutual obligation in human society, the Constitution is chock-a-block with references to the common good because that lies at the heart of the social contract represented by the Constitution. American society is not an experiment in economic freedom. It is, rather, an experiment in republican governance, which needs active participation among its various factions (to borrow a word from the Federalist Papers) always with an eye toward achieving certain ends for the benefit of all. Sometimes this is best done by voluntary organizations (De Tocqueville was a big pimper of the idea that, in the United States, voluntary associations worked to flesh out the social contract; he was conservative in the classical sense, wavered between an allegiance to monarchy and a kind of grudging admiration for American republican institutions without being blind to their flaws). Sometimes, the state in some form - local, county, state, or federal government institutions - has to intervene to achieve the ends all see as beneficial to the nation as a whole.

This language of republican civic virtue is dead, slaughtered by mindless blathering from people like Ron Paul whose minds are like old Commodore 64 computers, limited in their capacity to respond to inputs because their programs only contain certain programmed responses. I am underwhelmed by arguments of libertarians not because of any reflexive ideological principles. I am underwhelmed because they are vacuous, ignorant, and, when even partially implemented, corrosive upon our common life.

It is nice on occasion to laugh at the stupidity of Ron Paul, and to make the uninteresting and unremarkable observation that the things he says are without any political, historical, or intellectual merit whatsoever. It would be nice, however, if we had more people who insisted that recovering at least some of the language of republican virtue, of this sense of mutuality that lies at the heart of the American social contract, was necessary to heal the wounds inflicted by so many decades of stupidity.

*If you scroll down and read through all the comments and replies, you will see my Facebook avatar - a tarsier. I have decided, rather than use various pictures of myself or my family, that this tiny primate is the best representative for me in public discourse.

Virtual Tin Cup

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