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June 29, 2007


Katherine: poetry. Me: analysis.

Funny, I was thinking -

Katherine: continental.
hilzoy: analytical.

(Both need each other to make philosophy live.)

Hilzoy, this is the sort of thing that's a balm and comfort to my soul, for being pure sense in a time of nonsense. Thanks.

another very good post.

Here's the first question -- you're right, everything in some sense is an abstraction. but can't i distinguish between types of abstractions. In other words, aren't some better in some sense than others? Isn't there a difference between say "bed" and "freedom." Or more to the point, "halting genocide" and "promoting democracy."

It seem that "freedom" (and other values words) are meta-abstractions -- another level or two up the chain. And if so, does that mean they're less reliable?

More to come - but that's the first question

anscombe's parable also can be put in terms of the detective's list being descriptive and the shopper's being prescriptive/normative; or the detective's list having a word-to-world direction of fit and shopper's having a world-to-word direction of fit.

i agree with what you say about the importance of empiricism in estimating the consequences (esp. unintended) of the means we take to our abstract, normative ends.

another essential role for empirical work comes in the intermediate bench-marking and route-finding. i want to go from a to b, and i've been traveling for four hours. where am i now? somewhere between a and b? further from b than where i started? i want to buy these ten items and i've been shopping for ten minutes. what's in my basket so far? are any of the items from my list already there, or have items not on my list snuck in?

you've got to use empiricism to check interim progress or lack thereof.

great post, in other words, i completely agree.

kid b: I was trying to avoid technical terms like 'world to word', but yes, that was the point. Besides, I always get 'world to word' and its opposite backwards, which may or may not have anything to do with the fact that I don't know my right from left, and only realized about a year ago that on my mental political spectrum, I always visualize the left on the right, which I cleverly think of as "the left".

oh, i just figure more and more various ways of putting it is better than fewer.

you're viewing politics from the rostrum instead of the audience, which is why you've got left confused with stage-left. clearly you're meant to be up on the stage, addressing the assembly.

publius: "It seem that "freedom" (and other values words) are meta-abstractions -- another level or two up the chain."

Question: what is the chain?

I'm not sure this is right. Values terms can be very specific -- bully, miser, arrogant, untrustworthy, disciplined, hospitable, not to mention the various terms for what were once sexual sins, like sodomy or onanism -- while non-values terms can be quite general (thing) or vague (stuff, little).

Katherine's continental?????????

If Katherine were continental, she wouldn't give a damn about actual people and their actual problems.

And she'd probably spend her time supplying a textual deconstruction of the slipped signification of the words 'freedom' and 'liberty', just to argue that Dick Cheney was the culmination of the 200 year process of unfolding that are these texts of barbarism.

Then she'd argue that no one was really suffering, because the war was only happening on television.

Then, she'd backtrack, side with violent Maoists, and blame it all on the metaphysics of signification.

If she were continental...

Are Alexander Herzen & Albert Camus continental, or are they not actually philosophers?

It's all abstraction but some of it is more abstract than other parts.

Like, I can imagine a US patrol in baghdad. Fourteen heavily-loaded men, on foot because they don't want a mega-IED to get them all at once. Some of them are walking down the street while others are off to the sides ready to provide covering fire. What are they there for? Only the interpreter knows enough arabic to be immediately useful. They're walking by a lot of houses with closed doors, some of them behind walls with closed doors. They don't know what's going on any of those places unless they break the doors down and find out. Basicly the point of the exercise is that if somebody attacks them they can kill the attackers and figure they're ahead against the insurgents. And if nobody attacks them then the area is that much more "pacified", they're maintaining order. Except in general they only kill or capture something like 6 to 8 attackers per wounded american, and it just isn't getting any better.

But that's just a description of the pictures in my mind. Somebody who's actually been there has memories of what it was like for him. His memories are closer to reality than the images I get from other people's words.

But then, all he's seen was his own experience. Multiply that by 50,000 for the other combat guys there, and he hasn't seen much of it. His experience might be somehow representative, but when he tries to imagine how it all fits together he's doing abstraction again. I want to think that his abstractions are more valid than mine because his are based on real memories instead of fake memories. But then, we say that what he's doing is only to provide time for iraqi politics to work out. And maybe he doesn't know anything about iraqi politics at all. So how does his experience help? He can tell us something about how long the army can keep staggering along before they're tired out. He can't tell us anything about how long we need him to keep walking down that street before things improve enough. If I have to walk down that street I want his experience to help me. But ask him how the war's going and he doesn't know -- all he knows is his own experience.

