Column on Jon Stewart is Correct

Jon Stewart is Correct

Tibor R. Machan

One day last week I decided to check out The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, given that it is a popular left of center offering totally devoted to Barack Obama and virulently contemptuous of the American Right. Sure enough one segment feature a stream of clips and stills of various Right wing luminaries, such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Dennis Miller. At the clip with O’Reilly Stewart stopped and embarked on a fairly length lecture about values. This is because O’Reilly was depicted saying that yes, now and then, our security requires the sacrifice of our values. This sentiment is naturally quite controversial and its refutation is nicely suggested in that famous quote from Benjamin Franklin, to wit, "They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty or security."

Franklin’s idea actually hedges the issue by talking about "an essential liberty for temporary security" since it doesn’t address the case of an essential liberty for long term security but never mind. I am on the same page with those who take Franklin to have suggested that violating our right to liberty for the purpose of gaining security is going to backfire, so we ought not do it.

Jon Stewart’s little lecture focused on a similar theme, namely, that if something is a bona fide value, a fundamental principle of ethics or politics, there is no excuse for breaching it. And I pretty much agree, although there may be certain very exceptional cases when such a breach could be proper. Still, it isn’t a fundamental value, a basic principle, if one may discard it in the face of difficulties. The whole point of ethical and political, including valid legal, principles is that they must be the guide to conduct under all circumstances. Its like principles of good health or nutrition–these aren’t to be tossed aside for any reason but ought to be loyally followed.

The curious thing about Jon Stewart’s lecture about values is that the side he has been supporting in our political confrontations in this country doesn’t believe at all what he was telling his audience. Indeed, a prominent virtue of Barack Obama, for example, is supposed to be his pragmatism and lack of ideology. This latter is simply a derogatory term for principled thinking–those who have an ideology and follow it loyally are people who believe in certain principles no matter what. They think such principles are the right guidelines to coping with the challenges of ethical and political life and to sacrifice them means caving in to the temptation to become unprincipled, disloyal to the right ways to act.

Of course, many people who champion pragmatism are also inconsistent in this and go on to announce their loyalty to certain select principles. And on such occasions they wish to cash in on the general notion that being principled in matters of ethics and politics is a good thing. This is what America’s modern liberals do when they stand up and righteously denounce torture, for instance, pretending for the time being that they care about a principled opposition to such policies. Of course, when it comes to basic individual rights, such as the right to private property, they have no problem with being unprincipled–just consider how readily they back eminent domain policies that violate our property rights if such violation aims at cleaning up blight or promoting a higher tax base for government.

No, Jon Stewart may not be a source of serious political and ethical thought but he does seem to have a sizable following among Americans and it may be useful to point out that integrity isn’t one of the virtues that his side of the political debate cherishes much.

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