Presumed Puppetry

Years ago, I sat down at Starbucks to read The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 by George Nash.

This classic and underappreciated work traced the outlines of the various philosophical strands that were eventually woven into the modern conservative movement.

As I was reading about libertarian and traditionalist views of history and utopian attempts to “immanentize the eschaton,” I was approached by someone who saw the title and snarked, “Conservative intellectual movement—kind of an oxymoron, right?” He smirked and walked out the door, leaving nothing but a wake of intellectual vacuity.

The theory behind his condescending remark is that conservatives, by virtue of what they believe, must be presumed puppets of some sort because they lack an intact intellect. A more recent example: I was talking to a man about Benghazi and my frustration that the administration knew immediately it was terrorist attack and invented and told an entirely separate story to the American people. “That’s just Fox News propaganda, man,” he replied. I tried to tell him that I didn’t watch Fox News, but he kept parroting the same line. Presumed puppetry.

Currently, the accusation pertains to the NRA. The reason Republicans will not support “reasonable” gun legislation or even—gasp—keep guns out of the hands of terrorists is because they are beholden to these diabolical puppet masters. Surely, it has nothing to do with philosophical views concerning the role of the Constitution and the place of the Second Amendment within said founding document. Certainly, there couldn’t be concerns about who would be considered terrorists and under what rationale or that they would be deprived of due process. These considerations would require a debate, which the argument of presumed puppetry means to avoid.

The Left doesn’t have a monopoly on such accusations. When they call conservative puppets of Big Business, Wall Street, Big Oil, Big Pharmaceuticals, the Koch brothers, the NRA, and Fox News, the Right often replies by calling liberals puppets of Big Government, Wall Street, eco-terrorists, George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, and mainstream media. The argument of presumed puppetry makes for a great sound bite, nukes the opposition, and discredits them without a debate.

At the same time, this argument is immoral and intellectually dishonest. It is immoral in that it denies the moral agency and inherent dignity of someone who holds an opposing viewpoint. It dehumanizes them, leaving the vulnerable to the final, disgraceful blow: the ad hominem (personal attacks). The argument is also intellectually dishonest in that it relies upon verbal ploys rather than substance in order to win an argument. It is like a husband beating his wife (or vice-versa) to win the argument.

Presumed puppetry seems to me to be a more coherent reason for the hyper-partisanship of the day—not ideological extremism, but rhetorical extremism. Those who sharply disagree on an issue can often find areas of compromise, but not if they believe each other to be puppets. One might wonder why Republicans – with their harsh stance toward Islamic terrorism – would vote against a “common sense” measure like denying guns to terrorists. Yet questions of due process—and what keeps you and me off of the terrorist watch list—are discarded. Apparently, Republicans burn with erotic lust for guns more than they burn with irrational hatred toward terrorists.

Instead of engaging in a (non)debate and voting on a highly-impassioned issue in the wake of a national tragedy, what if all concerned actors waited for the emotions to settle down in order to have a reasoned debate? I would imagine that the issue of terrorists having legal access to guns is a possible area of compromise, but it requires careful deliberation and working through every possible concern for due process and the rights of American citizens. Such debates should be a cherished staple of our discourse.

Alas, we will continue to presume that our opponents are puppets, though they insist like Pinocchio, “I’m a real boy!” This dehumanizing of our opponents carries with it a consequence far more serious than diminished discourse—it carries with it the seeds of death. William Wilberforce once said of slavery that those who treat others as animals become animals themselves. Such dehumanization becomes dangerous. People may be free to disagree, but puppets may be freely discarded.