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Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Take the high road.

New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier writes that Checkpoint, Nicholson Baker's new novel about a scheme to assassinate President Bush, is "scummy." And he takes the opportunity of his review to call liberals back out of the political gutter:

[T]he virulence that calls itself critical thinking, the merry diabolization of other opinions and the other people who hold them, the confusion of rightness with righteousness, the preference for aspersion to argument, the view that the strongest statement is the truest statement — these deformations of political discourse now thrive in the houses of liberalism too. The radicalism of the right has hectored into being a radicalism of the left. . . .

Liberals must think carefully about their keenness to mirror some of the most poisonous qualities of their adversaries. It was never exactly a disgrace to American liberalism that it lacked its Limbaugh. But demagoguery now enjoys a new prestige. Thus, a prominent liberal thinker writes a book against George W. Bush that refreshingly prefers ideas to innuendoes, and a sympathetic reviewer in this newspaper laments that "instead of 'Reason,' which the left already has too much of, the Democrats need a book titled 'Brass Knuckles.' " The argument for liberal demagoguery is twofold, tactical and philosophical. There are those who believe the Democrats cannot succeed without the politics of the sewer. These are the same people who believe it is the politics of the sewer to which the Republicans owe their success. This view significantly underestimates the depth and the nature of George W. Bush's support in American society, and significantly overestimates the influence of the media and its pundit vaudeville on American politics. Rush Limbaugh did not elect a president and neither will Michael Moore. All the professional manipulation of opinion notwithstanding, reality is still more powerful than its representations. If it is not, then all politics is futile.

The philosophical argument for liberal demagoguery is that it is merely an expression, or an exaggeration, of American democracy. But then this must be true also of conservative demagoguery, which also claims to speak (but rather less plausibly) in the voice of the common man. It is when politics becomes a competition in populist credentials that demagoguery, and the sophistry of the slippery slope, flourishes, and the voice of the common man is stolen. The demagogue's gravest sin is not incivility, it is stupidity.

("Nicholson Baker's wild talk," Leon Wieseltier, New York Times Book Review 8.8.04, reg req'd)

After reading this, I thought about the polling data that show just how few of us are likely to change our political preferences between now and November, no matter how loudly we proclaim the villainy of the other side. Every party needs its Machiavellis and its counterintelligence agents, but that doesn't mean we all have to be conscripted for those roles. I have no doubt that folks on "my side" will entertain and rally themselves by painting the Republicans as all manner of evil — just as, needless to say, conservative activists and pundits keep on saying things that ought to shame them right out of civil society — but I don't want any part of it.

I wouldn't be a liberal if I didn't believe in liberal ideals, but I believe in liberal methods, too. On the whole, I think this site has tended to avoid trading in gross stereotypes — and I want to keep it that way. I believe in dialogue: I want to find ways for liberals, conservatives, and moderates to communicate with each other about solving the real problems in our society. (I suppose I'm feeling just a bit guilty about the caption contests, although I think the photographs themselves are revealing.) So between now and November, I'm going to do my best to stay out of the mud. This doesn't mean I won't be critical of President Bush, whom I regard as the worst U.S. president in at least 80 years, but I don't expect to swing any votes here — and I know I won't convert anyone to liberalism by shouting or spleen-venting.

I'm thinking about two "Wayside Pulpit" sayings that have appeared outside Unitarian Universalist churches over the years:

In hatred as in love, we grow like the thing we brood upon. —Mary Renault

Hate and mistrust are the children of blindness. —William Watson

Some of us are going to have to start putting the pieces of this divided society back together.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 10 August 2004 at 5:55 PM

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August 10, 2004 10:13 PM | Permalink for this comment

Chris - Perhaps the difference between the right and the left is not that the left does not engage in demagoguery, demonization, or paranoia; perhaps the difference is that the left is more willing to police its own antics and criticize its worst offenders?

Where is the conservative voice correcting the Ann Coulter's, Limbaugh's, Falwell's, Bill O'Reilly's and Pat Robertson's of the world, when they slip into paranoia, demagoguery, demonization, and out and out lying?

I believe it was Davidson Loehr writing in the UU World who argued that so much of the right-wing mindset harkens back to days of tribalism. Loehr argued that some of the features of tribalism were insistence on hierarchy and strongly defined roles. Another feature might be loyalty manifesting in an unwillingness to criticize "your own."

Stretching Loehr's argument further, it would seem that a post-tribal world would recognize the harm in standing by your own no matter what the offense. It is relationship-building; you cannot hold others to standards you do not hold for yourself.

Might liberal religion and liberal politics share, not perfection and not immunity from bad behavior, but a willingness to critique and criticize ourselves when we fall short? It seems to me that this is more common to the left than the right.

Much has been made of Bush's absolutism and inability to admit a mistake -- from his bungling of the "fool me once" saying where he couldn't bring himself to say "shame on me" (perhaps because shame is not in his range of feeling?) to his inability to recall a mistake when asked by a press reporter.

Perhaps it is this very absolutism (religious or political) of the right, not the demagoguery of the left, that makes the dialogue you envision difficult.

Willingness to consider two points of view is a great thing (I don't believe that willingness makes you a flip-flopper or waffler regardless of what some say) but it is often taken as a sign of weakness when the other side can only consider ONE way. Had Al Gore only been a little more absolutist and aggressive...

Carlton F.:

August 11, 2004 12:22 AM | Permalink for this comment

I like what you say Chris, but sometimes I can't help but criticize them, because there's so much to criticize. It seems to me, however, that Republicans tend to produce more 'demagogues' naturally, because their political agenda relies specifically on attacking liberal programs and ways of life. Whereas, Liberals are focused on their goals of progress. Thus it would just tend to be that Republicans shout and whine about Democrats, and Democrats shout and whine about... say... World poverty. Or Unfair wages. Or any number of barriers to creating a more fair and just world.

So I frown upon liberal demagogues simply because fundamentally they're superfluous. Michael Moore is a demagogue in response to one of the worst presidents in American history, but if this president gets the boot Michael Moore shouldn't just move on to the next target, he should return to fighting against social misgivings, not individual people.


August 11, 2004 03:15 PM | Permalink for this comment

Politics in the USA has often been vitriolic and hateful, throughout our history. Go back and take a look and you will see that slanderous charges and accusations of treason, greed and immorality are par for the course. That doesn't mean that you or I need to engage at that level. Every person has to make their personal moral choice about how they want to conduct their life as a citizen.

By the way, I think that the notion that liberals do not hate and demonize persons, but instead turn their rage to loftier issues, like world poverty, is self-deluded. Someone point me to the last really nasty comment someone made about world poverty.

Liberals seem to exclude the humor of the oppressed from a listing of hateful political language. See Whoopi Goldberg. It's part of the liberal belief that there is a different set of rules for the oppressed than for the oppressors.

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