Thursday, April 01, 2004

the myth of nuance

It has become common wisdom among the left that the right has a simplistic black and white view of the world in contrast to the left which sees the world in its various complex shades and colors. Some on the right have actually embraced this description, saying that yes, indeed the world is simple in certain situations and there is no need to look for complexity where none exists. By this, they give up too much to the leftist stereotypes of the political struggle and they should stop it.

Consider two people looking at a pile of lemons and limes. The lemons range in color from yellow to greenish-yellow and the limes range from green to yellowish-green. One person, John, looks at the pile and only sees a complex gradation of colors. The other, George, looks at the pile and sees two kinds of fruit with a complex gradation of colors. Which one has a more detailed or "nuanced" version of the situation?

Suppose the two have been assigned to get limes for the margaritas. John starts picking up random greenish fruits, and quickly ends up grabbing a greenish lemon. George tells him not to take that one because it's not a lime. John, being a leftists retorts, "You always see the world in simplistic lemon and lime colors, while I see a broad spectrum of yellow-greens". It is John who is seeing the world in a simplistic way. George sees the broad spectrum just as well as John but he also sees another very important distinction that John cannot: George sees the difference between lemons and limes.

The situation is similar in politics. Those of us on the right are perfectly capable of seeing these "nuances" that so concern the left. We can see that the Islamists think they are doing a noble and self-sacrificing thing. We know that their emotions and loyalties are quite similar to our own emotions and loyalties. In some ways the religious right actually understands the Islamists better than the left because they share with the Islamists a belief in God and a higher moral duty, something the left doesn't grasp at all. The difference is not that the right doesn't understand the terrorists as well as the left does, it is that they also see something else, something that the left doesn't see: the difference between competitors and enemies.

With competitors, you negotiate. You can't have everything you want and your competitors can't have everything they want, so you compromise; you find some middle ground that benefits both of you to some extent. Enemies aren't just competing for resources, they want to kill you. Or they are uncompromising on some issue on which you cannot compromise either. There is no possibility of negotiation unless you are willing to let them kill a few of you. That is arguably exactly what the US did before 9/11 and what Europe (and in particular, Spain) is still doing. "Oh, they only killed a few people, be nice, don't make them angry or they might kill even more." In the US, they eventually killed more than we were willing to tolerate so we finally recognized them as enemies, but our tolerance for small killings was never ethical. We should have had the same concern for the people in the embassies and in the USS Cole and in Mogadishu as we did for the people in the Twin Towers. Those earlier victims are no less deserving of justice for their smaller numbers. We should have recognized our enemies as soon as they proved their murderous intent and responded then as we have now, not because we lack the ability to see alternatives, but because we have the ability to see when there are no alternatives.

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