Monday, January 26, 2009

Criticism of the President

At Crooks and Liars, I saw a clip from Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" about right-wing criticism of Obama's decisions at the start of his Presidency.

(See: Crooks and Liars: The Daily Show: The Fox News Fears Imbalance)

It also presented clips in which those same commenters such as Bill O'Reilly saying, when Bush was President, that people who do not rally around and support the President and his policies are anti-American. Their principle seemed then to have been that, once the election is over and we have a winner, everybody should support the winner.

Now, we see that their real principle is that everybody should support the winner only when the winner is a Republican, and that dissent and criticism is perfectly legitimate now that the President is a Democrat.

This is simply hypocrisy. This is a case of people who have adopted one set of standards for themselves, and a different set of standards for others. Republicans are patriots when they criticize the administration, Democrats are traitors.

They are pure tribalists. They appear to be completely submerged in an "us" versus "them" mentality where morality applies only to "us" and never to "them".

Let them wallow in their lack of moral principles, but let us not join them there. While they switch allegiance from "dissent is un-American" to "dissent is the only true sign of patriotism", let's apply a consistent set of moral principles across all boundaries.

Criticism of the President is a perfectly legitimate activity. If somebody has reason to believe that the President's policies will do harm to the country, or that they are simply immoral, they not only have a right, they have a duty, to speak their mind.

They have a duty even to act to (peacefully) act so as to prevent the enactment of those policies that they believe will do more harm than good. This is not a duty to break the law, but a duty to engage in legitimate political activity that best promotes those policies that they think will serve the country well, and prevent those policies that will do the country harm.

This means that no criticism should be condemned for no reason other than the fact that it is criticism, and the President may never be criticized.. It means that when people do criticize the President, one must respond to the actual substance of that criticism - to show that the criticism is unwarranted and invalid.

Nobody has a duty to get in line behind the President if the President is going to do us harm. Nobody had a duty to get in line behind Bush, and nobody has a duty to get in line behind Obama. Obama, and those who wish to defend his policies, in turn have a duty to argue for those policies and to make the case that they are necessary for the common good.

This public debate is the essence of an open democracy.

On this ground, criticism of the President can still be condemned. Criticism can be condemned if it is deceptive, or if it aims to promote the interests of some special-interest group at a cost to the nation as a whole. Criticism can be condemned if it is fallacious rhetoric or if it assumes as true that which has been proved false. Critics themselves can be condemned for lying, or for intellectual recklessness if they did not act responsibly in determining the truth of their premises or the quality of their reasoning.

There are a great many things that a critic can do to be worthy of condemnation.

However, the mere fact that somebody is criticizing the President is not in itself a justification for condemnation, even if that person had previously made the false claim that it was justified. Such a person can be charged with hypocrisy, but not with being anti-American.


Burt Likko said...

Another Daily Show clip from last week cuts between different statements made by Bush and Obama, showing that they have said largely similar things on anti-terrorism and fiscal policy -- yet the reaction is to cheer Obama and hiss at Bush. So the tribal hypocrisy goes both ways.

With that said, I think that substantive criticism of Obama is today as well-founded as substantive criticism of Bush was. To that I will add that non-substantive praise is as useless as non-substantive criticism. These days it seems that you have to actively seek out substantive policy analysis.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

transplanted lawyer

Yes, the tribal hypocrisy does go both ways. In fact, the reason that I picked this topic to write on is because of the danger of th Democrats now saying, "Everybody must back the President - criticizing the President is anti-American."

Since most of my readers are Democrats (I assume), this posting should be considered a warning shot across the moral bow.

"This is what it will take for you NOT to become hypocrites."

Steelman said...

Alonzo, your post exactly reflects my reaction to that clip from The Daily Show, when I watched that episode the other night.

I like Obama, I voted for Obama, I have no problem with legitimate criticism of our leaders' policies and actions, regardless of their party affiliation or popularity (or lack thereof).

Moral consistency is more important than political party defined ideological purity. Not that the authoritarians at Faux News will ever stop towing the opposite line.