And the people who could tell us the best about how iraqi politics works, who have the experience, won't ever give us a straight answer. Because they're politicians.

On Camus and Herzen: maybe there are people we'd like to call philosophers who are neither continental nor analytic?

Hilzoy: I may have mentioned this before but I think somewhere Freud has a theory on your kind of right-left confusion. Apparently, Friedrich Schiller (and Freud) had it bad. I don't remember Freud's explanation, but I've heard others suggest it might be a consequence of right-brain left-brain competition and no clear domination between the hemispheres. And supposedly that's a good thing, if you've got it.

I remember, as a smartass undergraduate smitten with Camus, I asked A.J. Ayer about how he would incorporate some of his claims with Camus and he said, well, Camus said the fundamental question was whether or not we should commit suicide, which automatically put him outside the pale of philosophy.

I'm still infatuated with Camus, but the Myth of Sisyphus never did it for me; it was the political essays, and "The Rebel".
Herzen is a recent infatuation thanks to the Stoppard plays (which led me to read "My Past & Thoughts"). I don't have a stake in either of them being philosophers--I just don't know who usually gets categorized as what. I would think they're considered journalists & intellectuals in a generic sort of way (as well as a novelist, in Camus' case) but not philosophers. But I got the impression from Ara's comment that Sartre would be an example of a contintental philosopher, & he tends to be discussed w/ Camus.

I think publius meant "freedom" can be a meta-abstraction because it tends to be made up of other abstractions. I would say rather it's a bad word to use a basis for foreign policy because it tends to be weighted with unexpressed assumptions, which vary even within a single culture (see David Hackett Fischer's Liberty and Freedom for an unravelling of some of our various assumptions).

For instance, the US' Cold War support of almost every non-Communist regime as "freedom-loving" makes quite good sense if "freedom" is shorthand for "freedom for corporations to act without restraint". As Fischer has shown, the ability to act without regard for others is one of the ways Americans have defined "freedom" and "liberty".

I guess I do agree with publius, and to a large extent with Ezra. "Values" in American politics are used as excuses, not guides; the only way to get back on track is to stop using so damn many excuses.

Katherine: about analytic v. continental: the short version is that Camus is his own guy, though you'd have to stick him with the continentals if you were forced to pigeonhole him at all. (Influence of Sartre, etc.) Herzen, I'm less familiar with.

The slightly longer yet still oversimplified version: Analytic and continental really diverged early in the 20th century, when English philosophy fell under the sway of the logical positivists, confusingly, known as the Vienna circle. Vastly oversimplified version of their basic view: any statement can be clarified into some combination of statements of observable facts plus logic, and the key to resolving problems is to do this clarification, at which point you'll just be able to look and see whether the claim you've clarified is true.

It's sort of like thinking that the sort of thing that happens when you argue with Seb about some term in legal philosophy, and it seems to each of you that if you can just pin the other down on one clear meaning of "original intent" or "judicial activism", then you will finally be able to just sort everything out logically. Imagine believing that all philosophical disputes are of this kind, and that the reason they go on and on and on is that people (a) don't recognize this, and (b) don't stick with one meaning, and (c) make the further mistake of believing that what are, at heart, semantic disputes are all about a realm of Metaphysical Entities.

Meanwhile, the Continent stayed on a more Hegel/Husserl path. Unfortunately, however, the Continentals had a very few good philosophers, but no real bench strength, and except for those few, a lot of their work was bad.

As of, say, 1940-1970, the two camps were at loggerheads. Analytic philosophers thought continental philosophers were woolly-headed, always saying incomprehensible things about Being and Death and the like, while continentals thought analytic philosophers were all insufferably arid, spending their lives trying to give a systematic logically airtight analysis of one tiny little word at a time. Both sides were unfair to the other's best philosophers, but often right about the second tier. (I once had a colleague who wrote, I think, not just one but several papers on the correct logical analysis of the phrase "almost but not quite". E.g., does "John is almost there, but not quite" imply "John is not there"? Ye Gods.)

