(POLITICAL) CHARITY CASE

Much like a lot of people who opine for reasonably-sized audiences, Cass Sunstein deems Barack Obama and John McCain both more admirable than most US Senators. His reason:

Politicians who show respect–Senator McCain is a good example–tend not to attack the competence, the motivations, or the defining commitments of those who disagree with him. Politicians who show charity as well as respect–Senator Obama is a rare example–tend to put opposing arguments in the best possible form, to praise the motivations of those who offer such arguments, and to seek proposals that specifically accept the defining commitments of all sides.

In other words, McCain shows respect by criticizing just the reasoning and not the character of his opponents; Obama shows the greater virtue of charity by affirming the character of his opponents and stating their arguments in the most generous terms possible.

They do?

Of course, it would be tacky to just scrounge up a single example of McCain vituperatively attacking the character of an opponent. So let’s restrict ourselves to examples of McCain vituperatively attacking the character of the most charitable Senator in America (TM). Maybe this counts:

I concluded your professed concern for the institution and the public interest was genuine and admirable. Thank you for disabusing me of such notions with your letter… I’m embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in political to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble.

As for Obama, he’s certainly outspoken on the virtues of granting those you disagree with the benefit of the doubt. After all, that was the principle behind his criticism of liberal advocacy groups that criticized Pat Leahy:

The knee-jerk unbending and what I consider to be unfair attacks on Senator Leahy’s motives were unjustified…the same unyielding, unbending, dogmatic approach to judicial confirmation has in large part been responsible for the kind of poisonous atmosphere that exists in this Chamber…These groups on the right and left should not resort to the sort of broad-brush dogmatic attacks that have hampered the process…

Watch as Barack Obama rises to defend the character of someone he disagrees with and – all the better to strike a blow for political charity – calls out the critics for being so “knee-jerk…unyielding, unbending…broad-brush dogmatic…” In his zeal to defend Pat Leahy’s honor, you’d almost think he was criticizing the character of those he disagrees with about the appropriate way to criticize Pat Leahy – or at least failing to present their argument in “the best possible form.”

What was the argument that drove Barack Obama into a fit of political charity? He’s too much of a gentleman to name names, but he most quoted criticism of Leahy from the left for voting for Roberts came from People for the American Way:

His decision was inexplicable, and deeply disappointing. When John Roberts becomes Chief Justice and votes to erode or overturn longstanding Supreme Court precedents protecting fundamental civil rights, women’s rights, privacy, religious liberty, reproductive rights and environmental safeguards, Senator Leahy’s support for Roberts will make him complicit in those rulings, and in the retreat from our constitutional rights and liberties.”

I suppose it’s unyielding in that PFAW hasn’t changed its position on Pat Leahy voting for John Roberts. Knee-jerk? Well, maybe they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble if they hadn’t put together those many-hundred-page reports on the guy. The word “complicit” earned condemnation as “vicious” from the Washington Post. But all it means is he shares some measure of responsibility for the actions on the bench of a man he voted to put there.

The more interesting question, perhaps, rather than how well Cass Sunstein’s chosen paragons live up to his chosen virtues of political respect and charity is whether these virtues – however commendable in private life – are really virtuous in public life at all. Should people who dislike social darwinism and dislike laissez-faire conservatism call foul when Barack Obama suggests the former is motivating the latter?

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THE WEEK IN FEARING FEAR ITSELF

Big week on the not-trampling-over-all-of-our-values-and-freedoms-in-the-same-of-security front. I’m skeptical of how much difference the McCain ammendment committing us not to torture will make on the ground, but it’s a good sign that even after sending Dick Cheney out of his undisclosed location and onto Capitol Hill, Bush wasn’t able to keep Congressional Republicans on the reservation (the anti-anti-torture reservation, that is). The ultimate result, in which Bush met McCain much further than halfway from his original “waterboarding is freedom” position, shows him to be a weakened President and puts this nation back on record against willfully inflicting abusive pain on prisoners. The urgency of the issue, and the limitations of legal language like McCain’s in addressing it, are reinforced in Human Rights Watch’s announcement today on pervasive torture in secret US-operated foreign prisons:

Eight detainees now held at Guantánamo described to their attorneys how they were held at a facility near Kabul at various times between 2002 and 2004. The detainees, who called the facility the “dark prison” or “prison of darkness,” said they were chained to walls, deprived of food and drinking water, and kept in total darkness with loud rap, heavy metal music, or other sounds blared for weeks at a time. The detainees offer consistent accounts about the facility, saying that U.S. and Afghan guards were not in uniform and that U.S. interrogators did not wear military attire, which suggests that the prison may have been operated by personnel from the Central Intelligence Agency…Some detainees said they were shackled in a manner that made it impossible to lie down or sleep, with restraints that caused their hands and wrists to swell up or bruise. The detainees said they were deprived of food for days at a time, and given only filthy water to drink. The detainees also said that they were held incommunicado and never visited by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross or other independent officials.

This “dark prison” report follows Friday’s New York Times revelation that President Bush has been authorizing the NSA to spy on Americans without even going through the secret courts designed for the purpose, which should shake any confidence one might have that better laws will fully set this administration straight. Bush apparently believes that he is authorized to personally designate Americans as surveillance targets based on the congressional resolution authorizing him to go to war in Afghanistan.

That Congress showed much less deference on Friday, when Bill Frist could only muster 52 votes for cloture on the Conference Committee’s version of the PATRIOT Act reauthorization, which took out all the civil liberties protections that Russ Feingold and others managed to get into the version passed unanimously by the Senate. In a striking victory for sensible privacy protections over fear-mongering, Feingold, Leahy, and company have kept the Senate from approving the Conference Committee Draft. It’s also a huge victory for Feingold personally, who has gone from being the only Senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act to leading a charge to continue debate on the bill which saw more Republicans cross over to oppose cloture than Democrats crossing over to support it. Looks like the Democratic leadership, rather than marginalizing him, is now trying to pull him into the party establishment, handing him a seat on the Intelligence Commission.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, made the news for her own sorry contribution to the discourse on patriotism and freedom: a proposal to ban flag-burning. Hers is ostensibly a compromise position in that it’s a bill rather than a constitutional amendment, and it only applies on public property or when someone is intimidated. But legitimating speech restrictions based on how uncomfortable the speech makes other people feel makes a mockery of free speech. She should know better.