Thursday, May 28, 2009

Voter Apathy

It turns out that large numbers of people who voted for President Obama in November disagree with much of his program and policies. Given that anyone who was paying attention last Fall had to know what Obama would do once he was in office, we must conclude that these people either weren't paying attention or they voted for Obama notwithstanding their disagreements with his plans for the country. The first is irresponsible, the second is irrational.

With an electorate like this out there it's no wonder Democrats want to make it easier to vote.


Uncivil Discourse

What can be done to instill civility into our political discourse? The last eight years were characterized by a viciousness that may have been unprecedented in most of our lifetimes, and though Republicans have, I honestly believe, treated President Obama with much greater respect than Democrats treated President Bush, it remains the case that with the advent of blogs, cable TV, and talk radio civility seems to have become an anachronism.

Some people, perhaps, might think that it's only those who suffer most from the kind of eye-gouging that occurs daily in the blogosphere and on the airwaves who call for civility. Civility, in this view, is the plea of those who hold to what Nietzsche called slave morality, the attempt by the weak to mitigate the harshness of their masters by foisting a moral system on them that would constrain their will to power. In other words, pleas for civility are the recourse of society's losers who don't want the strong to be all the time beating them up, but who are otherwise powerless to prevent it.

I think, though, that the opposite is true. Civility is a mark of strength. Calmness and courtesy are indicators of confidence in one's positions. Lies, insults, and rudeness are red flags hoisted by people who subliminally recognize that their arguments are inherently weak. The flimsiness of a point of view can often be measured by the level of shrillness and meanness with which it's presented. If one's ideas are compelling then he has nothing to fear by extending courtesy and respect to the other side.

No one makes this case with more clarity or eloquence than John Stuart Mill in his wonderful book On Liberty. Mill writes, for instance, that:

The worst offense of this kind which can be committed by a polemic is to stigmatize those who hold a contrary opinion as bad and immoral men .... [O]pinion ought, in every instance, to determine its verdict by the circumstances of the individual case; condemning everyone, on whichever side of the argument he places himself, in whose mode of advocacy either want of candor, or malignity, bigotry, or intolerance of feeling manifest themselves, but not inferring these vices from the side which a person takes, though it be the contrary side of the question to our own; and giving merited honor to every one, whatever opinion he may hold, who has calmness to see and honesty to state what his opponents and their opinions really are, exaggerating nothing to their discredit, keeping nothing back which tells, or can be supposed to tell, in their favor. This is the real morality of public discussion: and if often violated, I am happy to think that there are many controversialists who to a great extent observe it and a still greater number who conscientiously strive towards it.

I write all this after having read a post by Rod Dreher who recently found himself exposed to radio talker Mark Levin:

I don't listen to talk radio a lot, because I have a short commute between office and home. But last fall, I got into the car with a colleague to go pick up a pizza (we were working late), and heard some conservative talker with a screechy voice just making an ass of himself. Even when I disagree with Limbaugh, he's interesting to listen to -- funny and entertaining. So too with Laura Ingraham, and even Anne Coulter. But this guy was just horrible. He sounded horrible, and he whined and moaned and basically carried on like the shrill crackpot at the bar that you excuse yourself to go to the bathroom to get away from, and then head for the door.

"That's Mark Levin," my friend explained.

After recounting a decidedly unpleasant exchange Levin had with a caller, Dreher says this:

A cretin who would say something like this on his radio show is a big deal among a lot of conservatives. Good grief. Having spent about 15 unpleasant minutes listening to this creep, I cannot imagine why anybody pays attention to him. Seriously, where is the pleasure in listening to this kind of trashmouth? If I were on the left, I would make sure that people thought that Mark Levin was the face of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.

I guess not even Dreher can resist the temptation to resort to name-calling, but that's not my point, exactly. The fact is that he's right about Levin (to get a sense of Levin's style go here), and not just Levin, and certainly not just conservative talk radio personalities.

