Sometimes unprincipled demagogues are better than principled activists

I've been trying for some time to figure out exactly what "principles" are. Is there a universally agreed-upon definition?

All too often, when someone is called "unprincipled" it will arise in a political disagreement -- usually over what tactics and methods should be used to advance an argument or a cause. People who play by certain rules, such as fairness in debating, obedience to the law, honoring the truth (or insisting on logical arguments, which is one of my frequent themes), will tend to call those who don't "unprincipled."

My question is this: are those who are deemed "unprincipled" really unprincipled? Or are they simply activists who believe that the ultimate truth of their cause is more important than adhering to what they consider "someone else's rules"?

A good example can be found in this quote from Glenn Greenwald (in flaming red), as discussed by Jeff Goldstein:

There are some people who treat our conflicts with the Bush administration and their followers as just a matter of basic, friendly political and policy differences--along the lines of "what should the rate of capital gains tax be?" or "what type of laws can best encourage employers to provide more benefits to their employees"--and therefore, we treat people who support the administration with respect and civility and simply have nice, clean discussions to sort out our differences among well-intentioned people.

That isn't how I see that, and nobody should come to this blog expecting that. I don't think I've done anything to lead anyone to expect otherwise. I see the Bush movement and its various component parts as a plague and a threat, as anything but well-intentioned. My goal, politically speaking, is to do what I can to undermine it and the institutions that have both supported and enabled it.

As Jeff explains quite eloquently, this is an admission by Greenwald that the ends justify the means:
There you have it: an admission by Greenwald(s) that he is justified in using whatever bad faith arguments he must to "undermine" the Bush administration and to demonize those who support its policies.

Which makes Greenwald(s) an admitted demagogue--and explains, in large part, why his jeremiads are so transparently disingenuous. Those who cite him approvingly, it follows, are either complicit in his goal of undermining this administration, or else are his (willing?) dupes.

Either way, he's a fraud, and his supporters either frauds or dullards.

That he spent his time today giving cover to those who essentially cheered on the Taliban marks him as someone whose hatred of Bush has, at long last, shown him to be among those whose love of country is provisional--granted on the condition that policies he likes are in place, and leaders he favors are in power.

While I don't know what Greenwald would do if put in a position of real power, I think a good argument can be made that he should not be.

But still, my question about principles has not been answered. While I suspect most (but not all!) of the readers of this blog would call Glenn Greenwald unprincipled, in his mind he is quite the opposite. He answers to a higher set of principles, best known to him, and subject only to his own review. He wants what he wants, and those who disagree with him are in his mind murderous sociopathic, bloodthirsty, downright frightening right-wing authoritarians. The details of this demented argument are not especially worth my time, but it's important to bear in mind that Greenwald (in conjunction with Sadly No) is making the argument about Glenn Reynolds, which I find deeply disturbing. Because if (and I mean if) we assume Greenwald really believes these things, then almost anything he does becomes justified.

How many of us would consider Count von Stauffenberg's assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler to have been unprincipled? Very few. That's because defeating murderous sociopathic fascism is a moral principle of the highest order. Thus, if Greenwald believes his vicious rhetoric, this makes him a moderate in comparison to the highly principled Count von Stauffenberg.

So what are "principles"? Are they "relative"?

I still don't know, but I do hope Jeff Goldstein is right about Greenwald being a demagogue.

Whether this make me a hopeless moral relativist is another question.

posted by Eric on 03.07.07 at 09:53 AM


Do you not understand the fundamental difference between right and left yet?

For the Left, humanity is a collection of groups vying to improve things for the groups. But by improvement they mean only decreasing disparity between the various groups. This is called "social justice".

So anything that takes power and wealth away from powerful and wealthy group(s) is Good, even if it does not improve the lot of the powerless and poor group(s). Anything which improves the lot of the poor groups is Bad if it improves things more for the rich groups. It is closing the gap that matters, not improvement.

Most importantly, to the Left, social justice is the highest moral value. That means that there is no conflict in lying or stealing to achieve social justice. It makes it OK to deface national landmarks if it stops an "illegal war", or equivalently, if the motivation is to stop that illegal war. The ends explicitly justify the means.

For the Right, humans are individuals competing against each other, gathering into ethnopolitical/geographical regions called nations, and cooperating for mutual defense against other such regions. We tend to be confused about economic competition with other nations, but that's another story. We see something like personal Virtue as the highest good.

Both Left and Right believe that Virtue includes being charitable. While the Left see this Liberality as sufficient to show Virtue, the Right see Liberality as being necessary but not sufficient.

Socrates   ·  March 7, 2007 10:55 AM

You answered your own question as to whether or not Greenwald is principled, Eric.

His statement of principle is thus:

"My goal, politically speaking, is to do what I can to undermine it and the institutions that have both supported and enabled it."

Obviously, he does not believe this, or he'd be doing more than blogging. The best that even the best blogger in the world can apparently hope for is to be hired as a mid-level party bureaucrat (i.e., Markos Moulitsas Zuniga). If he believed that the Bush administration was, in fact, a "plague" and a "threat," he might be inclined to follow in the footsteps of the good count and rig up a bomb. Or something.

The alternative is that he actually does believe it and is preparing something nasty while not talking about it for obvious reasons. If this were the case... well, I guess it would be better for society if he were just an unprincipled demagogue rather than a principled activist.

At any rate, I think it's the height of irony that liberals can call the media conservative while it lambasts conservative commentators for using a naughty word at a private function (when their own members apparently swear 18 orders of magnitude more often) while their own fringe elements can boldly proclaim their treason to the world to resounding silence.

S Wisnieski   ·  March 7, 2007 8:37 PM

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