However, all this time two things were happening. On the one hand, in both camps really good philosophers were undermining the views of their own central figures. On the other, in both camps grad students were looking at what had become an actual war round about 1950-60 and thinking: sheesh, all these people acting as though you have to choose between precision and depth. Why not try for both, and accept the best of what both camps have to offer?

Result: for several decades now, this alleged split has been over, for the most part, though some bits of continental philosophy turned themselves into Theory, in the sense in which that word is used in literature departments.

This series of posts is turning into an interesting discussion! Apologies in advance -- I haven't read all the threads carefully, and I've been writing this monster for awhile, so some of my points may already have been covered adequately. Apologies also for the length. I'll probably clean it up a bit and post it at American Footprints. But hey, I wrote it here already, it's in response to the prior posts on this site, and y'all know how to scroll.


I think we're leaving out a couple of concepts that may help explain what is making Ezra and publius so uncomfortable about a foreign policy defined in terms of "values". I also think the discussion needs to move beyond the Iraq/Middle East situation, where the abuse of a "values"-defined foreign policy is so self-evident, to some other parts of the world, where liberals are more inclined to embrace a "values"-defined foreign policy without fully appreciating the potential negative consequences.

The problem Ezra identifies isn't actually with a "values"-based foreign policy. Ultimately, policy is never value-free. If it's defined in terms of "power", we place a greater value on a global order with certain features and with a certain place for the US over another alternative order. A realist talks in terms of "interests," but still, the selection of interests which we prioritize over others reflects underlying values. Nor is the problem "abstractions" -- we wouldn't know what phenomena to select to examine with our empirical lenses without some agreed method to label, categorize, compare, analyze, etc.

The problem rather is when we "reify" abstractions into an "ideology" of absolute ends. It's this ideologically-driven way of looking at the world -- using reified abstractions to define interests and threats, friends and enemies -- that fundamentally distorts our ability to see the world more clearly (especially to see the world through the eyes of others who don't share the ideology). Ideology also allows us to fool ourselves that our means are consistent with our ends (absolute values). And as we've seen time and again in the whole Iraq mess, it encourages policymakers to ignore unintended consequences (even those consequences that are entirely predictable) with the excuse that the policy must, in and of itself, be good since the intention is ideologically pure.

The Bush administration has been a pernicious blend of two ideologies -- hegemonic dominance (Cheney/Rumsfeld) and social/political transformation on the Western model (the neocons and increasingly Bush), gussied up with a bit of Hegel, American exceptionalism, US "leadership in the GWOT" and the "freedom agenda" vocabulary that Katherine quoted from the second inaugural. Old habits of thought die hard. In the absence of a Cold War global enemy and a clear mission for American exceptionalism that legitimated the maintenance of US military hegemony, the old ideology was hauled out, brushed off, and refashioned for new enemies of "freedom" -- "terrorists", Islamofascists, and anybody who gets uppity (frex China, Russia, Venezuela).

Over the better part of a decade, the Cheney/Bush crowd have appropriated "values" abstractions for describing actions with ideological ends. In the process, those abstractions have taken on a whole set of concrete connotations that can't easily be stripped out. In communicating policy differences, we can't simply put our preferred definitions of "values" -- verbal "theory" -- up against the way those "values" have been concretized over the past six years.

So to sum, the Cheney/Bush crowd have reified values as ideological absolute ends and have "socially constructed" the meaning of those values by pouring concrete actions into those abstractions. We can't set new directions for US foreign policy by offering our competing verbal definitions. We must first de-ideologize our foreign policy -- and that means removing "values" from the discourse of policy objectives, including explicitly rejecting Condi's self-consciously revolutionary "transformational diplomacy" as a reference point.

De-ideologizing foreign policy also means getting rid of "bumpersticker" labels like GWOT, which has been manipulated to lump anyone the US administration doesn't like into one homogenous "enemy of freedom". The problem is not simply one of conflating every local terrorist cell into alQaeda International, although that is a clear and present danger which is likely to lead us into the sort of proxy war syndrome that characterized the US/Soviet competition. But the danger of murky concepts is greater than subsuming alQaeda or Shi'a/Sunni insurgents or militias into an undifferentiated enemy, and of considerably longer standing than the Cheney/Bush administration. For example, is it really helpful in fashioning policy toward the Iranian regime, Hizbollah or Hamas to define them principally as "supporters of terrorism", ignoring them as full-fledged, multifaceted political actors of significance with some legitimate interests? Democrats started this sort of nonsense -- it's just been exploited beyond imagining by the current administration.

