Principles void of principle


When our Fourth Congressional district Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Dardanelle) voted to withhold disaster relief for Hurricane Sandy survivors — in the name of fiscal conservancy — we were dismayed.

In a statement about his vote, Cotton said, “I pledged throughout my campaign to confront America’s debt crisis, and today I upheld that pledge by voting against legislation that would have added another $10 billion to our staggering national debt because it did not offset that funding for the national flood-insurance program with equal spending cuts.”

We wish this were more of a surprise. Unfortunately it isn’t. After all, most of the Hurricane Sandy survivors are on the Eastern Seaboard. Cotton doesn’t ever have to look them in the eye. We wonder if it were not northerners in a hurricane but, instead, funds to cover cataclysmic tornado damage if Cotton would so readily turn his rigidly principled back on his fellow Arkansans.

As elected leaders in the troubled area put it, there was only one group to blame the initial lack of a funding vote - the House Republican majority and House Speaker John Boehner.

In a joint statement, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rep. Peter King of New York said: “When American citizens are in need, we come to their aid. That tradition was abandoned in the House last night.” Christie called the lack of support from fellow Republicans “disappointing and disgusting.”

By comparison, 10 days after Katrina hit in 2005, Washington had agreed to $60 billion in aid, and more would come. Boehner had declined last week to bring the Sandy legislation to a vote but relented on Friday after the eruption from Republicans in that area and elsewhere, making it 10 weeks since the storm hit before funding was approved. Cotton was one of 67 House members who voted against the legislation on Friday. Even now, the bill that was passed was only for $9.7 billion, although more is promised.

No one wants the national debt to spiral us into second-class statehood, but a tight fiscal house means paltry little when people whose homes have been washed away in a biblical flood need our help. It’s tough to pull yourself up by your bootstraps when everything you own is being sucked away by the undertow.

Whatever happened to “the least if these”? If Cotton’s ultra-conservative credentials are so value-rooted, how could he miscalculate so horribly? Having gone to school in Massachusetts, Cotton is bound to have passed through those devastated areas. He must have memories of those places now destroyed. As such, we just don’t understand how a man of obvious empathy and devotion to duty could get his priorities so misaligned.

If the homeless victims of a natural disaster are appropriate fodder for Cotton and his extremist kin to make political hay, what chance do the rest of us have?

It’s almost trite to drag out Emerson’s famed line from his essay, Self-Reliance, but Cotton’s deafness to the larger clarion of compassion has earned him no less, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

Some noxious things require an unwavering consistency. We have to protect the First Amendment, even if it means American Nazis and Westboro Baptist Church members get to say things the rest of us know to be an abomination. That’s the second edge of a sword that cuts us all. It’s immutable and fundamental to our democratic freedom.

Murderers and rapists get trials with fair evidence, competent representation and due process — even though we might prefer they were just pitched in a deep dark hole. They get those things, because we would expect the same if we got in a similar pinch. Here too, consistency is disagreeable, but necessary.

As such, we understand the necessary subscription to principle. We just don’t get this choice.

The theologian, Frederick Buechner once wrote, “Principles are what people have instead of God. To be a Christian means among other things to be willing if necessary to sacrifice even your highest principles for God’s or your neighbor’s sake the way a Christian pacifist must be willing to pick up a baseball bat if there’s no other way to stop a man from savagely beating a child. Jesus didn’t forgive his executioners on principle but because in some unimaginable way he was able to love them.”

How then is an appeal to abstract economic principle the preferable path in this dilemma? We’re glad Cotton is a man of deep principle. We just fear he’s chosen the wrong one.