Friday, June 22, 2007

Hillary and Ideology

Tibor R. Machan

When President Bush vetoed the embryonic stem cell research bill, he did it, of course, for the wrong reasons. But that’s nothing new—he along with nearly all Republicans and Democrats believe that robbing Peter for the benefit of Paul is quite all right, so long as the goal itself is swell. The Democrats think the goal of doing such research is a good thing, while Bush and his cohorts think such research is a bad thing, at least when it involves human fetuses.

Now what would be really wonderful is if the two sides actually argued out the matter—why is it supposed to be a good thing versus a bad thing to do such research. Bush gave as his reason that at this time securing the stem cells involves the killing of human beings. The Democrats—or most of them—presumably do not believe this is the case.

So, let’s have a debate about this—what are the arguments pro and con and who is right? That is the real issue, apart from the one no one will touch upon now, namely, whether it is fine to take money from people to pay for benefits for other people.

Hillary Clinton had her chance to chime in with some serious points but instead engaged in the all too typical election year demagoguery. She accused Bush of favoring ideology rather than science. But that is sheer bunk. Bush’s views are not ideological—or, alternatively, so are Clinton’s. Both operate from certain premises they believe are true and derive conclusions they believe are supported by those premises, thus true as well. So Bush start by assuming that mere cells from an early fetus are the cells of a human being, thus taking those cells involves homicide. Clinton and her associates think that those early cells are not human beings but amount to some of the elements that will become parts of human beings. These are, roughly, the two scientific—or, more accurately, philosophical—positions and it would be a decent thing for both parties to admit it. Instead we get put downs—for calling Bush’s position an ideology is nothing better than dismissing it as some kind of self-serving delusion. Yet, what it is amounts to a position, drawing on science, philosophy, and religion that's different from Clinton’s on the issue of what constitutes a human being.

Honest politicians would debate the issue, like Lincoln debated Douglas about slavery, with facts, history, arguments, and so forth. But no. What we have is the casting aspersions, using loaded terms to demean the other’s viewpoint. This, sadly, is how the likely next president of the United States of American wants to discuss public policy matters—name calling, besmirching, demeaning.

As one philosopher, Daniel Dennett, said in a piece recently, there is nothing so painful to a person with integrity than having his or her views badly defended by some supposed ally. I am not at all convinced that Bush’s stance on the nature of stem cells is correct. Indeed, I disagree with it. But at least he is up front about why he champions it, namely, because his faith and his conception of the relevant science commits him to the idea that fetuses are human beings—indeed, infants whose destruction constitutes homicide. If Mrs. Clinton acknowledged that Bush is working with a different set of assumptions from hers, they could have a serious public debate. That is what democratic politics is supposed to be about, not name calling and the dismissal of one’s adversaries as ideologues.

Of course, such an approach to politics—demagoguery—isn’t new. But if I recall correctly, there used to be less of it when, say, Kennedy and Nixon went before the nation to debate, prior to the 1960 elections. Yes, even then the media focused too much on who looked better, how Nixon perspired while Kennedy was oh so spiffy. But there were many substantive issues, as well. And not a lot of name calling!

Alas, now we are in an era where the tone of political discourse is modeled on Michael Moore’s “documentaries” which focus not on policy but on motivation and personal psychology. But does it have to be this way? Maybe the voters are at fault. Maybe they do not encourage serious discussions but root for their candidate as fans root for their favorite team—it’s all blind loyalty!

Still, I wish to put in I a good word for civilized public debate, respectful of the decisions opponents make that differ from one’s own, not because those decisions are good ones but because a candidate for office has made them and we may have to live with that candidate for some time as the country’s leader, however much this might be distasteful to many of us.

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