Nevertheless, speaking just of conservatives, it's counter-productive of them to dress themselves in such uncomely rhetorical robes because it closes off any chance that their ideas, which are usually superior to those of the left, will get a hearing among the great mass of people who see themselves as neither conservative nor liberal, but who could potentially be swayed by compelling arguments humorously and irenically presented.

Ugly, nasty rhetoric, gratuitous insults and name-calling, refusing to let opponents be heard, are all tactics which generate only resentment and a desire to tune the offender out. They put off the very people we want to reach and they rarely persuade. For this reason I no longer read Ann Coulter (though Dreher seems to like her), nor listen to Michael Savage or Mark Levin and have a great deal of difficulty tolerating Sean Hannity. Despite the ratings and success of these people I don't want any of them to be the face of modern conservatism. I have no problem with their frequent criticisms of liberalism - indeed, I often agree with them - but I have a big problem with the manner in which they often make those criticisms and the way they too often treat liberals as persons.

Nor can the left plead rhetorical chastity. Left-wing blogs are often stomach-turning in their vileness, and I can scarcely watch Chris Matthews on MSNBC who is, in my opinion, one of the rudest people on cable TV. And when it comes to sheer meanness Matthews' colleague Keith Olbermann is all that Dreher accuses Mark Levin of being, and worse.

It's hard to treat people with respect and dignity, of course, when they refuse the same courtesy to others, and it's easy to succumb to the temptation to call one's opponents names when they behave in ways that make the name appropriate. It's not always wrong, after all, to call a stupid idea stupid or to call a despicable human being despicable. Sometimes, when stakes are high and the battle hot some rhetoric and behavior are warranted which would not be otherwise, but incendiary language should be used sparingly and judiciously, never gratuitously. If it's deemed appropriate to use a pejorative in our discourse the reason for it should be explained, and it should not simply be employed as a pinch-hitter for an argument. To employ a different metaphor, our political discourse should be more like those laser-guided missiles the military uses and less like indiscriminate carpet bombing.

Nevertheless, drawing lines our rhetoric should not cross isn't easy, and fair-minded people will disagree as to when the line is being breached. No one wants to narrow the bounds to the point where satire is prohibited or the mot juste that would prick the egos of pompous gasbags is disallowed. Then, too, there are those like Perez Hilton, who, because of their cruel treatment of others, deserve a brutally frank assessment of their own relevant inadequacies. Any line we draw should not rule out of bounds condign frankness about those who mistreat others.

But the difficulty in knowing precisely where to place the foul line does not relieve us of the prima facie duty to give the benefit of the doubt, to exercise restraint, and to refrain from calling people names, as Levin and Dreher both do, over legitimate differences of opinion.

We can accurately describe someone's behavior as stupid, sleazy, or sickening without imputing those adjectives to the person himself, at least until such time as a long train of examples makes it impossible to separate the person from the behavior.

Politics (or any arena in which ideas are at issue) is, switching metaphors again, like boxing. There's nothing wrong with trying to hit your opponent with all you've got. There's nothing wrong with trying, within the rules, to diminish his ability to impose his will, there's nothing wrong with using language that packs a wallop, but it's always wrong to hit below the belt, to try to hurt and humiliate the other person. It's not wrong to deflate arrogant political egos, but it's always wrong to try to destroy people who are honestly and sincerely trying to do the best job they can. Too many people in our politically-oriented media think that the way to prevail in our nation's policy battles is by grievously crippling their opponents or by destroying them personally. Doing this may certainly bring one power, but it's a benefit gained at the cost of one's humanity. It's a devil's bargain.

There's more on the Dreher/Levin contretemps here. For what it's worth I think Dreher overstates Levin's importance to conservatism. He's not the face of contemporary conservatism, as Dreher alleges. That distinction, in my opinion, goes to Rush Limbaugh - whom both Dreher and I often appreciate - and increasingly to Glenn Beck.