The Fraying of America: An Explanation
Public discourse in this country, whether it involves an election campaign or a Supreme Court nomination, is often a festival of invective, character-assassination, and incivility.
I am tempted to try to accumulate examples of this phenomenon, but the problem with that is, since this is a broad cultural phenomenon and we are all part of it, the natural reaction will often be something like, "well that one's not a good example, because those particular bastards had it coming."
But surely examples are not necessary. American leftists must know in their hearts that for at least six or seven years their attitude toward GeorgeW. Bush has been one of more or less pure hatred. And those on the other side can remember the eight years of Clinton-hating that preceded that.
The neo-Tocquevillian idea that participating in the modern democratic state is something that draws us together into a national conversation about common goals and aspirations is turning into an ugly joke. What I see, more and more, is mutual hatred and suspicion.
Admittedly, there have been times when the level of discourse was in some ways much worse than it is now. It was no doubt worse on the day in 1855 when Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Senator Charles Sumner senseless on the floor of the Senate with a walking stick. There is another way in which those days were different, aside from being even more angry and hateful: in those days, there was an obvious reason for that anger and hatred. The single issue of slavery set citizens against each other in conflict that admitted little or no compromise.
Today, there is no such single issue. There is a reason, though, and it is one that in a subtle way may be worse that the one that underlay the Brooks-Sumner sort of conflict.
Today, it is the system itself that sets people against each other. When we participate in any political process nowadays, we always face opponents who to seek to impose some coercive policy or other on us. They may want to to spread American-style democracy by deadly means around the world, in your name and at your expense. They may want to provide free health care for all, a policy that is not by any means free. They may want the police to scare you out of your dependence on a variety of substances, from heroin to trans-fats and beyond. The policies I have in mind vary widely, but they all have one thing in common. In every case someone seeks to to achieve some goal that is their and not yours -- whether that goal is to line their own pockets or achieve their personal vision of the good society -- at your expense. There is no way to see this as a positive-sum situation. One man's gain is another's loss. If they win, it is because you lose, and vice versa.
We have reversed von Clausewitiz: Politics is civil war carried out by other means. The really sad truth is that our mutual hatred and suspicion are well grounded and more or less rational.
We, the rest of us, the world minus you, really are your enemies. Every time there is an election, we are trying to thwart your interests and ideals by coercive means and force others on you instead. Aside from the handful of individual rights codified in the Bill of Rights, there really are no limits to what the rest of us are willing to do to you, and will do, if we get the chance.
Of course, alternative systems are conceivable. I can conceive of at least two: 1) We might let the nation state disintegrate into smaller and smaller units, until any given state is inhabited only by people whose interests and standards of value are perfectly harmonious. In many cases, the number of these fellow citizens will be exactly one. This I admit is not very practical. But there is an alternative. 2) We could limit the powers of government to only doing things that are genuinely in everyone's interests, such as maintaining public order and providing certain other "public goods."
I realize we are not going to do either of these things any time soon. But then I do not anticipate the return of civility any sooner than that.
comments powered by Disqus
Gus diZerega - 9/9/2008
My dog is only to retard the destruction of what remains of our free society. I do not have great hopes with the Democrats, but I have no hopes with the Republicans.
Morally corrupt behavior can be 'rational' and still be corrupt.
Lester Hunt - 9/9/2008
You seem to have a dog in this fight. I don't. (And I am certainly not commenting on who should win this miserable election!) I'm just trying to explain why the fight is occurring in the first place. Note that, unlike the participants, and apparently yourself, I am not morally blaming the participants. I am saying that the current system creates a situation in which this otherwise-bad behavior is more or less rational.
Gus diZerega - 9/8/2008
When one side has been the primary (not the only, but definitely the primary) instigator of an abuse, especially a serious one, is to add to the problem. It encourages the worst perps and punishes everyone else. To use an example from someone on the other side to talk of the need for civility is exactly to duplicate a common right wing tactic.
They trot out the civility issue whenever they are strongly criticized, and because anyone can say almost anything on a blog, they like to point to the blogosphere as the villain. The left blogosphere at that. Daily Kos got attacked nationally because of what a someone sent in as a contest entry - and t didn't win.
Now they are trotting out 'sexism' regarding Palin. First, they do not give a damn about sexism. second, to say criticism of a woman equals sexism is exactly the claim the right makes to discredit women's real grievances. It is cynical, dishonest, and contemptable to the core- sort of like someone calling me racist when I criticize Thomas Sowell for advocating a military coup if people he dislikes are elected. (He did, on NRO.)
