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MoveOn's intellectual incoherence and moral vapidity

Let me sharpen something that Stoller wrote:

I did read this piece on Moveon member priorities.

What they chose: universal health care*; economic recovery and job creation; building a green economy; stopping climate change; and end the war in Iraq.

What they didn't: holding the Bush administration accountable; fighting for gay rights and LGBT equality; and reforming campaigns and elections.

This is a very interesting problem.

Apparently, MoveOn has yet to join the ranks of the reality-based community. Because they can't achieve their high priorities without taking their low priorities into account! Let's talk about "economic recovery" (high priority) and "holding the Bush administration accountable"(low priority) from the standpoint of intellectual coherence:

Most people believe that holding criminals accountable for their actions through the justice system is necessary for a functioning society (unless a Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes is your view of what a functioning society should be). And if we don't hold all criminals accountable -- including those who hold high office -- then where is the rule of law? Nowhere, that's where. And if you don't have the rule of law, you don't have a functioning market. As London Banker wrote at Nouriel Roubini's place:

The Unitary Federal Reserve - Crisis Choreography
Just as we here in the rest of the world hoped we might breathe easy with the end of the Bush administration in sight, and several creditable candidates for president coming forward, the lawless unitary executive has expanded to embrace the Treasury and the Federal Reserve, debasing and contaminating the financial markets globally with its spread to our own central banks and market authorities and destabilizing our banks and investment markets. Once again in the name of crisis and expediency the laws are ignored, decisions are taken in secret, extra-judicial reapportionment of property and contract is mandated by executive fiat, and legislative review and judicial intervention are impossible. Over the past year every financial crisis has been met with lawless and Enron-esque innovation by the Federal Reserve and Treasury, and this week was arguably more extreme.

After this week's secret and unaccountable and extra-legal moves by the US financial authorities, I will not be holding any assets in the United States. I do not understand the rules. I doubt any rules will be applied fairly to all the players. I cannot be sure who the umpire works for, or what principles the umpire thinks they should uphold. I will not play the game....

People may be fleeing to Treasuries now, but over the long haul, if our markets become perceived as being as lawful as those of your typical Banana Republic -- no knock on actual banana-producing countries -- than capital is going to be very hard to raise through them. Why would people risk their money in rigged game with no rules? **

So, how can you have economic recovery if you don't have the rule of law? Answer: You can't. You may get a flush of health on the cheeks of a dying patient through Keynesian stimulus, but you don't have recovery.

Now let's talk about holding the Bush administration accountable from the standpoint of morality. What MoveOn is recommending is what the Village wants: A "Get Out of Jail Free" card for the lawbreakers who normalized torture and warrantless surveillance of all Americans. It's like, after we won World War II, we let the Nazis continue to run the government -- since, after all, they acted with the highest of motives, for the greater good of Germany. Imagine what Obama's "big table" would look like under those circumstances: You and Joseph Goebbels could go on the teebee together, talking about media concentration; or you could participate with Heinrich Himmler in a seminar at AEI on torture. Or, alternatively Goebbels, Himmler, and the Todt organization could have seen which way the wind is blowing, and started a green business -- for which they would now like a few billions in taxpayer money. Or, alternatively, they went into the medical records business together; after all, they were all experts in record keeping, from the Wansee conference onward.

So, how can any "progressive" make progress in conditions like this, where there is literally no difference between right and wrong, and good and evil?*** Answer: They can't.

MoveOn, it seems, has become a giant megaphone for the Village, which hates accountability above all else. That doesn't bode well for the coming year, at least if consensus, civility, and tranquillity are your main objectives.

NOTE * When push comes to shove, will they support single payer? My answer is "yes" if they are shoved hard enough.

NOTE ** Does anyone know whether financial engineering produced a net profit for the economy as a whole? Or, including the bust as well as the bubble, did it simply reallocate wealth?

NOTE *** I don't want to seem dogmatic. But just because there are so many shades of grey does not mean that black and white do not exist. In reality. Torture really is evil. And the program of warrantless surveillance really did break the law. No shades of grey there. No society can tolerate, let alone normalize, such behavior by elites for long without risking disintegration. MoveOn, being intellectually incoherent and morally vapid, does not understand this.

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bringiton's picture
Submitted by bringiton on

MoveOn is structured as an organization democratically responsive to the wishes of its membership; when you criticize MoveOn it really is a critique of the members. I'm not sure that calling 4+ million people - with whom you generally agree on most issues - vapid and incoherent is a persuasive approach.

And it isn't as though holding BushCo accountable, whatever that means, is not a priority issue. MoveOn member’s priorities (voters could choose three):

1. Universal health care 64.9%
2. Economic recovery and job creation 62.1%
3. Build a green economy, stop climate change 49.6%
4. End the war in Iraq 48.3%
5. Improve public schools 21.6%
6. Restore civil liberties 16.8%
7. Hold the Bush Administration accountable 15.2%
8. Gay rights/LGBT equality 8.6%
9. Increase access to higher education 7.6%
10. Reform campaigns and elections 5.7%

With so many critical demands, any ranking that was limited to the top four would inevitably leave something important off the list. I'd interpret this poll as expressing concern for those issues that most immediately impact most American's lives. As an immediate objective, is it more important to revive economic growth or establish criminal trials for BushCo? An argument can surely be made that the list ought to have a different order of priorities, but taken as a whole this isn't a bad Top Ten.

