Who’s Responsible?

Ben and David have been having a little cross-blog discussion about Saddam being found in a hole, and how much America sucks.

In his followup, Ben writes:

But no, I dont believe the Americans should get a break. The US is unquestionably a superpower and with that superpower status comes a responsibility to lead like it or not, people and nations around the world look to politically and culturally strong nations like the United States for leadership.

In a similar vein, Ben’s also said in the past (in relation to his Pot. Kettle. Black post):

<bjf> well, if i were aiming to be a reputable media outlet, i’d feel more strongly obligated to be less biased politically

Hopefully Ben won’t mind that quote being pulled from IRC and stuck on the web for all to see, especially given it’s not terribly different in intent to the quote above. Basically, the viewpoint is that people in positions of power should be held to a higher level of responsibility and accountability than others — usually the speaker.

Personally, I don’t think this makes sense. It’s obvious hypocrisy — holding others to standards to which you don’t hold yourself is the definition of the word afterall — for a start, but even moreso it’s just a bad philosophy.

For one, no one’s going to care about your standards if you don’t live up to them yourself, and if you’re not powerful by regular means, you’ve got no other leverage than persuasion. America doesn’t need anyone’s support to destroy its enemies, however much it might like that support but Australia does.

For another, it’s liable to degenerate into arguments about who’s powerful: find a right-wing columnist, and they’ll tell you they’re a voice in the wilderness barely heard amidst the chirruping of the left-wing media. Ask a left-winger the same thing, and they’ll tell you that their principled dissent is under constant attack by the conservative forces and their propaganda machines. There seems to be very strong evidence of an “underdog bias” when evaluating your own ideology’s position, and the natural result of that and the adoption of Ben’s principle above is that everyone refuses to hold themselves to high standards, but expects everyone else to do so. That’s not healthy.

And finally, if you don’t get some practice holding yourself to high standards when you’re not doing an important job, you’re probably not going to be able to when you are doing something that involves a lot of power. That can happen without you doing anything — “Linux hacker” wasn’t a very important or powerful position in the early 1990s, but it’s a lot moreso now — so it’s best to be prepared as soon as you can be.

(Is this one of the divisive issues between “left” and “right”? That right-wingers expect everyone to act responsibly at all times, and left-wingers only expect certain elites to act responsibly? Do left-wingers ever accept responsibility themselves as a matter of course, or do they only thrust it upon others, or have it thrust upon them? Are right-wingers any better in practice?)

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