Monthly Archives: December 2019
Say it if you mean it
The fact that impeachment is finally heating up isn’t actually a good thing, since, as with everything these days, the right thing is being done for the wrong reasons and therefore having all the wrong results.
The two fundamental facts of the situation are a) Trump is both a wanton criminal and unfit for office in every possible way, and b) the chances of him actually being removed from office are presently negligible. Therefore, since impeachment cannot realistically accomplish its nominal goal – no matter how necessary one judges that goal to be – it must be approached tactically. The question has to be what the act of filing impeachment charges can actually accomplish, as well as whether doing so is the best way to accomplish that.
This is supposedly the calculus by which Pelosi has been operating. Impeaching immediately upon gaining control of the House would have validated the narrative that the Democrats are merely on a partisan witch-hunt, convoluted or legalistic charges would fail to draw the public interest, and a drawn-out process would distract from more important priorities.
So of course when Pelosi finally did decide to press for impeachment, she did in a way that maximizes every possible downside. The issue doesn’t materially affect anyone in America, it’s happening during the primary, which is the most important time for the Democrats to be making a positive case for themselves, and it’s blatantly obvious that the only thing that roused the establishment to give a shit was the fact that Trump was going after one of their own and damaging their electoral chances. Attempting to avoid the appearance of political gamesmanship had precisely the opposite effect, for the simple reason that doing so is itself political gamesmanship. Furthermore, acting like this one incident is finally the thing that’s beyond the pale sends a clear message that everything else wasn’t, which pretty dramatically undermines the case that impeachment is necessary because of Trump’s unique awfulness. If the only way you can get him is to rules-lawyer him over a technicality, how bad can he really be?
This is all a consequence of the thoroughgoing and rather pathetic obsession of liberals with playing “11-dimensional chess”; that is, of trying to find One Weird Trick to con people into supporting them rather than making an honest case for their beliefs. The motivation for acting this way is partially understandable. As mentioned, the parameters of the current situation prevent impeachment from being approached in any other way, and this applies generally. The mere fact of telling the truth offers no guarantee that you’ll be believed or even heard, so tactical considerations are never avoidable.
But all this means is that the truth is a real thing that exists in the real world, rather than a magical wish-granting fairy. The value of the truth is not metaphysical; it is precisely that true arguments are better than false ones. They aren’t perfect – they don’t necessarily prevail – but they offer distinct advantages. True statements adhere to reality; people can independently verify true things. Consistently prioritizing the truth over immediate surface appeal demonstrates to people that they can trust you. You can more effectively highlight dishonesty and bad faith in your opponents when you aren’t subject to those same charges yourself. Perhaps most importantly, insisting on honesty keeps you honest with yourself, preventing you from taking convenient shortcuts or being swayed by your own biases.
And of course if you actually win, winning based on the truth will give you the chance to actually accomplish something rather than merely incrementing a scoreboard. Obama, for example, was able to win strong victories based on his talent as an advertiser, which has misled his aspiring successors into believing that the only way forward is to replicate that strategy. But his victories were, in rather short order, proven hollow, simply because they were never based on anything, and the same claims made without the glamor justly ring false.
So the irony here is that trying to game the situation to find the thing that “works best” is generally the thing that works worst. Again, the temptation is that, because true statements can be misrepresented and misinterpreted just as easily as false ones, adhering to them feels like a disadvantage; if there’s a less true statement you can make that would be a more effective message, you’re obligated to forgo it. The problem with this is that less true statements can only be more effective for false reasons. For example, if the media is structured in a certain way which causes it to present things with a certain bias, it might seem that the necessary thing to do is to frame your ideas in a way that plays into that bias in order to get a fair hearing. But if your ideas actually do go against that bias, and the bias remains intact, then you’re going to remain at a disadvantage until you deal with the bias problem itself, i.e. accept the truth, and then present your ideas truthfully. Thus, problems of this nature cannot be gotten around, but must always be gone through. The constraints that the truth places on you are positive constraints: the things they force you to do are the things you were ultimately going to have to do to succeed anyway.
