Sunday, February 7, 2010

With Friends Like These...

This weekend's Wall Street Journal features a story on the state of assisted suicide in Switzerland. Specifically, the story discusses a particular player in the assisted suicide tourism market in that country, Dignitas, and dilates on the possiblity that its founder, Ludwig A. Minelli, may, by his relative extremism, cause a backlash among the generally tolerant Swiss against following the logic of free choice over ending one's life all the way to where it natually goes.

It seems that many causes and movements come to grief for the exertions of their most radical advocates. William F. Buckley, Jr., who wrote a sympathetic historical novel on the life of Joe McCarthy, was of the opinion that McCarthy, by seeing a communist nearly every place but the mirror, undermined the legitimate effort of discovering and turning out the actual communists history has shown were in place throughout the government in the 1950's.

And then there is Global Warming. The East Anglia emails (featuring Penn State professor Michael Mann; Go State!) and the unfounded prediction for the geologically imminent melting of the Himilayan ice sheets, has gone a long way toward establishing the American public's contemptuous serenity in the face of unrelenting doom talk. There have been protestations that the core science that establishes the fact of anthropogenic Global Warming (sometime recently reflagged as Climate Change; presumably as a hedge in case the practicioners of the science get the overall direction wrong) is an uncontroversial thing. We are told that the alarmist predictions and the ethically questionable behavior have been in the service of bringing us round to the realities of our peril. The end, that is, justified those means. But an unsurprising thing happened on the way to the success of that program: the architects of it failed to fool all of the people all of the time. And lost trust and legitimacy is not regained by chastising the folks from whom it is needed by telling us there would be no need to lie to us if we weren't so stupid and foolishly unconcerned.

The sort of folks who devote themselves entirely to a cause are not well suited to reminding themselves that incremental advances are a better outcome than risking the utter rejection of their cause that often comes with appearing unhinged. This is unsurprising. If, to take the example of Global Warming, a person really believes the earth will soon suffer cataclysmic damage if radical changes are not immediately adopted, it surely would seem foolish to that person that he should observe ethical guidelines not drafted with an existential threat in mind.

But surely that person would object to another adopting her own existential cause and so turning her pre-justified methods loose on him (think Torquemada, et. al. or Al Qaeda, with existential here taking on its most profound meaning). So the defense of one's methods comes down to an assertion of the correctness of one's cause. And with respect to that, history bows its weary head.

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