Another advantage of not equating "values" with policy objectives is that it makes it easier for us to identify objectives on the basis of function rather than form. By focusing on function, we can better avoid confusing our own familiar Western structures which embody our values with the values themselves, that is those values we believe to be "universal" because we think they are important for the well-being of individuals and societies. The unhappy experiences with "democracy promotion" over the past few years should have taught us the lesson that what matters isn't the form but the spirit -- the foundational values or principles -- of the benefits of democracy in Western liberal political systems. Stuff like enough voice to provide competition among potential policies, alternation of power, accountability, security, and legitimacy can be achieved through different political structures and mechanisms. But they require institutions -- both governmental and civil society -- that are part of a country's culture and sufficiently robust to weather the stresses of more open political competition.

We have learned that there's no recipe for getting there, but there are a multitude of small, incremental ways that Americans (often not the US government) can assist people who are trying to build more open, effective societies. Among those ways, however, "regime change" will rarely be on the list. Yet when we define our objectives in terms of "values", it's all too easy to slide into "regime change" thinking -- that it's the regime that isn't conforming to our values and therefore must be dealt with as an opponent, rather than that the society can be encouraged to develop in a way consistent with our values.

The potential danger of an ideologically-driven approach to policy is greatest in the long run not with the Middle East or the GWOT, but with China. We face the prospect of an unholy alliance between the "China is the looming peer competitor" guys in the military-industrial complex who want to gear up for a big war (and a big navy) and the "China is bad" folks who wring their hands and warn that US "engagement" isn't transforming China into a Western democracy. Add some populist-style protectionist sentiment, and a "values"-defined foreign policy is ripe for manipulation by the worst of the Cheney/Bush crowd, even with Democrats controlling the White House and Congress.

The problem identified by Ezra isn't, unfortunately, limited exclusively to the current administration or their fellow travellers -- or even to the "liberal hawks" of the Beinart persuasion. The Democrats (especially the Clitonistas) who keep pushing for their 1990's pipedream of a "Concert of Democracies" are, IMHO, simply useful idiots for those who are attempting to make their revolutionary ideology the dominant discourse of both the general political culture and foreign policy elites. It's one thing to have concluded that, in the case of failed states producing continuous and growing instability across borders, that the internal nature of a regime may be relevant to US foreign policy. It's quite another to make lists of friends and enemies (or not-so-much-friends) among stable functioning states on the basis of our assessment of how well they're doing on some Freedom Index or measurement of democratic "progress" or "backsliding."

Let me take one example, where I think Democrats would likely be as bad or worse than the Bush Administration in exploiting a "values"-defined approach to policy -- Russia. I can't believe it helps the US promote either its interests or its values in the global system when the leading US editorial pages are all Russophobic and justify their position on the basis of Russia's democratic deficiencies. The coverage of Russia is so ideologically blinkered, it is impossible without reading specialized publications to actually learn what's happening in Russia or about the Kremlin's domestic or foreign policies. A "values"-defined foreign policy, as promoted by both many liberals and most neocons, has and continues to be counter-productive when it comes to Russia -- it substitutes a simplistically-defined enemy for an immensely complex and evolving society with interests more complementary to than conflicting with our own when seen within the global system.

The Bush/Rice refusal to adopt calls for a full-blown "values"-driven approach to Russia has been one of the few bright spots in their entire tenure, although the internal contradictions between stated ideology and "realist" national interests are finally starting to produce major cracks, as the current dustup over Kosovo is demonstrating. The vast majority of US politicians and foreign policy elite -- Dems and Repubs -- are focusing on one "good" as defined in terms of the "value" of "freedom" -- self-determination for the majority in Kosovo. The objections of Russia (and a number of other countries in regions with long-standing ethnic/religious struggles) are either ignored with a lot of handwaving as insignificant or dismissed in ideological terms as Russia engaging in "old thinking". All the bien pensant discussions of Kosovo ignore the potential harmful consequences, locally, regionally and in the global system -- and it's hard not to conclude that this willingness by US liberals and conservatives alike to ignore "unintended consequences" is just as much ideological self-deception as was the Bush Administration's failure to anticipate the post-combat problems in Iraq.