A basic example of this is the recent contrast between Sanders and Warren on the issue of using taxes to fund healthcare. Warren, knowing that the media has a psychotic obsession with demonizing anything that can be framed as a “tax increase,” tried to dodge the issue and reframe it to be about “costs,” and then released a plan designed to trick journalists into describing it as not having any “middle-class tax increases.” Despite being correct on the merits (“costs” would in fact go down, since the amount of taxes required would be less than the amount people are currently paying in premiums, and the taxes would also be progressive), this is still a dishonest answer, because it’s designed to avoid the relevant question. Sanders, by contrast, spelled out everything plainly: taxes would go up, premiums and deductibles would stop existing, and this would be a net benefit for everyone except rich fucks. In this case the Warren approach appears to have failed even in the immediate term, which illustrates the basic hazard of trying to be clever: sometimes people just don’t fall for it. But the real importance of the Sanders approach is that accepting the usefulness of public funding and getting over the childish idea that there’s a spooky monster called “big government” that’s always bad is going to be necessary in order to pass literally any legislation that benefits anyone other than hedge fund choads, so any serious attempt to change things starts with being honest about that.
Note that this very much does not mean being polite and reasonable all the time (and it almost never means “fact-checking”). For example, Labour in the UK has been having problems with baseless accusations of antisemitism. The mistake they’ve made here has been taking the accusations seriously. This is dishonest behavior, because acting as though there’s a real problem that needs to be addressed conveys the perception that there is – it makes “Labour attempts to deal with its antisemitism problem” an accurate headline. The correct response here is to be a total asshole about it: act indignant that anyone would dare accuse you of such a thing, insult anyone dumb enough to fall for it, and attack the accusers’ motivations. This conveys the correct perception that the issue is a smear and the people propagating it are either stupid or evil. “No, you’re the real racist” is a true statement when the people you’re dealing with actually are the real racists.
Furthermore, the most salient issue of the election was Brexit, on which Corbyn took the position of holding a second referendum. While this is the rationally correct thing to do (there was no actual plan on offer during the original referendum, so once one is developed, people ought to be able to vote on whether that’s what they want. It may be the case that, even though most people prefer Leave to Remain, there exists no possible Leave plan which most people would specifically prefer over Remain, in which case Remain is the democratically legitimate result), campaigning in this way is still dishonest, because Corbyn obviously does have an actual position on whether and how Brexit should happen, and he didn’t advocate for it. You have a moral obligation to tell people what it is you actually believe.
Just so, the correct strategy on impeachment has always been the obvious one: file impeachment charges every time Trump commits an impeachable offense. The first time this should have happened was in fact on day one of his presidency, at which time he had already been credibly accused of sexual assault by multiple people (remember, impeachment is an investigation, not a conviction). Doing this would have actually blunted the accusation that Democrats were just waiting to impeach at the first opportunity. Impeaching immediately when an issue arises, when the moment is not opportune, demonstrates that the issue itself is what you care about.
Furthermore, the problem of Trump constantly committing impeachable offenses should have been dealt with by impeaching him on all of those counts, immediately upon each issue arising. He should have been impeached for the emoluments thing as soon as he refused to divest himself from his business, for obstruction of justice as soon as he admitted it on TV, for poisoning the environment as soon as he appointed a corporate executive to head the EPA, for torture as soon as he started putting children in cages, for inciting violence on numerous occasions, and for failing to take care that the laws be faithfully executed on even more numerous occasions, including but not limited to issuing the Muslim Ban with no rational justification other than racism, deliberately sabotaging Obamacare, reneging on the Iran Deal, failing to expediently process refugee applications, and attempting to make policy on Twitter based on Fox News gossip. Again, doing all of this is the only way to demonstrate that these issues are actually serious; the complaint that there’s too much to pay attention to doesn’t hold a lot of water if you’re not even going to try.
