The Corruption That Stems from Performing Acts of Justice

More and more, it seems to me that the problem with the extreme left is precisely the same as the problem with the extreme right: an inability to realistically self-reflect, an inability to see ourselves as others see us.

My case in point today is the Chamomile Tea Party.

I came across a reference to it in Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.  (A book that’s definitely worth a read, if we want to understand why so many people disagree with us.)  At page 320 of the Vintage Books paperback edition, Haidt offered two images designed to express the  reaction many of us are having to increasing polarization and lack of civility in politics.  Haidt identified the images as posters created by graphic designer Jeff Gates for the “Chamomile Tea Party.”

Stop This Bickering

We're Losing Our Competitive Edge

I loved both posters.  The messages about disunity, about cessation of bickering, seemed right up my alley.  “What is this Chamomile Tea Party?” I wondered. “Have I finally found a civil, respectful, harmonizing, unifying political party I can identify with?”

Finally, this morning, I googled on the Chamomile Tea Party. At first, my reaction was positive.  I liked the tagline I came across, a quotation, “The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory, but progress. – Joseph Jouber.”

As I read on, I started thinking how much the Chamomile Tea Party had in common with WeMayBeWrong.  Both seemed focused on restoration of civility.  I found more posters I liked.

Call Congress!

Your Animosity Hurts the Country

I was ready to join their fight to combat arrogance and incivility in the political process.  Ready, if I could, to register as pure Chamomile for the next election.

But as I continued to peruse the posters on the CTP website, I began to get a different impression.   As I looked deeper, it began to seem that the CTP has very clear views about where all the blame lies.  If you’re interested, check out some of the other posters with which the Chamomile Tea Party is working to restore civility to American politics.  Here are just a few:

Tie His Hands Tight: VOTE!

GOP, We'll Remember...

Trump: More Than an Inconvenient Truth

Visit the Isle of Anger and Unmet Promises


2017 National Scout Jamboree


Hell Yeah He Colluded!

A Xmas Card from the GOP

There are plenty more on the website, but I’ll end this small sampling with my personal favorite:

Avenge Donald Trump

If posters like these will help to restore civility and close the political divide by assigning all the blame for today’s incivility on Trump and the right, I don’t get it; I must not have that “superior intellect” they’re talking about.   (Actually, the posters don’t put all the blame on Republicans.  There are also a few posters that put the blame on lobbyists, corporations, and capitalists.)

What is it about the offensive arrogance of our opponents that causes us to adopt offensive arrogance ourselves?  Can’t we see that “we” come across to “them” exactly as “they” come across to “us”?  That both sides were becoming increasingly hostile long before Donald Trump?   How are “our” attacks and insults intellectually (or morally) superior to “theirs”?

I mentioned above  how much I liked the quote I found on the CTP’s website, so I wondered who this Joseph Jouber was who pointed out the difference between victory and progress.  The brief Wikipedia article on the man (an 18th century appointee of Napoleon Bonaparte whose name is actually Joubert) included another quote by the man.  Maybe, having read nothing else of what he said, and maybe, not seeing these quotes in context, I misunderstand Monsieur Joubert completely.  But, standing alone, his other quote may tell us much about why  incivility on one side seems to induce reciprocal incivility on the other.

According to Wikipedia, Joubert also said, “There are some acts of justice which corrupt those who perform them.”  If I had to guess, Joubert, writing in the Napoleonic era,  was talking about the corrupting effect on executioners of letting guillotines fall, or something of that sort.  Maybe being an executioner leaves a person heartless and insensitive to death?  Maybe being responsible for punishing wrongs leads to arrogant self-righteousness?  Whatever Joubert meant, it strikes me that the same may be true of many who find Mr. Trump’s style of leadership so offensive.  Have they been so outraged by him, have they become so self-righteous in their condemnation of him, that they’ve become blind to how they come across to his supporters?

