Bludgeon Them with Your Principles


Broadway, Virginia. -- A number of people have commented about the apparent contradiction of a right-to-lifer shooting and killing, in the name of principle, an abortion doctor. How can one devoted to the sanctity of life, they exclaim, believe it justified to commit murder?

No surprise, I say: Our political landscape is littered with such contradictions and hypocrisies.

Switch the occupant of the White House from Republican to Democrat and watch the senators of the two parties quickly trade across the aisle their sacred principles concerning presidential powers. Last season's defender of the president's right to dispatch troops without meddling by congressional "micromanagers" becomes this year's advocate of prior consultation, and vice versa.

Principles are treated like handy tools to use when they'll help achieve one's purpose, and then put back when the job is done. You wouldn't use a Phillips screwdriver for all occasions, so why cling too tightly to a principle -- like presidential privilege, or the right to life?

If it makes us look good, why not say it? "Power to the people!" rang out the chant of the left-wing protesters, but on close inspection it turned out to be only the people who agreed with them they had in mind. For the mass of people of the country, and for their values, many of these populist protesters had only contempt.

In the age of the sound bite and the bumper-sticker, a facile slogan replaces reasoned argument. "Guns don't kill people, people do." By that logic, how about Sherman tanks? I never saw one of those kill anyone on its own. And which of the arguments adduced to defend each person's right to bear automatic assault weapons would not apply equally to nuclear bombs? Maybe the nuclear non-proliferation treaty is unconstitutional, violating the rights of American citizens to hear arms.

Then there's that old Vietnam-era bumper-sticker, "America, Love it or Leave it." I was puzzled to see how often it showed up on cars sporting the Confederate flag, among the same people who made heroes of the rebels who went to war to tear this country apart. Those who fired on the American flag at Fort Sumter, because of a deep dispute over national policy, are celebrated by some of the same people who continue to condemn as unpatriotic the war protesters who marched against a later national policy. When those righteous patriots invited the protesters to leave America, was it secession they were offering?

A good principle is a two-edged sword, one that can undercut positions we like as well as those we don't. But if it is only our position we are attached to, we can blind ourselves to the edge that faces our way.

"It's a black thing, you wouldn't understand," reads a bumper-sticker displayed by angry blacks in recent years. Reading it, I wondered: Do you really want to reinforce the logic that suggests that the creations of one race are beyond the comprehension of the members of another? It seems a dangerous principle to advance in a country that for centuries blocked black people from the major institutions of its civilization with the attitude, "It's a white thing, you wouldn't understand."

We are often selective not only in how we apply our principles, but also in choosing which of the principles of our hallowed traditions we will treat as sacrosanct.

The Moral Majority used to wield Scripture to strike down anyone whose sexual morality deviated from God's strictures. But it seems to me that Jesus showed less concern about things like sexual practices than about materialism ("You cannot serve both God and Mammon") and about non-violence in our encounters with opponents ("Love your enemies"). By a strange selectivity, the very people who declare this a Christian nation are happy to celebrate America's success in milking Mammon; and the same people who skewer their foes in the name of the man who told us to resist not evil and to turn the other cheek have been among the most ardent supporters of American militarism.

It is evidently very difficult for us human beings to achieve genuine integrity. Not easy, as the current phrase has it, to walk one's talk. If we aren't willing to make our walk faithful to our talk -- to subordinate the pursuit of our own agenda to the implications of our stated principles -- maybe a good first step would be to make our talk a more honest expression of what we really walk.

But then, we probably wouldn't like what we heard ourselves saying.

Andrew Bard Schmookler's most recent book is "Fool's Gold: the Fate of Values in a World of Goods."

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