In philosophy, Buridan’s ass is a paradox about determinism, named after 14th-century philosopher Jean Buridan (but was probably first proposed by Aristotle). Via Professor Wikipedia:
It refers to a hypothetical situation wherein an ass that is equally hungry and thirsty is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. Since the paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, it will die of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision to choose one over the other.
There are other versions of the same dilemma, some with two piles of hay or a human instead of a donkey. But you get the point. Personally, I think it’s kind of a dumb paradox when applied to human action as opposed to physical forces (which is what Aristotle had in mind).
Buridan’s ass keeps coming to mind even though it’s almost an inverse analogy to what’s going on today. In Buridan’s parable the donkey is asked to choose between two desirable, even life-saving, options. For the analogy to get closer to the mark to today’s predicament, we would have to be the hay forced to choose between two competing hungry asses.
In other words we have managed to flip Buridan’s paradox on its head. We are being asked to pick our poison. We are being asked if we’d prefer to be mauled by a lion or a tiger. We are being asked what kind of bread our mandatory crap sandwiches shall be served on.
Feeling forced to choose between the rock and the hard place is bad enough. Having to write about it day after day is even worse. Here’s the great Victor Davis Hanson letting his frustrations show:
Never Trumpers, then, face a sort of existential quandary: The more they attack Hillary Clinton, the more it becomes surreal to attack simultaneously (and far more frequently) Trump, who has attacked Clinton in a fashion never before seen in her long political history. And if Never Trumpers insist that the two candidates are of equal odiousness, what then is the point of daily reiterating their oppositions: On Monday attack Trump, on Tuesday Clinton, on Wednesday Trump again? Very quickly the message is received that the two are equally terrible people and therefore the election should not warrant any more commentary or interest, given that any outcome will be wretched. The logic of Trump voters trashing Clinton and Clinton voters trashing Trump is obvious; but what is the rationale of trashing both, other than a sort of detached depression that does not wear well in daily doses?
Now, VDH is smarter than the average bear — and that’s if you’re referencing a distant planet inhabited by an advanced race of super-intelligent grizzlies who figured out millennia ago how to genetically design salmon that crap butter-scotch-flavored ice cream.
Nonetheless this is a strange critique, particularly in a column that begins, “When have voters faced a choice between two such unpalatable, unprincipled candidates?”
In that question lies the knife to cut the Gordian knot Professor Hanson presents. But first, let’s acknowledge a simple fact: We are in uncharted territory — for everybody.
Victor makes it sound like the dilemma only exists for Trump’s conservative opponents. But it’s everyone’s dilemma. If you’re a principled conservative who nonetheless concludes that Hillary is the greater evil, you’re still stuck with the problem that her Republican opponent is unpalatable and unprincipled.
Consider, again, Stephen Moore. On April 1, 2016 — that’s exactly three months ago to the day — Steve co-authored a blistering (and entirely accurate) attack on tariffs and protectionism generally:
Though almost all economists agree that the freedom to trade is a pillar of a prosperous economy, it’s obvious from the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders that free trade is in political retreat right now and they want tariffs to keep out the foreign competition. What they don’t seem to understand is that protectionism only gives greater power to corporate lobbyists in Washington.
A few days before that, he wrote another stinging rebuke:
“Protectionism via tariffs is a regressive tax and would almost certainly exacerbate income inequality. The people who benefit the most from low-cost imports from China and sold at Wal-Mart or Target are the working poor.”
The prior August, he and Larry Kudlow (another born-again Trump backer) co-authored a jeremiad against Trump’s protectionism, ridiculing the notion that trade with China hurts us. And here is Moore this week, agreeing with Donald Trump on how we have to scrap these trade deals with China. (Though he did say, with what I hope was profound understatement, that he is “more of a free trader” than Trump).
It gets worse. For years, Moore ridiculed those who questioned the benefits of unbridled immigration. In September, Moore told the Washington Post:
What Trump is saying about trade and immigration is a political and economic disaster. … He’s almost now making it cool and acceptable to be nativist on immigration and protectionist on trade. That’s destroying a lot of the progress we’ve made as a party in the last 30 years.
Steve in particular has insinuated that opponents of unfettered immigration — including National Review — are driven by irrational, “foaming at the mouth,” nativist, or bigoted instincts in their opposition to unending immigration and the growing Hispanic population that comes with it. The nobility of assimilation was once one of his most cherished beliefs.
So here’s Steve in The American Spectator this month responding to Republicans denouncing Trump’s comments on Judge Curiel:
The Republicans are, by contrast, pathetic wimps. They are so terrified of and traumatized by the “racist” charge, that they threw the GOP nominee under the bus so that the media wouldn’t label them bigots too. They foolishly piled on to the media and Democratic attack. The media didn’t have to call on Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton to excoriate Trump. House Speaker Paul Ryan lashed out at Trump for his “racist comment.” Marco Rubio and others did the same. Jeb Bush called for Trump to “retract” his comments.