I’ve heard some vocal critics of Mr. Trump say their reaction is justified because “Trump started it.”  I disagree.  I think the Trump/Clinton election campaign was an escalation, not a beginning.  True enough, those of us who hoped Mr. Trump would become more presidential if elected have been disappointed, in at least some important respects.  (Calling a reporter’s question “stupid” doesn’t strike me as a path to unifying a divided country.)  But that doesn’t mean he is somehow solely responsible for the invention of political incivility.  And if the act of condemning him makes us feel self-righteous and superior, how far off can our own arrogance be?

So, no, I guess I won’t be joining the Chamomile Tea Party after all.  At some point, if we’re ever to escape from the downward spiral we’ve fallen into, someone has to rise above  insults.  I’m willing to bet that it won’t ever be “them” that do so, so if it’s going to happen at all, I think it will have to begin with us.

— Joe



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4 thoughts on “The Corruption That Stems from Performing Acts of Justice”

  1. As I understand it, Russian interference in 2016 consisted of hiring thousands of trolls to post divisive comments on social media. In this respect, Trump is guilt of de facto “Collusion” , along with too many others to count. Would that we could impeach them all. That might lessen the temptation to react to the provocation.
    Since I am sure such posts only confirm my biases, I don’t see how they influenced anyone’s vote.

    1. As for Russian meddling, I see a difference between trying to stir up divisiveness and the other thing I’ve heard that “meddling” might have consisted of: hacking into voter registration databases and changing information in them. If the Russians did anything like the latter, I view it as a different offense entirely from stirring up divisiveness. (Great example of why I agree with Jim’s earlier post about his desire for higher resolution news reporting — one type of meddling may justify a different reaction than another, and calling it all “meddling”– a word with little factual specificity but loaded with negative overtones — is very low resolution.)

      Meanwhile, I honestly don’t understand the outrage of Americans that the Russians would attempt to influence the outcome of an American election by stirring up divisiveness. Since I see candidates of all parties giving speeches and hiring consultants to stir up divisiveness, whipping the American public into ever greater partisanship, the only possible objection I can see to the Russians doing the same thing would be a principle that countries, or individuals who are not citizens, ought to stay out of each other’s internal politics. But our government attempts to influence the outcome of foreign elections all the time, and we have done so since the earliest days of the Republic. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make me wonder if there’s a double standard afoot here. Sometimes we meddle overtly, sometimes covertly. Sometimes we bypass elections and attempt to topple foreign governments, or support coups, or lend military or other support to those considered by some to be strong-arm dictators. I find it entirely normal that countries attempt to influence the internal affairs of other countries, including supporting some political candidates over others. The philosophy of NOT doing so is widely condemned as “isolationism.” Maybe I’m missing something here, but if so, I’m not sure what the difference is when another country tries to do it to us.

      Didn’t we send spies to attempt to influence the outcome of the Russian Revolution? Didn’t we support the Diem Regime in South Vietnam? Didn’t we support the Shah of Iran, and didn’t we topple the regime of Saddham Hussein? And whether we ever tried to assassinate Fidel Castro, we succeeded in assassinating Osama Bin Laden, and to his day, we try to pressure the government of Muslim countries to change their treatment of women, to pressure North Korea and Iran to change their development of weapons, to pressure other countries to change their population control policies and their practices for hunting whales and… I’ll stop there. Trying to influence political results in other countries is a practice that, to my knowledge, has been practiced by every modern country, in one way or another. Of course we don’t like it when someone does it to us, but we call for our government to do it in other countries all the time, with tactics ranging from misinformation and propaganda to loans of money to military support and armed invasions. Haven’t foreign organizations lent financial support to a caravan of would-be immigrants one of whose aims is to pressure our government to change its immigration policies? One possible basis for seeing a difference is between trying to influence a policy, or trying to influence the outcome of a political process. But trying to influence the feelings of a population is trying to influence the feelings of a population, whether you’re doing ti in a democratic election to influebnce the outcome or doing it in a non-democratic country to encourage or discourage a coup.
      From most offensive to least offensive, I see (1) military force and assassination at one extreme, (2) hacking computers and changing data not quite so egregious, but still more objectionable than (3) making loans, selling arms, and making donations (whether to candidates or to voters), and all those worse than (4) spreading disinformation and propaganda to a population in an effort to affect that population’s views. (Think Tokyo Rose; think Radio Free Europe; think Cry, the Beloved Country.)

