I’m not persuaded that the fantasy ending of “Scent of a Woman” (1992), in which one rip-roaring speech by a colorful old veteran suffices to cause a preparatory school dean and disciplinary committee to reverse course and do the right thing, is the best possible cinematic illustration of the point Eric Lutzuk might have chosen. I have met some deans and college disciplinary committees and I can tell you that all the eloquence of Daniel Webster or Demosthenes and all the sound reasoning and philosophy of the entire Western canon would have had precisely zero impact on any of the results of their deliberations.
Pardon the digression, but there is a pertinent scene in Joseph Heller’s great novel Catch-22 . The idealistic Clevinger is incorrectly accused of some default and is scheduled to appear before a military disciplinary tribunal. The cynical Yossarian warns him that he is completely screwed. Clevinger insists that he is perfectly safe because he is innocent. (I’m paraphrasing, rather than quoting.) “You don’t understand.” Yossarian warns him. “Those guys hate Jews.” “But I’m not Jewish. Clevinger protests. “That will make no difference.” Yossarian assures him. That is what deans and disciplinary committees are like.
Anyway… Mr. Lutzuk’s article makes an interesting and valuable point about the motivation of conservatives which liberals characteristically find impossible to understand.
In the climactic speech delivered by Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, Pacino does an excellent job of articulating why Kant rejected the pursuit of self interest as an ethical position. In the speech Pacino clearly disavows the pursuit of self interest as being properly ethical. Charlie (the young student who Pacino is representing in the school court ) has forfeited entry to an ivy league university, and has potentially ruined his prospects of climbing the American social ladder by choosing to not â€œsnitchâ€ on his classmates who he witnessed perpetrating a prank on the Dean. The over-arching point of Pacinoâ€™s fiery speech is that by punishing Charlie for his silence and rewarding Mr. Willis (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for â€œsnitchingâ€, the school is encouraging students to adopt an ethical stance concerned with acting out of self interest. …
The American Liberal â€œleftâ€ can learn a lot from Pacinoâ€™s speech as it might explain why they are failing to rally grassroots populist support amongst a lot of poor Americans who would directly benefit from Democrat initiatives…. [T]he American Midwest, now a hot bed for right wing Christian, tea party type republican populist support, used to be the center for radical leftist movements in the United States.
This shift can be explained as a Kantian phenomena. After all the number one criticism amongst the left of the tea party and other populist movements in the US is that they are acting against their own self interest. They are supporting a political party (the Republicans) that explicitly benefits the rich and do little to nothing to help the poor or disenfranchised. Time and time again Democrat political pundits point this out to no avail. All the statics and numbers in the world seem incapable of swaying these people from their support of a party that does nothing to improve their day to day lives or the lives of their children.
What makes the tea party a properly Kantian movement is that they justify their support for the Republican Party by appealing to freedom. This is the twisted strength of the tea party movement, it emphasizes peopleâ€™s freedom as the highest virtue. Itâ€™s overarching message is that common people, working people, are free and capable of making their own decisions. You do not have to listen to the pejorative pandering of left liberal intellectuals from the North East, telling you what is or isnâ€™t in your best interest. You are free to make that decision yourself. That is what America is all about.
Arguments appealing to self interest are practically non-existent on the right (with the exception of the small business owners tax cut argument). Ordinary working people are appealed to based on their autonomy. They are encouraged to demonstrate their autonomy by voting for a party that they feel represents them despite it acting against their self interest. In this way they are strangely enough like Charlie: affirming their own characters against intellectuals who claim they can predict their actions based on their class, race, occupation income etc. The right in the US have tapped into the fundamental Kantian insight that people want to believe and feel they are autonomous beings.
Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.