The Mothers of Re-invention

Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America wrote that "the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults". De Tocqueville wrote at a time when faults, as in broken wagon wheels or barn roofs, were meant to be repaired.  But Wallis Warfield Simpson, whose occupation is listed as socialite, captured the concerns of those for whom the word 'malfunction' meant 'wardrobe malfunction'. She said of a her world, which was devoted to the perfection of leisure, "you can never be too rich or too thin." And she might have added this advice for politicians, given the fate which befell the Duke, that you can never be too publicly virtuous.

Michael Totten, writing in Commentary, contrasts the lack of controversy over President Obama's "recent decision to green-light the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen hiding in Yemen" with recent the outrage over detaining enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay.  Why the indifference at killing after the froth over mere imprisonment? David Cole of the Nation put it another way: "In our peculiar post-9/11 world, it is apparently less controversial to kill a suspect in cold blood than to hold him in preventive detention." There is nothing peculiar about it. It simply follows. As Sherlock Holmes once said, "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth".

Cole to his credit, understands the absurdity of a human rights policy that prefers blasting someone to smithereens over detaining them in tropical Cuba. His answer to the dilemma is simple: do neither. And that way you will neither have to commit the crime of killing the enemy nor the inhumanity of taking them prisoner. Totten thinks that Cole may somehow have missed the point:

Cole is quite right that detaining an enemy combatant for the duration is a lesser step than zotting him from the heavens. That would be true no matter how long the conflict grinds on. Even life imprisonment beats the pants off the battlefield equivalent of capital punishment, at least for most people. Imprisonment with the real possibility of being set free beats both.

Maybe I’m reading him wrong, but he seems to be suggesting the U.S. should restrict, if not outright ban, both the targeted killing and indefinite detention of terrorists. There are reasonable suggestions out there for how we could do both slightly differently and a little more ethically, and citizens in democratic societies should always debate these kinds of questions, but a sharp curtailment or prohibition of both would be ludicrous, especially while tens of thousands of our soldiers are deployed in war zones and some unknown but appreciable number of terrorists still plan to wreak havoc.

It is well that Sherlock never met the modern liberal.  They would have an answer to his dilemmas. "When you are trapped by the impossible, change the terms of reference. There is no problem so intractable that you can't parse your way out of it."  The fact that Cole's prescriptions won't work can always be explained away by asking what "won't work" is. That would probably bother de Tocqueville. Whether it might worry Wallis Warfield Simpson is debatable. The American ability to solve problems, according to de Tocqueville, was rooted in their 'addiction' to "practical rather than theoretical science", which in turn arose from its turbulent democracy rather than from the fixed ideas of an aristocracy "in repose". Americans of de Tocqueville's period were more interested in pins than how many angels could be made dance on the head of a given one. He contrasted the American attitude to mandarin-ridden China in which forms were more important to elite than the function. Thus, a mandarin might worry whether it was humane to take an enemy prisoner, but an American of the period might worry about winning the war.  De Tocqueville described the difference between the practical thinker and the devotee of the fixed idea thus:

All that I mean to say is this:—permanent inequality of conditions leads men to confine themselves to the arrogant and sterile research of abstract truths; whilst the social condition and the institutions of democracy prepare them to seek the immediate and useful practical results of the sciences. ... The Chinese, in following the track of their forefathers, had forgotten the reasons by which the latter had been guided. They still used the formula, without asking for its meaning: they retained the instrument, but they no longer possessed the art of altering or renewing it.

In a world of perfect mandarin ideas failure is the outcome of not having tried the known solution hard enough. This is an appoach which solves problems by adding constraints rather than degrees of freedom. Michael Totten calls this campaign for perfection "lobbying for the impossible".  And why not? If doorways are opened by bashing your head against them then the key to a locked vault is a running start leading with your noggin. President Obama recently flew to Los Angeles to raise money for the faltering campaign of Barbara Boxer. He acknowledged that while his programs had proved unpopular it was only because they needed time to work.  One more double-down and the impossible would be attainable.

Mr. Obama acknowledged the public discontent with his presidency but cast it as impatience for change that he saw in letters from everyday Americans every day.

“Nothing is more heartbreaking than reading these letters and knowing that change is not coming as fast as we’d like,” he told supporters. “But here is the main message that I have for all of you: change is coming.”

When "change" is based on pre-conception it is limited by the information content of the original vision. It's stuck in its immutable roots. Therefore 'public discontent' is not treated as new information or useful feedback, but a hindrance at best and sedition at worst.  Just up the ante, double the bet and all will be well. Yet as de Tocqueville pointed out, this monomanaical behavior was a substitute rather than a product of real thinking. In decadent public policy, Tocqueville wrote, "the source of human knowledge was all but dry; and though the stream still ran on, it could neither swell its waters nor alter its channel." Really alarming thing about modern political culture is the disconnection between the means and the ends:  the solution to debt is more debt; the answer to terrorism is to define it out the policy lexicon; the way forward in the Middle East is to get Israel to make more concessions.

That's because the link between cause and effect has been broken and we are left with only the forms. It's the same dog with a different collar. But what a collar, such diamonds, such rubies! That counts for something in a world where you can never be too rich or too thin.


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