And given that there are so many demands, it is unfair to say that What MoveOn is recommending is what the Village wants: A "Get Out of Jail Free" card for the lawbreakers who normalized torture and warrantless surveillance of all Americans. What the list says is that accountability is a priority, and it certainly does not suggest anything like your fantasy of embracing of Nazis - but then if you're looking for an easy insult the Godwin's Law card is the safe and simple play.

gqmartinez's picture
Submitted by gqmartinez on

Medical care and food on your table are life and death issues. On a purely practical level, can you blame people who are seriously worried about serious debilitating problems associated with illness and food? I can't.

On a different note, however, MoveOn endorsed Obama by a huge amount (at least the people who voted who are probably the same who voted on this), and they were more than happy with Obama's theft of the primary. Do you expect *them* to care about accountability and a legitimate system? I don't.

I'm not sure those are mutually exclusive reasons. I want to believe its the former rather than the latter reason, but Obama sucked all the hope outta me already...

Submitted by lambert on

Things have certainly come to a pretty pass when Godwin's Law is invoked upon the mention of actual torturers.

FWIW, here's the actual definition of Godwin's Law:

“As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” There is a tradition in many groups that, once this occurs, that thread is over, and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress. Godwin's Law thus practically guarantees the existence of an upper bound on thread length in those groups.

As WikiPedia remarks:

The rule does not make any statement about whether any particular reference or comparison to Hitler or the Nazis might be appropriate, but only asserts that one arising is increasingly probable.

It seems that MoveOn's leaderz don't have a monopoly on intellectual incoherence or moral vacuity...

bringiton's picture
Submitted by bringiton on

As I wrote, MoveOn's leadership, such as it is, has a self-imposed mandate to serve the will of the membership. You can't differentiate between their position and the position of the members. And while not all of the memebers may vote in these polls, they can certainly remove themselves from membership if they disagree with the decision of the majority of those who do vote. I challenged the wisdom and the rectitude of condemning with such a broad brush the majority opinions of 4+ million people who have aggregated themselves under the MoveOn organization. You failed to respond to that observation and instead repeated the canard of blaming - if blame is due - the leadership for the results of the poll.

Secondly, you persist in misrepresenting the opinions of MoveOn's voting members. They certainly did consider holding BushCo "accountable" to be a priority and it is only your claim that places their concern as somehow being "low." That it is lower than some things while higher than others reflects what I assume to be a considered collective judgment; it may differ from yours or mine, but it is hardly vacuous or incoherent. Quite something to assert that you and you alone have the brilliance and insight to know what is important and in what rank while those who disagree only on rank are so easily dismissed. The word "arrogant" leaps to mind.

Third, while BushCo are truly horrible people and should be tried for their crimes, they are hardly of an order with the Nazis. Nor, as a simple reading of the MoveOn poll shows, are the voting members advocating either ignoring the BushCo crimes or embracing a partnership with the perpetrators. The truth is exactly the opposite of what you have written. At first, assuming you had made the error of relying on Stoller or the Politico article and were unaware of the full poll results, I chalked the mistake up to ignorance. Now, however, you persist in telling a falsehood in the face of facts that show you to be not just wrong but willfully so. What that means, why you should insist on behaving in such a libelous manner, I surely cannot imagine. Perhaps the grip of Obamaphobia has strangled your better nature.

Finally, Godwin's Law. Thanks ever so for putting up the excerpt from, gods deliver us, Wikipedia. Your allusions to Nazis were indeed inappropriate. Nothing about BushCo qualifies as fascistic; authoritarian, to be sure, criminal, undoubtedly, and serving the needs of Corporatists certainly, but none of those meets even the broadest definition of either fascistic or NAZI party philosophies or behaviors. Not withstanding, you employed it specifically and deliberately to smear the character of MoveOn members whose clearly Progressive and Liberal concerns you should have been applauding. Your use was indeed a demonstration of Godwin's Law, in a jump-the-shark fashion; no need to wait for the comment thread to devolve when you can do it yourself right in the body of the post.

The obvious reason for your sneering misrepresentation is MoveOn's endorsement of Obama. Anyone who has been supportive of Obama at any point has been treated rudely here, and your silent acquiescence of that rudeness has now been surpassed by this utterly unfounded attack on the perfectly respectable concerns of millions of decent people. I would say that you have acted beneath yourself, that you can do better than this sloppy and sophomoric argumentation, but I know how much that phrasing annoys you. Besides, after this display, I am no longer certain that would be true.

admin's picture
Submitted by admin on


I do understand that MoveOn is an important part of the California political establishment, and of the Obama Movement generally, but I have no time to waste on the usual prolixity, so I'll ration my response to a single point.