      Is the outrage of Americans over Russian meddling because (1) we’re a great country so no one should meddle with us, even if we meddle with others, (2) because attempting to stir up divisiveness is different when done by anyone other than our our own politicians, paid consultants, and the media, or (3) because stirring up divisiveness is more objectionable than military attacks and assassinations? If someone can explain this tio me, I would be genuinely grateful.

  2. Joe, thanks for the mention of the Chamomile Tea Party posters. I’m the one who creates them.

    A few comments. I’ve been doing these posters for eight years, beginning with the rise of the Tea Party. The posters you liked come from those early years when it seemed that bipartisanship was possible. But, what you didn’t recognize in your essay is that things have changed over these last eight years. That time seems almost quaint now. And today, the anger is much more palatable. Therefore, the stakes have become greater. To a great extent, this has been because of Donald Trump’s actions. But, it is also because the Republican Party has changed.

    There is no equivalence between the behavior of the GOP and the Democrats. When you really look at it, the Republican Party has done greater damage to our institutions in the last few years than the Dems. When Mitch McConnell said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” he was clearly saying the Republicans’ priority wasn’t to make life better for Americans, to insure that citizens will be helped should they fall through the cracks, or to make sure our infrastructure is strengthened. He was saying the Republicans’ priority is to win and to remain in power. Power was and is the endgame for them. Cooperation should still be the goal. Sadly, the GOP wants capitulation. And, this is why I quoted Joseph Jouber: “The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory, but progress.” McConnell, et al. want victory.

    Are the Democrats angels? Not in any sense. But, their actions and goals are different than the GOP. There is a difference between the parties and they should not be treated equally. So, to say that my posters should comment on both parties in the same way is incorrect. In fact, I have made a number of posters that question the Dems, Obama, and even Hillary and Bernie. Bipartisanship is still the goal. But, you can’t achieve that when one party refuses to participate. In fact, my most recent poster, done right after November’s midterms warns the Democrats: you’ve won back the House; remember to be inclusive, be strategic, and remember you work for us. Don’t fuck this up! Here is the poster:

    Donald Trump represents both a real and an existential threat to our democracy. If you can’t see that, there is nothing I can say to change your mind. But, given that belief, he becomes a worthy subject for these posters. And, the fact that the rest of the GOP is silent as he tries to make this country into his own image, pandering to the very disenfranchised the GOP has ignored, is the saddest of all. Power corrupts. Doesn’t matter which party it comes from. But, right now it’s coming from the right. And, because of that, he and the GOP are valuable subjects for critique and criticism. Tying his hands so that he does no more damage is an important strategic message, not necessarily a partisan one. You can be either liberal or conservative and still be concerned that the President denies climate change is real. You don’t have to be political to be concerned that he seems to know very little about government and, most importantly, the Constitution.

    After Trump was elected, he had the opportunity to become a president for all Americans. After over two years, he is not interested in that. That should be concerning for anyone, Democrat or Republican. I hope you’re not suggesting I think “Trump started it.” I don’t. How Trump rose to power has a complicated and variegated history. In recent times, Newt Gingrich can take credit for the increase in polarization.

    Finally, you might be interested in an essay I wrote last year. I had been trying to find ways to express the position that many of us feel we’re in, often caught between agitators both on the right and the left. It’s titled, “Choking on Our Words,” This may give you a better idea about the atmosphere in which I create these posters.

    1. Jeff – Thanks for your comment. For a reply, of sorts, see my post “Bad People?” of December 10th. Best wishes in your search for bipartisanship.

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