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