They seemed to be saying: see how racially progressive I am. I just denounced Donald Trump. He’s the Republican racist, not me. That’s statesmanship for you.
Question: Does anyone believe that this strategy will bring a stampede of black and Latino voters into the party? Do they think this will get the media off their back?
Now, I like Steve. But how are we supposed to interpret this? I think his mind-reading skills are on par with Chris Christie’s acrobatic talents, but put that aside. Moore is flatly arguing that conservatives who disagree with Trump — on the very principles Moore spent his career defending — are idiots. Smart politicians and their “brain trusts” (his words) should either shut up or lie. He asks, “Since when do we judge our candidates based on the left’s warped criteria? Republicans seem to suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome of seeking the affection of their captors.”
Uh, wait a second.
I thought opposition to nativism and bigotry were part of our criteria — or at the very least Steve’s. He even begins his op-ed conceding that Trump said “stupid and even offensive things.” In other words, his objection can’t be found in all of this rhetorical sprinkler system of diarrhea about the motives of those who won’t fall in line, it’s that they are bothering to stand up for their principles, when Steve won’t. …
It should go without saying that in extremely unusual circumstances where none of the standard rules apply, different people will have different responses to the new and unfamiliar. Throw ten pacifists into a gladiatorial arena and tell them only one may leave the Coliseum alive, some will still refuse to pick up their swords. But some won’t. A passionate opponent of torture, when actually presented with the certain threat that a bomb will go off underneath his family may stick to his principles, or he may pick up that power drill.
I don’t particularly like these analogies, but I can’t think of better ones right now. The point is, when the terra firma of conventional categories falls away, it’s only natural that a once-unified group will have diverse responses to what comes next. It’s like in a horror movie, when Freddie Kruger or Jason or Lena Dunham suddenly appears, the teenagers scatter, adopting different survival strategies. Some hide in the attic. Some fight. Some get in a car and drive very far away. Others show Dunham a still from one of her nude scenes.
So it is with Trump. One week Hugh Hewitt is comparing him to Stage-4 cancer or a plummeting jet, another week he’s arguing that we have to back him no matter what. I don’t mean this as a criticism per se. Hugh’s an honorable and decent conservative and Republican and he’s trying to figure out how to respond to a terrible situation. He’s come to one set of conclusions, Kevin Williamson another. That’s to be expected when lifelong conservatives are dumped in the Wilds of Trumpistan. …
If John Kasich or any — and I mean any — of the other 16 candidates had won the nomination, I’d probably have written “The Case for John Kasich” by now. If I refused to do that, I would indeed be a hypocrite — or at least inconsistent (hypocrisy is a much misused word).
Note: I can’t stand Kasich. But he meets my own minimal requirements for support. Trump, simply, doesn’t. He falls short of the mark like John Candy in the long jump. I’m not going to rehash all of my reasons for this conviction, but suffice it to say I think he’s unpatriotically unprepared and unqualified for the job. Politically, conservatism at its core is about the importance of ideas and the importance of character. With the exception of his longstanding support for protectionism and the unalloyed importance of “strength,” Trump cares not a whit for policy or philosophy. His attachment to principles is, for the most part, a nearest-weapon-to-hand approach. As a matter of character he’s crude, boorish, dishonest, proudly promiscuous, and has launched countless businesses based on the idea that it’s morally acceptable to take advantage of people. He dodged the actual Vietnam War but claimed that avoiding the clap in the 1970s was his own personal Vietnam. …
By waiving the standards we use to judge liberal politicians in order to defend an allegedly conservative one, we are waiving those standards for all time. I’m not talking about some allowances at the margins, politics should be flexible — strange bedfellows and all that. But there’s a difference between being flexible and willingly snapping your own spine to bend over for a politician who, almost certainly, has contempt for the standards you once held near and dear. …
Every day, as I read or reread more Nock and Mencken, I’m growing comfortable with the “detached depression” Hanson describes.
But the answer is staring him in the face: Because we’re supposed to tell the truth. I will say Hillary is corrupt, deceitful, and unqualified and I will say likewise about Trump — because that’s my job. Victor is one of the finest historians alive, so I’ll speak in those terms. George Orwell was one of the very few intellectuals generally, and almost entirely alone on the left, who recognized that both Stalin and Hitler were abominations. No, I’m not saying that we face a similar moral or existential choice. What I am saying is that just because we are facing a horrible choice, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say it is horrible. That’s our job. As Orwell said, “In a time of universal deceit — telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”