During a close fought Presidential election probably with the lives of hundreds of thousands of people at stake, if not millions, I think it is essential for any disussion of the civility issue to put it in context. think of the civility shown the Dixie Chicks and find me a equivalent on the other side. You won't. Think of the hate filled miasmas spread by Ann Coulter, who joked about killing people she disliked, Michelle Malkin, who supported concentration camps, Dan Savage who, well,words escape me, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, and on and on. National broadcasters paid millions to spread their poison to millions, not angry blog posters paid nothing and read by very very few. There really is no comparison.
Given their doctrines of the imperial presidency, torture, aggressive war, and other truly demented positions, I think no lover of liberty should hesitate in the least helping defeat the Republicans. Democrats are not great, and if they become a monopoly party they will ultimately get worse, but it is hard to imagine them ever being as great a danger to our liberty as the Republicans.
The best thing for the Republican Party is to be so crushed at the polls that new leaders will be able to offer competition to the Democrats that doesn't involve turning us into a northern version of Mexico's PRI.
Lester Hunt - 9/8/2008
Gus, I had hoped it was clear from my post but I guess I have to say it more directly: I am not taking the "side" of the conservatives in this one. I would rather be sewn inside a leather bag full of angry cats and dogs. My point was that it was the system that brings out this behavior by making it more or less rational. Both the right and the left -- to tell the truth libertarians like myself -- are full of rage and express it in rhetoric that once was considered over the top and off limits. I only opened by with the Palin hate-fest because that is what started me thinking about this -- for the umpteenth time.
Gus diZerega - 9/8/2008
Given that Palin repeatedly and demonstrably lied (i.e.Bridge to Nowhere), and that McCain brought up the pregnancy issue and even had the father on stage at the convention, well, where is the incivility? In the blogosphere where anyone can post anything, I am sure there were cases. None on the scale of Little Gree Footballs,but cases. But why the bizarre one sidedness, bucko?
You talk of incivility. Well, whose patriotism has been questioned in this election? Who was described as preferring we lose a war than he lose an election? What set of millions of Americans was described as unpatriotic by people who showed love of only their pocketbooks and their power and called it patriotism?
People who were critical of the criminals in power.
Who has made a mockery of what remains of the rule of law and the constitution? Who spies on us while preventing citizens from knowing what their elected leaders are doing? The criminals in power.
And we critics are uncivil?
You talk about politics as civil war. Well, the people who explicitly talked that way in recent history are Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, both of who used that terminology. They act in the spirit of Lenin and Trotsky and the Nazi jurist Schmidt, who shared that fundamental belief. No liberal did. Even now few if any do.
You talk about splitting the people as a sign of incivility. Tyrants have split the people for centuries, to ensure their rule by preventing alliances against them. Pat Buchanan urged Nixon to do so during Watergate, writing that he would get "thebigger half." And while it did not save Nixon's presidency, it became SOP for the Republican Party. Kevin Philips said so explicitly many years ago when he was chief Republican advocate for their "Southern strategy." What on earth do you think wedge issues are about except to drive people apart who would otherwise share a lot in common. That is what it means. And Republicans do it every election, deliberately.
Barry Goldwater and john Dean were working on a book, Conservatives Without Conscience, before his death. Dean finished it. It is not a great book, but Dean (and Goldwater) knows what the modern Rethuglican Party has become. Maybe you should read it before slamming "the left."
Obama is not a clear defender of liberty (His craven position on FISA for example) but even so he is infinitely better than the ghastly, truly ghastly, alternative who can be found on every side of nearly every issue, but when the chips are down,never supports freedom beyond the pocketbooks of his wealthy supporters.
So-called libertarians who take their one sided talking points from Karl Rove or people like him are a clear sign of what is wrong, deadly wrong, about the intellectual travesty that some so-called classical liberals have become. The alliance with the right made in the 50s has turned ut to have born terrible fruits indeed.
And when members of the extreme right who have been uncivil for years start bleating when others are finally calling them on their crap, well... GOOD. Mr. Civility, it was you who just wrote that we 'leftists' who oppose what the Republicans are doing are motivated by hatred. How much more uncivil can you get, hypocrite?
- This historian says racism is not a teaching tool
- History Relevance Campaign meets at the Smithsonian
- Bernard Lewis Turns 100
- Jean Edward Smith, biographer of FDR and Ike, has a new biography coming out … of George W. Bush