The fact that the Republicans would have immediately shut down each of these attempts is also a point in favor of this approach. It’s more than a little peculiar to argue that the reason not to worry about impeachment is that the Republican Party is a completely lawless organization that will stop at nothing to maintain their grip on power. If that’s the case, it kind of seems like you need to do something about it! And the thing that you can do about it is reveal the truth: every time an impeachment inquiry gets shut down, mobilize every available person to send the message that the Republicans are facilitating criminal behavior and violating their duties to the United States. That’s why this strategy should have been pursued even before Democrats had control of the House: House Republicans shutting down the inquiry would have highlighted the problem just as well, and served just as well as an opportunities to highlight the underlying offenses. That’s the thing about relying on the truth: the only obstacles that can impede you arise from things which are also true, and which you therefore also need to deal with.
The catch is that the truth cannot be adhered to piecemeal. Saying only the true things that are convenient for you in the moment and leaving out the rest is in fact a classic form of lying. This does not mean that the truth dictates your tactics – you are not obligated to say every true thing related to your topic every time you speak (and in fact doing so is an ineffective way to convey the truth) – but it does constrain them. If you know something relevant to the situation and you fail to bring it up, you’re being dishonest. Bad faith arguments can only be called out from a position of good faith – if you’re guilty of the same thing you’re accusing someone else of, you can’t actually be opposing them on the merits.
This is part of why the bothsidesism of the present situation refuses to die: because the Democrats actually are corrupt and deceitful, they lose the ability to call the Republicans out on this – regardless of how much worse the latter really are. It’s been noted that the narrative of Democrats and Republicans “living in separate realities” on impeachment is bullshit, given that the Democrats plainly have the facts on their side. The problem is that both parties are in fact taking the same approach to the situation: neither of them actually cares about the law or the constitution or the moral capacity of the person controlling the planet’s largest military; they’re both simply trying to game the situation for their own short-term benefit. This is what makes the folk belief that “they’re all just a bunch of crooks anyway,” while lacking the recognition that the Republican Party is presently an explicitly criminal organization, nonetheless substantively correct on its own terms.
It’s also what allows people like Trump to present themselves as crusading outsiders based on superficial distinctions – and often, significantly, on accurate criticisms. Even as Trump only ever belches out whatever random notion worms its way into his moldy old brain, he’s often on point for the simple reason that there’s so much to work with that he’s bound to hit eventually. He was correct, for example, to attack Clinton for supporting the Iraq War, Warren for pretending to be a Native American, the political establishment in general for screwing over working people with rigged trade deals, and Jeb Bush for having no real reason to exist. The fact the Trump himself is no better on any of these points doesn’t actually amount to an argument in favor of his opponents. Rearguard actions can sometimes protect you from a rout, but being honest in the first place is what prevents people from being able to impose those sorts of narratives on you at all. “Sure, I may be a murderer, but at least I’m not a serial killer” is not a particularly compelling argument in favor of oneself – but if you actually are a murderer, then that’s the only true statement you can make.
And this is of course why there was never any chance of the Democrats following an honest impeachment strategy: they were only ever interested in political gamesmanship. The Democrats won’t impeach Trump for waging secret wars, torturing migrants, poisoning the environment, or selling out working people to vested interests, because past Democratic presidents have done all of those things and they intend for future ones to continue the trend. The power of adherence to the truth is not only that it can act as a sword and shield, but also as a mirror. It can show you when people who claim to share your goals and motivations do not in fact do so. Vampires can often present themselves attractively, but when you turn from their glamour and focus on reality, you find that there is nothing there at all.
The postness of truth has been greatly exaggerated. The only thing preventing the truth from working is the refusal to use it. More noise and more lies may make advancing the truth a more difficult proposition, but they do not diminish the power of doing so. More to the point, adherence to the truth is and always will be the only to win victories that are substantive rather than spectacular and to do things that affect the real world rather than merely playing well on TV. It’s not so much that honesty is the best policy as it is that it’s the only policy that’s actually a policy.