Monday, May 3, 2010

For A Politician, Moderation In All Things, Including Unwarranted Certainty

Why is Andrew Sullivan so enthused about the fact that the leader of the British Liberal Democratic Party, Nick Clegg, is a fan of Samuel Beckett? He says that he "cannot imagine a presidential candidate in the US unloading this five days before voting", and that's probably true, but really, who cares? Nick Clegg's literary tastes are irrelevant to the question of how he'd run the country, and if I were a British voter considering whether to vote for him I'd prefer an editorial on a substantive question that shed light on his political philosophy.

More to the point, is "a willingness to question the things the rest of us take for granted" really the kind of trait a political leader ought to admire? Or a borderline nihilistic existentialist who considered human existence a largely pointless and self-defeating farce really the sort of philosophical model one ought to have? Clegg cites as the reason for his fondness for Beckett the playwright's "courage to ask questions that are dangerous because, if the traditions and meanings we hold so dear turn out to be false, what do we do then?" I am at least provoked to thought by such attributes in a writer or a philosopher, and admire them in people belonging to those professions. In a politician, however, I think the type of personality that favors stronger if simpler convictions might be preferable. There's a fine line between firm conviction and dogged self-righteousness, of course, as someone like George W. Bush demonstrates, but I think our former President erred primarily in the strength of his convictions rather than in his judgment when he famously cited Jesus as his favorite philosopher. Irrespective of one's religious convictions, or lack thereof, and leaving to the side the fact that the Christian right has abandoned many of them, one must admit that the basic tenets of the moral philosophy articulated in the Gospels - do unto others, take care of the disadvantaged, refrain from being judgmental, etc. - are good ones on which to base a just society. Or at least, they're better than whatever moral precepts one might derive from Waiting for Godot. Even if they're not necessarily truer, they're functionally more effective - and therefore, it behooves someone entrusted with maintaining the safety and stability of society to treat them as if they were truer.

A strong willingness to defend functionally effective principles is more often what's required of a good leader than a philosophical inclination to deconstruct them. Leaders are by definition people charged with the responsibility of making decisions, and they must be willing to do so, even if those decisions turn out to be inadequate or downright poor ones in the long run - and even if the principles on which they are based are at best arbitrary, and at worst possibly untrue. A person who's thought is motivated primarily by epistemological doubts, who spends his or her time pondering whether the "traditions and meanings" that he or she holds dear might be false, can be of exceptional service to a democratic society as a teacher of analytical thinking, or a trenchant critic of conventional wisdom, see, e.g. Socrates. But such a person is unlikely to make a good leader - an observation frequently made by another playwright with whom Mr. Clegg is no doubt familiar - William Shakespeare.

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