About five years back, Matt Yglesias came up with a great little analogy called “The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics“. It’s a pretty scathing criticism of the (primarily “neocon”) attitude that pretty much any geopolitical goal is achievable, provided we have enough Will.
We could have won in Vietnam, if only we had enough will. We could remake Afghanistan into a stable country, if only we had enough will. We could do anything, anything at all, if only we had enough will.
It’s counterpart on the left, as pointed out by Julian Sanchez, is “The Care Bear Stare“. We could, it’s pointed out, do anything provided we cared enough. The fact that we haven’t accomplished (whatever) is because we don’t *CARE*.
There’s a thread tying these two things together, it seems to me.
I’m sure that you (yes, you) are familiar with the Theodicy debate (even if you don’t know it by that name). Epicurus had his riddle: “Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?” but I prefer how Archibald MacLeish put it in his J.B.: A Play in Verse:
“I heard upon his dry dung heap
That man cry out who cannot sleep:
‘If God is God He is not good,
If God is good He is not God;
Take the even, take the odd,
I would not sleep here if I could
Except for the little green leaves in the wood
And the wind on the water.’”
I’m not here to talk about God, though. He can take care of Himself.
I’m more here to talk about the theodicy that shows up in political debates. When you look at how the Green Lantern theory and the Care Bear theory overlap, it’s in one very particular way:
The assumption that we know what The Good Is and the assumption that We Have The Power To Enact The Good… leaving us only with how much *WILL* we have or how much we *CARE*. In a nutshell: Do we *WANT* The Good? Nutshellier: Are we Good?
We could have prevented the cleansing in Iraq following Saddam being deposed… if only we had the will. We could have passed a Health Care Bill that would have made us more like Denmark… if only we cared. Now, of course, we have to deal with the fact that, unlike in a Monothesistic Universe, we very much have to deal with the existence of The Opponent who will come in like a flood and we need to call upon our Will/how much we Care to lift a Standard against him.
Or them, in this case.
Now, maybe it’s the atheism in me talking, but this political theodicy seems to have a lot of unexamined assumptions at the bottom (and calling them such things as the Green Lantern Theory/Care Bear Stare brings the assumptions into stark relief).
A conclusion about how “we need to be more humble” strikes me as one hell of a cop-out, of course. If we see a moral problem before us, it’s pretty much incumbent on us to try to solve it. Make it better. I’m not going to go that route (maybe I’ll take it in the comments, though). I do think that unexamined assumptions are far more likely to result in harm being committed in the name of The Good than stumbling across a happy accident of an outcome (and, to quote Dr. Manhattan, “Nothing ever ends” (whoops, spoiler[/efn_note].
Which seems as good a place to end this essay as any.