TCS Daily

Beyond Peter Singer

By Douglas Kern - April 19, 2004 12:00 AM

I'm closed-minded. I've made up my mind on most major issues, and I foresee no likelihood that my most cherished principles and beliefs will ever change. I do not worry that my closed-mindedness presents any handicap to me in the free marketplace of ideas, because my life experience indicates that most genuinely new ideas are stupid. I have little time or mental energy to spend refuting the clever arguments of idiots who contend that black is white, night is day, Communism is misunderstood. As I don't want to die as big a fool as I am now, I search for truth where it is, not where it is not. So I am closed-minded, and proud.

You, of course, are not a rigid reactionary closed-minded person like me. You are serenely open-minded to all things true and good. You think you are, anyway. Being closed-minded is like having a poor sense of humor: most people are afflicted with it, but no one admits it. But who would want to be completely open-minded, anyway? Would you trust a man who has to start from "A is A" every time the moral value of genocide is questioned? If a woman puzzles over whether her children are worth loving, would you admire her intellectual caution? The too open mind is an empty mind.

Though closed-minded, I am capable of careful, thoughtful reasoning, if given enough coffee and room to pace. What must the thoughtful leftist do, then, to convince me of the folly of my ways? What will open the closed mind?

The answer is not Peter Singer's new book, The President of Good and Evil (Dutton: 2004), 280 pp. $24.95). Whatever your biases, left or right, this book will reinforce them.

Briefly: The President of Good and Evil is tedious, regurgitated left-wing cant. Occasionally it pretends to be a critique of George W. Bush's ethical philosophy, as expressed in his speeches, his appointments, the magazines he probably reads, the thoughts he may sometimes think, and the fevered whispers of his guru, "Melvin" Olasky (who may be Marvin Olasky, as misidentified by one of Singer's lazier research interns). It is a higher-I.Q. version of the many dreary left-wing pamphlets now in circulation, with titles like Tell Robert Bork to Eat Hot Death! or Rick Santorum is a Big Smelly Creep and I Hate Him or something equally classy.

Here's a brief taste of Singer's logic: George W. Bush claims to favor small government. Bush is dishonest and hypocritical in making that claim, because a) he does not favor the legalization of marijuana, b) he does not favor legalized euthanasia, c) he does not favor legalized gay marriage, and d) he has not reduced the state's role to that of a "night watchman," as Robert Nozick would have it.

If you share Peter Singer's core beliefs - atheism, statism, rationalism, and a well-cultivated indifference to the value of human life as such - you will find this book to be wise, fair, and true. Otherwise, you'll find it inane, slanted, and dishonest. There is nothing in between. No clever wit or grace of expression leavens the dry, condescending prose; not for Singer are shrewd insights into human nature or ironic glimpses into the folly of life. The President of Good and Evil lacks any trace of warmth, passion, or sentiment that might build a bridge over political and cultural disagreements. It is truth or cant. Your preference. Take it or leave it. I left it.

Admittedly, books of this kind serve a purpose in our political discourse. New leftists emerge from their cocoons in graduate schools and community colleges all the time. They have never read a single editorial in The Guardian. They oppose the war in Iraq and yet they have not heard of Joseph Wilson. They know nothing of the earthly utopia - Sweden, where taxes are high, inequality is low, and the sky is always riddled with rainbows. Books like The President of Good and Evil serve tomorrow's Nader voters well: they assume the same first principles as their readership, and illustrate the political positions and cultural affectations that follow logically from those beliefs.

It's no different for conservatives. Several recent bestsellers could be fairly described as tedious, regurgitated right-wing cant. And, somewhere in America, a precocious, put-upon tenth-grade conservative is reading those books, and learning. I know. That was me, once.

W.S. Gilbert observed in the comic opera Iolanthe that "every boy and every gal/That's born into the world alive/Is either a little Liberal/Or else a little Conservative!" Is he right? Are we slaves to our pre-rational preferences and beliefs? Is conversion -- or even communication -- possible between left and right?

It must be, or free will is a lie. Forgive a cynic his moment of sentiment, but this closed mind of mine is not closed to truth spoken in love. The books that have changed my mind -- yes, there have been a few -- were not political, or even ideological. They were prophetic, often in small intimate ways, about small intimate things like human lives. Some authors have the gift of telling stories about characters with such love that we see the world through them with different eyes. In great books we live lives of different faiths, and in the fullness of those lives we can find truth anew. When our hearts are captured by words, our minds follow.

Our souls hunger for such food. How can the left survive on a diet of trifling fare like The President of Good and Evil? Peter Singer lacks the grace to open hearts and minds. His book is just a shadow in darkness; just empty movement, bearing no light.

Douglas Kern is a lawyer and writer in Columbus, Ohio.


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