This may be relationship psycho-babble, but sometimes babble is good. I was once asked that question about non-negotiables in the context of getting advice on a relationship, and it turned out to be excellent advice. What ARE the beliefs and ideals which are so important for me that compromising about them makes me feel as if I've died and only move around because of some residual reflex action? Or taken in reverse: what are the many fields of life in which I can compromise and yet remain me? Answers to questions like these make for healthier relationships.
Compromise is a necessary art in all human interaction, but throwing away your innermost self will not work. I was thinking about this when I read Mark Kleiman's recent post on why Michael Mukasey might not be the best possible choice for the job of the Attorney General of the United States:
I understand Mukasey is supposed to be a reasonably good guy, by comparison with the run of Bush appointees. But if Mukasey won't say that waterboarding is torture and claims that the President has some undefined power to violate statute law — even criminal laws, such as the ban on torture and other war crimes — under his "Article II powers," then why should the Senate Judiciary Committee even bring his nomination to a vote? If he says he hasn't read the latest torture memos or decided whether waterboarding is torture, Sen. Leahy ought to tell him to read the memos and observe a waterboarding session and come back when he's done his homework.
Andrew Sullivan linked to Kleiman and pretty much agreed:
Don't people see that this is what Cheney is doing? He is setting precedent after precedent for totalist, secret executive power. And with each precedent for unchecked, uncontrollable executive power - including the power to detain and torture within the United States - the America we have known is being surrendered. This is the other war - a constitutional war at home against American liberty and the Constitution - as dangerous in a different way as Islamism. One attacks our freedom from the outside; the other hollows out our freedom from within. The fight against both is the calling of the time.
Hmm. But the point both of these writers are making is that it is indeed time to take a quick peek at those innermost value, just to make sure that they still exist, and it's also time to look at Mukasey's private values. For example, does he value executive power over habeas corpus?
Pragmatism can be taken too far, to a point where one forgets what the pragmatism was supposed to achieve in the first place.
This is what I have trouble with when watching some politicians or when reading some pundits. The trapeze work of both types can look exciting, agile and nimble, but I see no underlying pattern, no planned series of breathtaking stunts, no planned safe landing in support of those basic values. (What a terrible metaphor. But it's Friday.) The only real value I see in their work is: "Hey, look at me!"
And this is why I think we need a little bit more idealism in our political debates and a little less pragmatism, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle. I want to know what the non-negotiables of the politicians are, and I want them to care about the Constitution and other similar concepts. Otherwise they look like zombies to me.