Political argument is never pure. I do not mean that it is always influenced by interests. I do not believe that. Even as the black arts of influence flourish as never before, I quixotically insist upon the possibility of objectivity, because without it this democracy is doomed. Logic and evidence (which must be funded!) will sooner or later thwart the attempts of the powerful—numerically, financially—to define the true. The integrity of argument is one of the requirements of a political order that determines its course by the expression, and the evaluation, of opinion. When I say that political argument is never pure, I mean rather that it is always applied, and therefore can never be indifferent to consequences. A political idea is not a poem, or an equation. If a political idea is made actual, and what is the point of holding a political idea unless you wish it to be made actual, somebody will win and somebody will lose, somebody will be helped and somebody will be hurt. For this reason, political discussion must never become too insular, too systematic, driven only by its own premises and by considerations of internal consistency. One may be thoroughly consistent and thoroughly callous. One may reason oneself into indecency. Who by fire, who by water, who by regression analysis. The intrusion of care into the rigor of concepts, when the subject is the lives of others, is not an intrusion from outside. A scruple about humaneness must never be external to political thinking. Otherwise argument becomes casuistry, and smart becomes stupid. The other day the op-ed page of The New York Times presented a fine example of smart becoming stupid.
I READ ROSS DOUTHAT’S column three times—a quality of attention I usually reserve for, say, Wallace Stevens—because I could hardly believe the plain meaning of its words. His subject was the execution of Troy Davis and its implications. Douthat concedes, as must any reader of the coverage of Davis’s failed attempt to avoid the death penalty for his improper conviction in the shooting of an off-duty policeman in Georgia in 1989, that the case against Davis was riddled with dubieties and uncertainties. The state of Georgia likely killed an innocent man. But Douthat is not outraged, or even troubled, by that likelihood. Instead he chooses to argue against “abolishing capital punishment in a kind of despair over its fallibility.” Infallibility is too high a standard. No social arrangement is perfect. Oakeshott said that, right? Whereas being “afraid of executing the innocent” is “a healthy fear for a society to have,” Douthat adds that “there’s a danger here for advocates of criminal justice reform.” Now follow along closely. “After all, in a world without the death penalty, Davis probably wouldn’t have been retried or exonerated.” But Davis is not merely exonerated; he is exonerated and dead. In a world without the death penalty, Douthat continues, Davis “would have spent the rest of his life in prison, and far fewer people would have known or cared about his fate.” But Davis is not merely cared about; he is cared about and dead. “Instead, he received a level of legal assistance, media attention, and activist support that few convicts can ever hope for.” But Davis is not merely famous; he is famous and dead. “And his case became an example of how the very finality of the death penalty can focus the public’s attention on issues that many Americans prefer to ignore.” So the innocent man did not die in vain. He achieved celebrity, and he left us lessons. Is better social policy really not worth a single human life? “Simply throwing up our hands and eliminating executions entirely” would be only “a way to console ourselves with the knowledge that no innocents are ever executed, even as more pervasive abuses go unchecked.” I do not see what is so cheap about such a consolation. And a lethal injection is pretty pervasive. For Douthat, however, the execution of an innocent man may even be a kindness to him. “A lifelong prison sentence can prove more cruel and unusual than a speedy execution,” since the American penal system “can be brutal, overcrowded, rife with rape and other forms of violence.” I gratefully note the compassion in that “speedy”: it would be wrong to kill an innocent man slowly. I admit that I know as much about American prisons as the next viewer of Oz, but it has been my observation that most people would prefer to die later rather than sooner. Anyway, who are we to decide when innocent people should die? Finally Douthat concludes his case against the abolition of capital punishment: “And while it would put an end to wrongful executions, ...”—but who cares how a sentence that begins this way ends?
SO INJUSTICE IS TO BE extenuated if it provokes an interest in justice. Injustice is even a lucky break for justice. A lot of villains can get away with a lot of villainy on such grounds. The debate about the death penalty in America has been about the execution by the state of people who are guilty of murdering other people. Are we now to have a debate about the execution by the state of people who are not guilty of murdering other people? It seems so, in Douthat’s world. His commentary on the death of Troy Davis is not only twisted, it is also puerile—the work of a man for whom debate is all, who should tear himself away from his laptop and get out more, who lives in the rapture of points and counter-points that passes for intellectual life for too many opinion journalists, and knows only the athleticism of argument and counter-argument. Douthat’s clever little discourse is lacking in a certain degree of acquaintance with life. It is all treble and no bass. And its casuistic nature is typical also of a theological desperation. Something happened in the world that embarrassed Douthat’s worldview. He could have chosen to meet the contradiction honestly, to acknowledge the intellectual dissonance, to take on the moral disquietude. Instead he chose to protect his worldview, and secure it against empirical shock, in the manner of all apologetics. The execution of an innocent man had to be (as the Marxists used to say) worked into the analysis. The aim of Douthat’s dialectical agility is to bend reality to his mental needs, which in his case are the needs of conservatism. Progressives do this, too, since they, too, believe in tidy philosophical packages, in world-pictures that add up and account for everything under the sun. But nothing rots the life of the mind more than the immunity to experience.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article originally ran in the October 20, 2011, issue of the magazine.