Drone strikes and the allure of righteous power

Nick Gillespie of Reason has an interesting review of the shifting liberal attitude toward what they used to deride as the “unitary executive” and portray as cause for terror… before the unitary executive became a Democrat, of course.  Gillespie runs through a few of the more head-spinning 180-degree turns in lefty opinion about presidential power and the War on Terror, both trivial lightweights (MSNBC host Toure) and more experienced, substantial liberal pundits (Michael Tomasky, currently at the Daily Beast.)

It is simply inconceivable that these people would have offered the same defense of drone strikes for George Bush that they do for Barack Obama.  Simply substituting Bush’s name for Obama’s turns their current writings into comedy masterpieces.  Gillespie doesn’t spend much time on Toure, but The Right Sphere notes that the young MSNBC personality went from being a critic of drone strikes (they “wreck the soul of America!”) to an outspoken, no-questions asked supporter of the policy in just seven weeks.  The event that so radically altered his sympathies was, of course, the revelation that Toure’s role model, our Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Obama, has been drone-striking people all over the place, exercising nearly unilateral control over the kill lists.  Many others who used to decry George Bush’s simplistic “you’re either with us, or you’re against us” worldview suddenly think anybody who signs up with al-Qaeda should get what’s coming to them, without any sort of due process, provided Barack Obama is the one who gives it to them.  You’ll need a stopwatch to time how quickly they change their minds when a Republican president assumes office.

Gillespie then comes around to the thesis of his article: “When it comes to presidential kill lists, too many in the media dig absolutely power absolutely.”

By making clear that as a journalist he tries to see things first and foremost from the perspective of the powerful, Michael Tomasky helps to clarify why so many in the media are rushing to the president’s defense. They are entranced with power and the view from the top. “Presidents live with that responsibility [of protecting American lives] every day,” he writes. “If that responsibility were mine, I can’t honestly say what I’d do, and I don’t think anyone can.” Not all journalists are awed by power, of course, even on the right (National Review’s Jim Geraghty, for instance, asserts that this sort of thing of extra-judicial killing policy wouldn’t be cricket even under a GOP president).

This isn’t ultimately about ideological hypocrisy – of liberals changing their tune once their guy is in office – but something much more basic and much more disturbing. It reveals that for all their crowing about being watchdogs of all that is good and decent in society, when push comes to shove, too many journalists are ready and willing handmaidens to power – including the power to kill.

(Emphasis mine.)  That’s an intriguing proposition, particularly when applied to some of the older hands in the journalism racket.  The young kids, like Toure, are more reflexively and transparently partisan – everything a Democrat does is good, everything a Republican does is bad, and only some light mental gymnastics are required to resolve cognitive dissonance when they do the same thing (or, as in this case, the Democrat goes further than the allegedly out-of-control domineering Republican ever did.)

But for the older hands of the Left – the ones who produce the opinions that MSNBC hosts resell with a small hyperventilation markup – there really is a romantic allure to power.  More precisely, to extend Gillespie’s observation, they are in love with the idea of righteous power.  They swoon at the thought of Rousseau’s “General Will” finding a strong, passionate, brilliant executor, a superman who will exercise the great and noble Will of the People.  By definition, all those cruel and greedy dissidents who would oppose this mighty leader are Enemies of the People.

That’s one of the primary sources of what non-liberals often criticize as the hypocrisy of the Left.  To them, it’s not really hypocrisy, because liberal ideas are expressions of the Will of the People; they are righteous.  It is only natural to judge them by different standards than the reactionary, regressive, selfish evil of conservatives or their puppet Republican Party.

Blogger Ace of Spades explored this idea on Thursday, in the context of the media double standards concerning Tucson killer Jared Lee Loughner (allegedly inspired by some sort of right-wing Climate of Hate, even though he wasn’t) and left-wing mass murderer Chris Dorner, whose deranged manifesto specifically praises liberal politicians and opinion leaders as his inspiration:

Why? Simple: Conservative speech is valueless, or, at least, of relatively low value compare to liberal speech. While the potential of inspiring murder is not sufficient to suggest that liberal speech be controlled and moderated, that same concern is plenty sufficient to require that conservative speech be controlled and moderated.

This is the underlying assumption that they simply will not confess, for if they did confess it, it would be game over for them. All of their conclusions — all of their bias, all of their double-standards — flow from this premise, which they will not admit, but will only dance around.

The premise is simply that liberal speech is much more valuable than conservative speech and this is of course because liberal politics are much more valuable than conservative ones.

The “value” Ace refers to can be derived from simple partisan or tribal loyalty (i.e. most reporters are self-described liberals and registered members of the Democrat Party) or the deeper, older leftist romance with righteous power, the conviction that liberal politics always begin with a noble desire to act on behalf of The People.  Leftist programs are always judged according to these presumed good intentions; the actual real-world effects of these programs is almost entirely irrelevant.  Great power exercised on behalf of The People is so beautiful that liberals are often blinded to what the great and mighty are actually doing.  That’s why the harder elements of the Left are prone to public adoration of creatures like Fidel Castro, or the Communist tyrants of China.  They claim to be paladins of the General Will, so it doesn’t matter that they oppress their people, or loot the public treasury to live in fabulous luxury.  That’s also why liberals tend to fawn over the qualifications, brilliance, and usually even physical superiority of their favorite authoritarians.  How could the avatar of the General Will be anything but a superman, or superwoman?

It’s not as if every other quarter of the political spectrum, left or right-wing, is immune to expressions of tribal loyalty or hero worship.  But it’s not as much a part of their constitution, their ideological core.  Sometimes that leaves them at a political disadvantage, because constantly nursing a deep-seated suspicion of politicians makes them quick to turn on their fallen idols.  (Defenders of those fallen idols might even say that the intrinsic suspicion of power leads conservative and libertarian types to hold unreasonably high standards of small-government purity for their candidates.)  But if you’re in love with the fantasy of absolute righteousness and absolute power, you’re more likely to forgive failures and inconsistencies from those who strive for lofty goals.  The road to Olympus is not straight and narrow… but who questions the right of demi-gods to throw the occasional thunderbolt, or drone strike?