Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Decline of Rational Disagreement in America?

As a political blogger, I'm highly partisan, but I'm not so blinded by my positions as to completey abjure the appreciation of a good argument.

For example, as I was blogging McCain all last winter, getting highly agitated at times with the intra-party debates over the Arizona Senator, I did find this
American Thinker piece on the Thoughts of a Conservative Suicide Voter compelling.

Sometimes you just have to admire a decent case.

On the Iraq war, a topic on which I've blogged probably more than any other, I rarely disagree with conservative war backers. Yet, while the film "
Stop-Loss" did poorly at the box-office recently - as antiwar movies have failed to find a market - I found, unlike a few of my fellow partisans, some redeeming qualities in the film, for all of its flaws (see ""Stop-Loss": The Thinking Man's Antiwar Movie?').

Particulary, while I disagree with the movie's premise - that stop-loss policy is a back-door draft - some aspects of the movie ring true, and are worthy of deeper consideration:

Americans should see this film, not just for its remarkably genuine battle scenes, but for its portrayal of the real-life costs that are required of citizens in nation not fully at arms. Those who choose to fight take up a burden, one that's not highly praised by much of the population, but one that's essential to the way of life of a free society.
So with these ruminations in mind, I was intrigued to see Susan Jacoby's article at today's Los Angeles Times, where she argues that Americans have grown increasingly hostile to competing perspectives - they're unwilling to listen to opposing views:

A few years ago, I delivered a lecture at Eastern Kentucky University on the history of American secularism, and was pleased, in the heart of the Bible Belt, to have attracted an audience of about 150. The response inside the hall was enthusiastic because everyone there, with the exception of a few bored students whose professors had made attendance a requirement, agreed with me before I opened my mouth.

Around the corner, hundreds more students were packing an auditorium to hear a speaker sponsored by the Campus Crusade for Christ, a conservative organization that "counter-programs" secular lectures at many colleges. The star of the evening was a self-described recovering pedophile who claimed to have overcome his proclivities by being "born again." (And yes, it is a blow to the ego to find oneself less of a draw than a penitent pedophile.)

It is safe to say that almost no one who attended either lecture on the Kentucky campus that night was exposed to a new or disturbing idea. Indeed, virtually everywhere I speak, 95% of the audience shares my political and cultural views -- and serious conservatives report exactly the same experience on the lecture circuit.

Whether watching television news, consulting political blogs or (more rarely) reading books, Americans today have become a people in search of validation for opinions that they already hold. This absence of curiosity about other points of view is the essence of anti-intellectualism and represents a major departure from the nation's best cultural traditions.
Jacoby goes on to put current echo chamber poltics in context, and she puts a lot of the blame on the laziness of Americans themselves:

A vast public laziness feeds the media's predilection today to distill news through polemicists of one stripe or another and to condense complex information into meaningless sound bites. On April 8, for example, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the U.S. armed forces in Iraq, testified before the Senate in hearings that lasted into the early evening. Although the hearings were on cable during the day, the networks offered no special programming in the evening, and newscasts were content with sound bites of McCain, Obama and Hillary Clinton questioning the general. Dueling presidential candidates were the whole story.

Absent from most news reports was testimony concerning the administration's ongoing efforts to forge agreements with various Iraqi factions without submitting the terms to Congress for ratification -- a development with constitutional implications as potentially serious as the Watergate affair. No matter. Anyone who wanted to hear Petraeus bashed or applauded could turn to his or her preferred political cable show or click on a blog to find an unchallenging interpretation of the day's events.

The tepid interest in the substance of Petraeus' testimony on the part of the public and much of the media contrasts sharply with the response to the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973. All 319 hours of the first round of the hearings were televised, and 85% of Americans tuned in to at least some of the proceedings live.
It's interesting that Jacoby uses the Petraeus example to make the case for an apathetic, lackadaisical public.

Particularly so because the case could be made that on an issue like the Bush adminstration's new strategy of the surge, conducted under the auspices of General David Petraeus, exemplifies precisely the worst anti-intellectualism of contemporay American politics.

There a few examples in American history of
a bigger turnaround in U.S. military/strategic fortunes than what's happened over the last 16 months in Iraq.

But there's really no debating these issues among advocates of either side, and both backers and opponents of the war are demonized by the other side as anti-American.

In my personal experience, I find those on the left much less likely to deploy sound argumentation and logic to make a case, and for even making this point, I'll be labeled corrupted or worse - attacked as fascist, racist, or some such other term - by those who oppose my views.

Dr. Sanity, who's also a recipient of some of the nastiest ad hominem attacks imaginable, weighs in on this in her post from Wednesday, "
Heirarchy of Disagreement, " where she posts this chart:

Hierarchy of Disagreement

Note how Dr. Sanity recognizes the facility of occasional name-calling:

I am certainly not immune to using the name-calling at the bottom of this pyramid, but I try to refrain until after I've used some of the strategies at the top.
That's an honest admission, which is another thing that's missing from the irrationalist left: When they're wrong they'll never admit a mistake.

I think the hostility to competing arguments that Jacoby cites is much more than laziness, but outright hatred for those who espouse different views. Such hostility is exascerbated by an intellectual ability to refute them.

As such, it's much easier to hang out with the intellectually like-minded, as disturbing for American intellectual life as that may be.