The Political Right and the Death of the Normative Right

I’m not done talking about this.

It’s not hard to draw a line between modern far-right nihilism and the ethical outlook of the Bush administration. For all of the latter’s high-minded rhetoric about spreading democracy around the world, their national security approach was founded on a policy of complete disregard for human rights. In defending this disregard, people like Marc Thiessen make the claim that torture and indefinite detention are necessary to preserve America; I’m not going to rehash the rebuttals to this claim, but suffice to say it’s a huge old crock of shit.

The principles the Bush administration violated weren’t superseded by greater principles; America would have remained alive and well (and, in fact, even more secure) had we not waterboarded detainees into insanity. So how to account for the right’s vociferous defense of atrocity? Simple: these principles were, in fact, superseded by emotional states. The slightest potential threat of terrorist attacks put the right into such a state of blind terror that it immediately justified the most inhuman acts.

Now you see the same thing happening in the far right’s excuse-making for domestic terrorism. People are angry. Specifically we are angry. And this is somehow supposed to be a reasonable defense, or at least mitigating factor.

But any principle that can be obliterated by an emotional state is no principle at all. The whole point of normative claims is to subject our behavior to something above an emotional state. Which certainly puts the right’s grand tradition of high-minded moralizing into perspective.

The takeaway point is one that we’ve heard before but worth repeating again: the modern American right wing has ceded claim to any sort of moral values at all. So please, spare me the misty-eyed, Andrew Sullivan-style paens to “conservative principles.” If you want to be extremely charitable, you can call those words a quaint anachronism; if not, call them incoherent noise.


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