Principles

When journalists present the statements of politicians as principles

When journalists present the statements of politicians, they write phrases like, “. . . espouses an expansive view of presidential power.”   This kind of prose creates the impression that the politician commits to this policy as a matter of principle.

Sometimes that may accurately reflect reality; however, creating that impression obscures another possibility.  Perhaps the politician takes the position just because of who wins and who loses at this moment.   Writing about the statement as policy dresses up gamesmanship as principle.

To have a principle means to consider the policy so important that it should apply equally to friend and foe.  It means to sacrifice expedience to uphold the policy.  A person who holds principles like this deserves the old-fashioned praise, “a principled person.”

Most of us, I think, are semi-principled. We cheerfully apply principles to people with whom we disagree.  They should live up to these standards.  We reluctantly and selectively apply the same principles to our friends and ourselves.

Some of us, though, deserve the old-fashioned condemnation, “unprincipled.”  To pick an obvious example, “We will consider no nominee for Supreme Court Justice in a presidential election year.  Let the people decide!” seems like a principle, but it applies exclusively when our side does not control the presidency.   I do not know a good English word for this sort of statement; let me call it a “pseudo-principle.”  A pseudo-principle has the grammatical form of a principle, and fills the space that a principle would, explaining why we act or refrain from acting, but it applies only when it enhances our power.  It is not a principle.  It is a tool.  It is a weapon.

Fifty years ago, I studied with Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.  I was not among his best students, but I paid attention.  Rabbi Lichtenstein was a principled person.  He had high standards of honesty, intellectual rigor, and compassion, which he applied to friend and foe, but not quite equally.  Evaluating those who disagreed with him, he applied his standards generously, humanely.  He could forgive them for falling short of his standards. Interacting with his colleagues and students, he let us know that he wanted excellence from us. We should make every effort to live up to his standards.  He applied his principles to himself with absolute rigor.  He would not allow himself to fall short in any way.

So I wish our journalists would find a way not to make every politician sound like, excuse me, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein.

Can  do that without editorializing? A news reporter should not include subjective expressions of skepticism about a political figure’s motives.   The news report can, however, include a brief history of the politician’s opinions on an issue.  If the politician has, in the past, argued against the imperial presidency, and now takes an expansive view of presidential power, a reporter can legitimately record that change of mind.

Change of mind in itself deserves respect.  We should admire thinkers who change their minds when they encounter further evidence.   Sometimes, though, the politician’s change of mind coincides, not with additional evidence, but with political expedience.   The reporter can, and should, remind us that the politician favored impeachment proceedings against elected officials of the other party, but now warns against using impeachment on elected officials of the home team.

The change of mind may represent sober reconsideration of a policy once endorsed, or it may represent weaponizing a pseudo-principle.  We need to beware.

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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