If we were to be successful in de-ideologizing our foreign policy, I would not be worried that Democrats would pursue value-free policies. Values are those gut-level assumptions that orient the way we view the world and choose what we think is important -- and the guts of the policy advisers of all of the Democratic presdential candidates are constructed quite differently from those of Cheney, Bush or their minions.

Policymaking, however, will always present conflicts among values and demand tradeoffs. One of the most important reasons to try to de-ideologize foreign policy is that it can't handle tradeoffs in either an open or consistent fashion. It's impossible to sustain an ideologially-defined policy -- it cracks apart when confronted with reality and powerful real competing interests. The entire "forward agenda of freedom" in the Middle East is a textbook example. Each time "values" met reality, it has produced either hypocrisy (Egypt), disaster (Hamas), or propaganda/denial (Lebanon, Iraq).

So let me address the hot-button "human rights" issue, where US administrations are always accused of abandoning values. I for one don't think that "human rights" is always, or even usually, the principal value that foreign policy must address. The US Government is not a human rights NGO. If we're dealing with China, frex, in my personal value system I place a higher priority on the lives, health, security and prosperity of billions above abolishing human rights abuses. So I put a regional security regime for Northeast Asia, the impact of China on global climate change, and the importance of China/US trade and capital flows for the future of the global political economy over China's internal political arrangements.

That's not to say that the US, either as a government or US organizations and citizens, can't influence some of what China does vis a vis its own citizens. Personally, although I don't buy the "inevitability" argument that an emerging middle class will "demand democracy", I do think that China's economic development is eventually going to crack up socially and politically unless their political system begins to reflect some of "values" that underlie democratic systems, and I think a large number of China's leaders and intellectuals would agree. The dilemma for the Chinese themselves is defining what a transformed system should look like and how to get there. But US government action should be part of trying to help China evolve a system which will function more effectively for its own people, not as sponsoring missionaries or martyrs for "freedom." I certainly want the human rights community to hold up a "values" mirror to both the US and China -- not only their respective governments but their societies. Kathrine has made an eloquent case for why that is so important and potentially so powerful. But I would not support a US foreign policy which pretended to make a value, such as China's democratization or human rights record, a paramount policy objective.

The first challenge for Democrats and Republican "realists" is to shift "values" to where they belong -- as foundational principles that inform policy rather than as announced policy objectives, which all too easily become absolute ends used to justify unnecessary conflict and to rationalize the adoption of means that produce appalling consequences.

The next challenge, and a discussion for another day, is what we should put in the place of "values" as a framework for articulating a different direction for US foreign policy.

I actually agree with this paragraph:

" to shift "values" to where they belong -- as foundational principles that inform policy rather than as announced policy objectives, which all too easily become absolute ends used to justify unnecessary conflict and to rationalize the adoption of means that produce appalling consequences."

The U.S. gov't is not Human Rights Watch or Amnesty, and does not have the credibility those orgs. have to give lectures on human rights--especially not right now. But I wasn't primarily talking about why it's good for State Dep't to lecture Iran or China or Russia about their human rights abuses.* I was talking about why it was okay for U.S. politicians to discuss and consider values as foundational principles in domestic debates about foreign policy--in debates about the torture bill, or whether to invade Iraq. I took Klein to be arguing that "values" did NOT have a place as foundational principles.

*I do support continuing things like the annual country reports, etc., mainly because it's good for the U.S. gov't to put itself on record on those issues.

Also, the U.S. needs to gain factual as well as moral credibility, and it's just a bad idea to claim that our paramount foreign policy objective is promoting democracy if that's not actually true.

nadez - that's some really really good stuff that you should blog over at AF (give that Eric Martin character a run for his money).

Some other thoughts, responding to both Hilz and Nadez.

1 - Hilzoy, I think upon second read that we're basically winding up in the same place. As I read you, you're saying values (1) still necessarily inform our judgment and (2) being true to them requires the sort of hard-nosed analysis Ezra is advocating. That's definitely persuasive.

