Sunday, March 13, 2005

My Goldwater Left Or Right

First things first. I take this to be the heart of Dan Munz's criticism of Matt Welch's prescription for the Democrats (Dan, correct me if I'm wrong):
We ought to end the conversation Goldwater started, and pull up the curtain on the big government/small government dichotomy, exposing it for the ruse it is. We should make the case that government is just like anything else: In good hands, it does good. Bill Clinton got this; at his best, he dissolved Americans’ resentment towards Washington, and showed that wise leaders could use its power to produce tangible, shared benefits.
I think Dan might be reading too much into Matt's use of Goldwater as a jumping-off point; nevertheless, my brief begins with a limited defense of the old Episcopalian Jew. Barry Goldwater, I admit, is easy to confuse with the "Barry Goldwater" of contemporary political discourse. But it was the former and not the latter whom Matt invoked, and who won the admiration of Bob Dylan in Matt's aptly chosen epigraph. Goldwater, the man, was far more impressive and ambiguous a figure than the "Goldwater" papier-mache idol of Reaganite Republicans; there is no shortage of positions he held with which I disagree, but he possessed one quality which is shared by (according to my count) only one contemporary major politician (i.e. Sen. Feingold). Namely, for Goldwater, the term "freedom" really referred to freedom; he actually believed in individual autonomy, and in the precedence of the citizen before the state. (Would John Kerry or Bill Clinton have denounced "those who elevate the state and downgrade the citizen"? Don't make me laugh.)

These would not be superlatively distinguishing features of his politics, except that whole generations of politicians have come and gone of whom that could not be said. As Yeats said of Swift, "With savage indignation/ He served human liberty." Look at Goldwater's most famous public statement:
I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
This is Tom Paine, not Ronald Reagan (and if Reagan had said something similar, he would not have meant it). And it has the merit of being true. Call me a deontologist if you must, but it seems to me that the substance of a man's core beliefs, and not the manner in which he cashes them out in terms of practical policy judgements, is what's important in the moral assessment of his politics.

I could go further. There are less well-known sections of that 1964 speech worth giving some attention to. Goldwater's vision of the Republican Party was "a Party for free men, not for blind followers, and not for conformists." Could anything be more unlike the party of George W. Bush? Goldwater's judgement on foreign policy matters, the facet of his career subject to the most scorn on the left, also turns out to be redeemable. Tell me what is false in what follows:
It has been during Democratic years that we have weakly stumbled into conflict, timidly refusing to draw our own lines against aggression, deceitfully refusing to tell even our people of our full participation, and tragically, letting our finest men die on battlefields (unmarked by purpose, unmarked by pride or the prospect of victory).

Yesterday it was Korea. Tonight it is Vietnam. Make no bones of this. Don't try to sweep this under the rug. We are at war in Vietnam. And yet the President, who is Commander-in-Chief of our forces, refuses to say - refuses to say, mind you, whether or not the objective over there is victory. And his Secretary of Defense continues to mislead and misinform the American people, and enough of it has gone by.

And I needn't remind you, but I will; it has been during Democratic years that a billion persons were cast into Communist captivity and their fate cynically sealed.
When panzers rolled into Prague in 1968 and crushed---or at least forestalled---the Czech revolution, Leonid Brezhnev abused the captive leaders of the Prague Spring by reminding them of the cynicism of the Democratic leadership in general and President Johnson in particular:
I asked President Johnson if the American government still fully recognized the results of the Yalta and Potsdam conferences. And on 18 August I received the reply: as far as Czechoslovakia and Romania are concerned, it recognizes them without reservation...So what do you think will be done on your behalf? There will be no war.
Improbably, Brezhnev found an even more witting partner in the suppression of human freedom in Richard Nixon than in Lyndon Johnson. And as the peoples of Eastern Europe saw their countries transformed into Soviet incarceration centers, the peoples of Southeast Asia were subject to American "liberation" in the form of fiery, chemical rain, and multilateral genocidal slaughter to no end whatsoever. I cannot say what Goldwater's response to these events would have been, and it's likely that he would have adopted the wrong policies, but he at least would have acted out of a fundamental decency and honesty.

He was willing to say "bollocks" to the entire project of using the human beings at the fringes of the American and Soviet "spheres of influence" as pawns in a purposeless global cock-measuring contest that could have and nearly did end in nuclear winter. And he sacrificed his own political ambition because he would not sacrifice his intellectual honesty. I am quite eager to end the Republicans' conversation about "Goldwater." But in my optimistic moments, I think that the conversation Goldwater started is only beginning.

[But you forget that it was important to vote for Johnson, because Goldwater was going to escalate the Vietnam War--ed.]

Closing thought. This excerpt from Goldwater's 1964 speech strikes me as hauntingly prescient:
During four futile years, the administration which we shall replace has distorted and lost that faith. It has talked and talked and talked and talked the words of freedom. Now, failures cement the wall of shame in Berlin. Failures blot the sands of shame at the Bay of Pigs. Failures mark the slow death of freedom in Laos. Failures infest the jungles of Vietnam. And failures haunt the houses of our once great alliances and undermine the greatest bulwark ever erected by free nations - the NATO community. Failures proclaim lost leadership, obscure purpose, weakening wills, and the risk of inciting our sworn enemies to new aggressions and to new excesses. Because of this administration we are tonight a world divided - we are a Nation becalmed. We have lost the brisk pace of diversity and the genius of individual creativity. We are plodding at a pace set by centralized planning, red tape, rules without responsibility, and regimentation without recourse.
Substitute terms, and what you've got is a powerful indictment of the Bush administration.


At 5:09 PM, Blogger the actual rod said...

Dude, now vague overtures to 'liberty' and 'justice' are a sufficient expression of the substance of a man's core political beliefs?


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