My blog post generated a vigorous discussion, which I should like to rejoin via this post. Chris, I am sorry to hear that you are under the weather, and that you have been burdened with medical bills that ought, in a well-run country, not to be laid upon you.
I have not been entirely successful in my effort to pose a question for discussion. First a comment about Noam Chomsky’s moral truism about universality, which Jerry Fresia reads as an injunction not to be hypocritical. No doubt, but universality in this sense is not a policy, Kant to the contrary notwithstanding. Looking back at the thirteen men who have held the presidency during my life, I imagine I would judge that only two of them have not been hypocrites in Jerry’s sense – Eisenhower and Carter. But all of them actively pursued what might be called America’s imperial project. They would have been less irritating if they had acknowledged openly what they were doing when they did it, but I do not think they would then have done much of anything differently.
I return to the question I posed originally: When a politician is forced by political reality to sacrifice one policy he or she wishes to pursue in order to pursue another, how should he or she deliberate about which one to sacrifice? None of us who are participating in this discussion face that question personally, because none of us is a politician in a position to make such choices [assuming for the moment that Vladimir Putin is not one of the readers whom Google identifies as being located in Russia.] And it may also be that many of you feel, as Chris seems to, that because you hate everything about Obama and his policies and his actions, you either cannot or will not even think about how he ought to make the choice I describe. It may even be that there is not now, and never has been, any political figure about whom Chris does not feel that way. O.K. Then ask the question of an imaginary man or women who at some time in the future is elected to the presidency or premiership of a democratic socialist nation. If you think that such a person, should there ever be one deo volente, will never face such choices, that it will never be the case in the socialist nation of the future that a president will have to scurry about assembling a voting coalition to enact a law and will be faced with a problem of the sort I posed, then I really think you are being hopelessly naïve and unrealistic.
The closest I have ever come to such a decision was the question posed to my grandfather, Barnet Wolff, in 1918. He had been elected to the New York City Board of Aldermen on the Socialist ticket in 1917 – the high water mark in the electoral efforts of the New York Socialist Party. He and the other Socialist Aldermen – the Seven Honest Men, as they were called in Socialist circles – were pushing for a program of free lunches in the elementary schools for the many scores of thousands of desperately poor boys and girls suffering from malnutrition at a time of the great flu pandemic that killed thirty-five million worldwide. [You can read the full story of Barney’s political career by going to box.net via the link at the top of this blog. My account is excerpted from a book I wrote about my grandparents.] The proposal brought them into conflict with a committee of wealthy philanthropists who were pushing for a system of two cent lunches. Each of the Socialist Aldermen received a letter on fancy stationary from Mrs. Simon Guggenheim [yes, that Guggenheim – the Guggenheim Museum] asking that they withdraw their proposal for free lunches and join them in working for the more manageable two cent proposal. [The original of her letter to Barney is in my file cabinets at home.] Barney and his comrades held firm; a $50,000 trial program for two cent lunches was approved, debated, withdrawn, re-approved and eventually, I believe, dropped. I do not know whether Barney ever deliberated in the manner of the hypothetical I outlined in my original post on this question, but he might well have done so. Since he was an elected official [albeit a quite powerless one in the corrupt milieu of early 20th century New York politics] he would have had no choice but to make a decision one way or the other. It does not seem to me that Noam’s truisms would have been much help.
One last observation. The question “Shall I bring Dick Cheney to justice or win health care for five million?” presents us with what might be termed a syntactical dilemma. English being what it is, “Dick Cheney” and “five million” are both expressions formed from two words, and so it is fatally easy to treat them as quite naturally of equal weight. But suppose we spoke a language in which it was grammatically incumbent upon us, in forming that sentence, to identify each of the five million by name as we had Dick Cheney. The effect might be something like what Tolkien tells us is spoken by the Ents in Fangorn Forest, in which sentences are interminable and discussions take days, but perhaps we would be led ineluctably to assign greater weight to the needs of the five million, simply by having been syntactically compelled to name them all.