2 - Nadez articulates much better the precise concept I'm taking issue with. maybe it's not abstraction per se, but this PARTICULAR TYPE of "reified" abstraction elevated to foreign policy objective.

3 - But still, the question is how you either (1) get people to do the hard-nosed analysis, or (2) de-ideologize foreign policy. On this, I think my "over-correction" argument may do some good. What I mean is that maybe it takes a more extreme type of "let's get out of the clouds" to get people more focused.

But again, this was very well-articulated, and I think that at the end of the day, you and I and Katherine probably fall in exactly the same place in terms of what policies we would recommend and where.

I have more to say, but I'm going to do it in Katherine's post.

Katherine, you may have "overinterpreted" Ezra's line: "What I want is not a foreign policy vision that builds from a foundation of values, but from one of consequences." He's talking about framing policy objectives and narrative. And he's saying that "values" like "freedom" and "hope" are so murky that they can be used to dress up anything. But when they dominate the narrative, then the substance of policy -- and ultimately how that substance would or would not be congruent with values as underlying principles -- gets lost, never gets interrogated. And that means the guys who control the action (Democrat or Republican) can do pretty much anything they want. In turn, because they are the ones who control the action, they also control the narrative and use "value" labels to disguise or justify their action and, in the process, alter the socially constructed meaning of the "value."

Short Ezra -- If you want to articulate a coherent oppositional policy, don't adopt the narrative your opponent owns. And don't adopt a narrative that your opponent can use as easily as you can for his own totally different purposes.

That being said, I don't think there's anything in Ezra's piece that would object in any way to using "values" as appeals to buttress policies that are framed in terms of accomplishing more concrete objectives. Rather, I read it that he'd be happy to use values to buttress concrete policy proposals, just so long as the debate doesn't shift to being all about so-called values.

As for the US State Dept's human rights activities or making democracy promotion an explicit goal, we're so screwed on the hypocrisy/incompetence front these days that it's mostly a sideshow that's exploited by political entrepreneurs with a particular axe to grind and an entre to the public trough. Hilzoy's example of the Iranian democracy promotion funding is a good example.

But what I'm arguing is that defining our foreign policy objectives in these overarching (and murky) value terms is not just ineffective, not just capable of producing a backlash as in Iran, but a dangerous way of defining how we see ourselves as part of the global system and how we relate to specific countries and regimes. For example, the Concert of Democracies folks would place the internal structure of regimes as a defining principle not just for bilateral but multilateral relationships. Yikes!

But returning to the "narrative" problem, as distinct from substantive policy. I think Ezra's absolutely right -- an ideological or values-defined policy framework is a disaster as a way of communicating policy differences. In order to differentiate Democrats from the Cheney/Bush crowd, what's the argument -- we have the same goals we're just more competent? And if Dems win the White House and push this sort of approach and then are followed by another Cheney-type -- just think of the field-day they'd have running around giving Vilnius speeches all the time. Irrelevant or dangerous when it comes to reality, but oh so satisfying as an agitprop tool to justify "us vs them," US hegemony, enormous defense budgets, more European missile defense, etc etc.

Okay. Either we do have a profound disagreement, or you don't understand what I was actually arguing for at all. Maybe part of the misunderstanding is that I haven't actually read Slaughter's book, and maybe Ezra's talking about her moral arguments rather than all moral arguments.

There was a long period when the Democrats were just plain afraid to make moral arguments in favor of their foreign policies. I think they should sometimes do so. I think it is okay if those arguments draw on concepts like truth, justice, and the American way. I am in NO WAY suggesting that the democrats, asked to summarize their foreign policy, should say: "we love freedom and liberty and hope", or give a speech that resembles Bush's second inaugural, only sincere. I am talking about how the Democrats talk about things like habeas corpus, Guantanamo, and preventive war. I don't want airy laundry lists of "values"--I don't think anything in what I wrote suggests I approve of that. It's just that it's hard to make moral arguments without eventually invoking those abstract words & values.

Half the point of the whole post was about how those words are meaningless if they are disconnected from actual facts. In fact, my approach to writing about these issues is very empirical. I tend to want to bury people in an avalanche of factual details & let them speak for themselves--it's interesting, though: when I do that, very few people link or respond to me.

