To Fight or Not to Fight
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")
This New York Times editorial has the definitive take on the austerity "deal" being forced on the country. The whole thing is worth a read, but perhaps the most salient point is this:
President Obama could have been more adamant in dealing with Republicans, perhaps threatening to use constitutional powers to ignore the debt ceiling if Congress abrogated its responsibility to raise it. But this episode demonstrates the effectiveness of extortion. Reasonable people are forced to give in to those willing to endanger the national interest.
When faced with an opposition willing to use lies, extortion and terrorism to achieve its goals, there are two possible responses. The first is equal and opposite aggression: to give as good as you get. But the second is to remain open-handed and and assume that by being the adult, turning the other cheek and giving way to your opponent even if only temporarily, you will seize the moral high ground and let the opponent's own momentum carry him over to his own destruction.
That is the essence of what can be loosely characterized as "Eastern" wisdom, a very Taoist or Buddhist approach. In the Christian tradition, this sort of counsel can be found throughout the Book of Matthew. In a more secular vein, it could be called the Atticus Finch approach. Insofar as one gives Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt, he almost surely sees himself as Atticus Finch refusing to punch back even as the villain spits in his face.
The analogy is imperfect at best, of course. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus is the only one in town to stand up to pervasive injustice, and is reviled for his trouble. In today's political climate, he would best be likened to a Bernie Sanders than a Barack Obama. But that having been said, the key point here is the response to intractable hatred, violence and terrorism. The character of Atticus Finch is celebrated in progressive circles precisely because he does not punch back, even when a man lies in his courtroom, incites racism to defeat him in trial, gets his client killed, and then spits right in his face. We celebrate Atticus for not giving into the temptation of the same righteous anger we all feel in that scene, the desire to do copious physical harm to the transgressor, to give him as good as he gave and then some.
In foreign policy, it is likewise the progressive instinct to prove the superiority of our values by refusing to debase ourselves even in the face of mass terrorism perpetrated by fundamentalist extremists, whether it be Al Qaeda or Anders Breivik. It is our instinct to refuse to be goaded into retaliatory war, or the passive-aggressive crouch of a national security state. It is our instinct, in other words, to react to terrorism by taking reasonable preventive measures and targeted efforts to bring individual perpetrators to justice, but on a broader level to soften anger towards us as a society by proving that we remain undaunted by violent attempts to goad us into an eternal clash of civilizations.
It is not our instinct to take an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. It is not our instinct to play by the rules of "The Chicago Way", where an act of aggression by an opponent is responded to with an act of equal or greater retaliation by your own side:
Many on the Left tend to feel deeply uncomfortable with that kind of approach. Ironically, "progressives" tend to idolize not the great 19th and early 20th century firebrands who were the namesake of the movement, but rather advocates of non-violent resistance.
FDR's great Madison Square Garden speech welcoming the hatred of the forces of big business strikes many self-avowed progressives as jarring and not in keeping with their values: not because they necessarily support big business, but because they instinctively recoil at such a strident, deeply aggressive approach to one's opposition. Listen to FDR once more, and see if you too do not cringe even ever so slightly at the brazenness of the man's rhetoric.
It should come as no surprise that modern Democrats lack the will to fight on equal terms with the uncompromising terrorists of the Right. It should come as no surprise that Barack Obama continues to have the support of most of the Democratic base even as he gives away the store.
Go to any convention of progressives, and you're far likelier to see images of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi than either Teddy or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. To most Democrats and progressives, Barack Obama is simply following along in their tradition of passive resistance and refusal to play by their terms.
The key challenge for the progressive movement is to decide just how far down that road we will travel before enough is enough, before the Eastern Tao gives ground to the Chicago Way, and before even Atticus Finch decides he has no choice but to finally punch back.