Strychnine or cyanide?

A recent exchange got me to thinking – always a bad idea, I know; but I can’t seem to help it.

I opened the bidding by saying mean things about that horrible old money-machine, the Southern Poverty Law Center, an adjunct of the Democratic Party which has always lined its own pockets by getting elderly but well-heeled liberals worried about the Ku Klux Klan. (It might usefully be noted that of the SPLC’s almost 1,000 listed “hate groups”, about a quarter are characterized as “black nationalist”. Nothing like even-handedness to rejoice the liberal heart!)

A friend promptly replied: Okay, which is worse, the SPLC or the Nazis?

Like many questions, this one carries with it a number of unstated and perhaps unexamined presuppositions: for example, the notion that “better” and “worse” have some meaning in a context like this – that one can assign the Nazis and the hate-patrol scammers each a scalar badness score and then compare them. (Which is worse, strychnine or cyanide?)

Then there’s the assumption that this score somehow matters – that it’s important to determine which is “worse”. Underlying this latter idea, I think, is the conviction that in some sense one must choose between them – that bad or good, they are on different “sides”, and that one side or the other must be taken. That’s why the determination of worseness must be made.

None of this really holds water. Say arguendo that the SPLC and its Democratic Party constituency are on one side, and oh, say, the Proud Boys on the other. Where is it written that one must embrace either of these unlovely social formations? Is one not in fact entirely at liberty to wish a plague on both insalubrious houses?

This exchange took place in the context of the current pillorying of Glenn Greenwald. Back when Greenwald was still practicing law, some years ago now, he undertook, on First Amendment grounds, the pro-bono defense of some unsavory groups attacked by the SPLC and other SLAPP suit entrepreneurs. Greenwald’s stance at the time was that lawfare, on the SPLC model, is an abuse of the courts – an attempt to do politics by lawsuit; bankrupt the enemy by making him fee lawyers. I don’t share his respect for the courts or the law, personally, but I think he’s right on the essence of the matter: politics belongs in the street, not in the courts, and the winner should not be the guy with the most lawyers.

The history here is that Greenwald recently got on the liberal shit-list by calling attention to the Biden family’s manifestly corrupt links to the Ukraine, and doing it right before the election. Clearly, they concluded, Greenwald has joined the Other Team. So his past pro-bono work was dredged up as evidence for his Trumpite or perhaps even Nazi sympathies. If he was wrong to do that work – and for the libs, it goes without saying that he was – then the SPLC was right, or at least “better than the Nazis”.

Now my friend, I say more in sorrow than anger, was a Biden supporter, and I suspect that his somewhat sophomoric trick question constituted an attempt to put me alongside Greenwald in the penalty box: a guy who clearly thinks that Nazis are “better” than the SPLC.

The more general moral of this story is perhaps that talk about who’s “better” and “worse”, which is the lesser evil and which the greater, is often manipulative; it seeks to box us into choices and determinations which we are in fact under no obligation to make, and which cloud our thinking more often than clarify it.

And it might be added that the trick-questioner is often coming from the Sitz im Leben of Aesop’s tailless fox; he has lost his own independence in the trap of team spirit, and would like to see the rest of us similarly docked.

2 thoughts on “Strychnine or cyanide?

  1. I’ll have to check old Aesop, I thought it was the idea fishing bear, but then it usually doesn’t get ice in Hellas.
    This was so Wells composed that in belongs in mainstream media.
    (haha haha, sorry…)

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