Do you think it's a bad idea for liberal politicians to make moral arguments about foreign policy, across the board, because that's Bush and Cheney's turf & it's been entirely discredited?

I suspect either I am not understanding Klein, or you are not understanding me. It's really very hard to have useful discussions about "narrative" or "rhetoric" or "framing" without any examples.

nadezhda: I still don't see the there there on Klein's position. Why oh why are we afraid of talking about ideology and propaganda? Look, if we use the word 'hope' to create a situation of hopelessness and if we talk about freedom and create a tyranny, the proper response is not to recant talk of freedom and hope as viciously equivocal, but rather to question the motives of the propagandizers. The word 'freedom' is far far from meaningless. It's just deployed indifferently and received inattentively.

Shorter me: it is simply not the case that words can mean anything at all. The fault is not in language. The fault is ours. We have to be vigilant. We have to pay attention to whether the talk our leaders shovel down our throats matches up with the reality they are creating.

It is yet another kind of irresponsible laxity to blame language for the failings that are squarely our own.

Katherine: BTW, I for one really appreciate the 'burying-people-with-the-facts' approach. If people don't respond, I suspect it is either because (a) you haven't given them an easy ideological entry point to latch onto and dismiss you by (2) you have persuaded them or (3) you have left them still disagreeing but tongue-tied in aporia -- resentful, angered, but mute.

Some of the problem seems to be the disconnection between how philosophers talk about values and how politicans do. If you can think hard about what your values truly mean and how you might implement them effectively, then a values-based approach is best. The problem is that I'm not sure how many of the US public as a whole (or the publics of most other countries) are capable of telling the difference between a seriously thought-through values-based argument and an argument that just has key terms such as 'liberty', 'freedom', 'peace' and 'justice' wrapped round it like pink ribbon on a parcel. If you have a large percentage of voters who can't tell the difference between a morally-valid argument and a morally-bogus one, then arguing a policy on the basis of what is most moral is just going to end with people choosing the most dazzling combination of buzzwords. Unless you can find a way of producing more intelligent political discussion (which admittedly Obsidian Wings is pretty good on, but it's still a minority interest), then values-talk is intrinsically likely to get perverted in this way.

So I have read Publius's, Katherine's, Hilzoy's posts and Ezra Klein's article that initiate this whole discussion.

And for the life me I can't actually find any substantive disagreement between the contributors on Obsidian Wings.

However, this discussion has been extremely interesting, so regardless keep "arguing" with one another. Let the intellectual stimulation continue.

i too have loved seeing so much passion put into an interesting diversionary philosphical discussion.

and for you katherine:

Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn't talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony.

and that, of course, is the fly in this otherwise delicious soup.

Herr Busch lacks sincerity. He cannot be argued with because he does not believe even his own positions.

He claims to be pursuing a foreign policy of high ideals, while we in the reality based world contemplate that argument, he goes about torturing, spying, killing and looting.

Herr Busch's claims to high ideals are mere cover.

Everyone here will admit that high ideals are no substitute for a practical, goal oriented foreign policy. Yes, high ideals may inspire us to take a chance on engaging with Iran, but they should not be the sole basis.

Herr Busch is not willing to engage in dialogue of any sort.

Removal is the only option.

Ezra in terms of shopping lists: They say they're providing a healthy balance of meat, dairy, grains, and vegetables but I want more than cheeseburgers and fries with extra ketchup.

I've enjoyed all the discussion about abstractions, goals and actually accomplishing them, even picking up a few new words along the way. While no doubt some of the Neocons have a philosophical bent, I wonder if you're giving Bush et al too much credit for actually thinking about these things.

Women tend to regard words as reflections of the truth, for example using them to build relationships. Men, on the other hand, tend to use words as tools to obtain their goals. As a popular culture example, compare soap operas with any action show.

My bet is that Bush et al use words like "freedom" and "democracy" simply because it helps them achieve their goals. Whatever it takes, eh? And what are their goals? Unless there's some good reason to suspect something loftier, I generally opt for some combination of power, money, sex, status etc. I think that especially applies to someone who has described himself as more interested in politics than in policy.

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