Regarding your tendentious and intellectually dishonest use of Godwin's Law in your original comment:

As careful readers who clicked through would have seen, I swapped the links that cited to the sources. My apologies.

I took the quoted definition not from WikiPedia, but from Eric S. Raymond's authoritative Jargon File. It's the gloss that's from WikiPedia. Again, my apologies.

If, in future, we could confine furious denunciations for violations of Godwin's Law to situations where they are actually appropriate, I, and I am sure the readers, would be very grateful. Thanks in advance for your cooperation in this matter.

NOTE On the interpretation of the polling, opinions differ. Unf

bringiton's picture
Submitted by bringiton on


If you’re going to cite an authority, why not go directly to the man who originated the term? And yes the sloppiness of your linkage was confusing, since the first unattributed link went to Wikipedia (I, a careful reader, did indeed click on it but no, I didn't wade through the Wiki entry) and I just assumed the second was properly attributed by you. Silly me.

Godwin’s intent was to counter unjustified use of comparators to Fascism and Hitler and Nazis as tools of debate. He properly saw that sort of inaccurate usage as demeaning to the appropriate institutional memory of the horrors of the Holocaust and the consequences of Fascist philosophies (50 million dead, at least, in the European theater of WWII, two-thirds of them civilians). Instead of being used accurately to condemn actual fascistic behaviors, it had become nothing but a cheap insult. Nowhere in Godwin’s writing does he allow an exception for those who simply share some behaviors or characteristics. Were Pol Pot or Stalin, totalitarian genocidal mass murderers and torturers both, also Fascists? Of course not, and neither is BushCo; alluding that they are does nothing but blur the important distinctions and prevent rational discussion of their crimes.

Prolix be damned; it often takes more space to explain the truth than it does to tell a lie. Your excuse of insufficient time to rebut my assertions merely covers the fact that no amount of time would be sufficient; your introduction of fascism and Nazis to an already flawed critique of MoveOn is indefensible – there isn’t enough time in all of eternity to alter that.

Here’s a suggestion: assume everything emanating from Politico is propaganda from the VRWC - because it is. Stoller made the mistake of accepting their analysis at face value, and repeated their lies. You in turn picked up the lies from him and amplified them, with the added fillip of gratuitous allusions to fascist coddling. It doesn’t matter how many times a lie is repeated, or how garishly the lie is garnished, it is still a lie. Doing the work of the VRWC for them is not a useful function if your aim is advancement of Progressive causes.

As to who has what priorities, a quick trip down memory lane here at Corrente reveals that the recent emphasis of bloggers (setting aside gratuitous Obama bashing) has been decidedly tilted in favor of healthcare, with the economy close behind. In concert with MoveOn’s members, holding BushCo accountable has received some attention but not nearly as a dominant topic. If holding BushCo to account is indeed the most important issue before us, why then is it not featured more prominently here? Why, indeed, do you waste time writing about anything else? Perhaps those sharp verbal stones should be more carefully slung, lest the glass house turn out to be equally vacuous.

What you’re on about with MoveOn and California's political landscape is something perhaps you should explain to the readership, for whose opinion you profess such concern; I’m sure they’d be fascinated. For the record I am not a member, and have in the past been sharply critical of several of MoveOn’s decisions. You may recall that I chastised them for the tactically foolish Petraeus/BetrayUS advertisement, an act that you defended. I have noted that your attitude towards MoveOn shifted sharply when they endorsed Obama, a decision I also condemned. Since then you have become steadily more abusive in your assessments, for whatever reasons you are harboring, and reading here between the lines over the past couple of years I conclude there are more than just one set of those in operation. The present criticism, employing terms of “moral vapidity” and “intellectual incoherence” along with the entirely gratuitous introduction of fascist sympathizer similes, moves well beyond the bounds of acceptable hyperbole. Your writing here is entirely unfounded, unacceptably rude, and substantively damaging to the cause.

It is the perpetuation of lies and the needlessly divisive character assassination of decent people to which I object. If you’d like me to stop objecting, you can take the simple step of not repeating your objectionable behavior. Thanks in advance for your cooperation in this matter.

amberglow's picture
Submitted by amberglow on

... there’s no coincidence here. But I’d say it’s not even so much that Obama is listening to the same people as MoveOn members are listening to. Rather, MoveOn members are listening to Obama. He’s the most admired man in America and particularly among the MoveOn who supported him back in the primaries he’s very very admired. There are probably things Obama could do to alienate his base, but there’s also a great deal he can do to induce that base to align their ideas with him. Especially about something gentle like the question of priorities, he has an enormous ability to get people to see things his way. ...

joel dan walls's picture
Submitted by joel dan walls on

By definition, something winds up at the top of the list and something else winds up at the bottom. If LGBT rights had wound up #1 and universal health care at #10, I daresay you would be slamming MoveOn for that and asserting that LGBT rights are impossible without universal health care. In essence what you're doing here in this post is flogging a rather complicated straw-man argument.

Beyond that, I have to wonder what exactly is the object of this post: general criticism of MoveOn? Well, obviously yes, I would say. An attempt to promote the sort of coalitions needed to advance policies that lambert favors? I think not.