Monday, August 4, 2008

Surrendering Reason to Hate?

Rick Moran's morning essay made me think about what I do as an online commentator.

The piece is a lengthy discourse on the craft of blogging. Moran explains his motives and development as an online writer, discussing some of the ups and downs of the trade. Of particular note is his discussion of partisan flame wars and the demonization of the other. Moran is introspective:

If my blog attracted only those who usually agreed with me and thought I was the bee’s knees when it came to commentary, blogging would be a marvelous daily exercise. But there is another side to blogging that most of us never talk about; the relentless, daily pounding of negativism, hurtful epithets, and outright spewing hatred that arrives in the form of comments and emails from the other side as well as other blogs linking and posting on something I’ve written.

We all like to think of ourselves as having thick skins and that such criticism rolls off our backs and never affects us. This is the macho element in blogging, one of its more unattractive and dishonest aspects. In this, some of us feel obligated to give back in kind, something I have done on too many occasions to count. Yes, I regret it. And believe me, I have often been the initiator of such ugliness.

Still, there are many bloggers on both the right and left who shame me with their equanimity in the face of the most virulent and nasty personal attacks. Ed Morrissey comes to mind on the right. The folks at Crooked Timber and Obsidian Wings on the left are generally cool in the face of such criticism as well.

But this is not a confessional post where I recognize my sins and ask forgiveness. I am what I am and doubt I will change. Rather, it is my intent to highlight the fact that despite my predilection for using violent language in my defense or to ridicule my political opponents, I have always granted them a certain rough integrity in their beliefs – that they are wrongheaded not evil; that they are arrogant and stupid, not unpatriotic or that they hate America.
Read the whole thing at the link (as well as the great additional resources, here and here). There's some conjecture as to whether longitudinally politics is nastier today than, say, 100 years ago. But one of the essay's payoffs is the (sort-of) suggestion of what-goes-around-comes-around for partisan attack-masters:

Those who accuse all liberals of being unpatriotic or un-American perhaps have no cause to grumble when an equally malicious lie like “racist” is directed at them. But having such an epithet tossed in my direction – especially as it has been done recently – I find to be reflective of a mindset that is terrified of open debate and thus resorts to twisting semantics in order to obscure a flawed critique. They can’t argue the issues so the magic word is applied and debate instantly ceases.
I think the conclusion here - that weaknesses in rational argumentation are remedied by resort to argumentum ad hominem - is basically right, although I'd suggest that the point about arguing that "all liberals" are unpatriotic (or pacifist, or irreligious, etc.), needs a bit of elaboration.

I started blogging precisely to combat the anti-Americanism and postmodern nihilism that had infected debates on America's post-9/11 foreign policy. At first I was a bit surprised when attacked as "racist" (or fascist, or Nazi, or neocon warmonger, etc.). But I soon realized, seriously, that these were people who would do me physical harm if they had the chance, or at least some have said.

But I differ in debate from my antagonists in that I seek to maintain a morality of reason in argumentation. Sometimes I'm sloppy by attacking the "left" in general, but when I deploy terms like "nihilist" it's in the descriptive, analytical sense, rather than as an effort to inflict emotional or psychological pain. In other words, there's a ontological basis to my partisan repudiations. I seek to understand and explain what's underlying the postmodern hatred of the anti-everything sensibilities of the American left.

For example, I'm coming around to fuller understanding of the notion of secular demonology.

While certainly both sides engage in extremist attacks on the other, there appears to be a difference in the attack culture of central players in the partisan debates. Folks like those at Daily Kos and Firedoglake, for example, are the netroots base of the Democratic Party, people who are embraced and recruited in the partisan battles of left-wing establishment politics. This is not true on the right, for the most part. While I'm sure some comment threads at major conservative blogs get out of hand on occasion, it is not the explicit policy of conservatives to demonize their foes (while
Daily Kos openly advocates it).

The most recent outburst of left-wing demonization involved
last week's shootings at Unitarian Universalist Church in Tennessee. The leftists became positively unglued, seeing in Jim David Adkisson a footsoldier of conservative hatred. The actions of a lone, unstable killer became the basis for smearing the entire GOP universe.

Elizabeth Scalia discusses how Adkisson's case illuminates our frequent descents into partisan recrimination:

Initial reports were that Adkisson had “problems with Christians.” Later reports suggested he also had “problems” with “the liberal movement” and with gays. Predictably, people on both the right and left immediately staked out claims of victimhood and identified each other as the true culprits upon whom both blame and condemnation must rain down. “They” inspired Adkisson to kill those worshipers, no, to kill those progressives, no, to kill those … those …

Those human beings.

If you’re wondering who “they” is, “they” is us, losing a little more of our shared humanity every day, as we increasingly insulate ourselves away from the “others” who do not hold the same worldview as we do. We label ourselves as belonging to some respectable group of believers, or agnostics, or liberals, or conservatives, and we live, work, socialize, and blog — as much as life will allow — amongst our “respectable” peers, in our “respectable” echo chambers. We label the “others” as disrespectable and then commence disrespecting.

It begins with name-calling, which seems so innocuous, so sandbox. Well, name-calling is infantile behavior, but it is hardly innocuous. As marijuana is to heroin, name-calling is to diminished humanity — the gateway. It begins the whole process of dehumanization. Call someone a name and they immediately become “less human” to you, and the less human they seem, the easier they are to hate and to destroy. A “fetus,” after all, is easier to destroy than a “baby.”

Thus, George W. Bush is “Chimpy McHitler.” Hillary Clinton is “a pig in a pantsuit.” Barack Obama is “O-Bambi.” Cindy McCain, who has exhibited some
courage and laudable compassion in her life, is reduced to a “pill-popping beer-frau,” and so forth. From there it is smooth sailing down an ever-descending river of hatred, until we are incapable of seeing anything good in the “other,” both because we have willfully hardened our hearts, and because our hate — especially when it is supported by a group of like minds — feels safe and inviolable.

Recently I asked rabid Bush-haters if they could manage to say “one good thing” about the president. Predictably, they could not.

They are capable of sarcasm: “One good thing is he will die someday.” “One good thing is that he can’t serve three terms.” Once, when pressed, someone sneered: “He managed to marry a librarian who could read and explain books to him.”
Scalia notes that both sides do it - both sides are unwilling to find that "one good thing" to say about their political enemies. They're ready to "surrender reason to hate."

While I don't disagree altogether, it seems that most of the recent examples of surrendering to hate can be found on the left, for example following the deaths of
Tim Russert, Jesse Helms, and Tony Snow. Robert Novak's announcement last week of illness offered another opportunity for left-wing demonization.

In contrast, when Senator Edward Kennedy was rushed to the hospital in May, to be diagnosed with a brain tumor, I found
nothing but well-wishing across the conservative blogosphere.

Ben Johnson offered an explanation for all of this in "
Kennedy's Illness, and the Left's." At base, for Johnson, there appears to be a deficit of the soul on the left, an absence of divine grace. This gap removes a prohibitive moral restraint in left-wing partisans and preconditions them to cheer the pain, suffering, and demise of conservatives.

I've gone even further in suggesting that Marxist ideology - which guides the class conscious, anti-imperialist project of contemporary "progressives" - provides leftists with
a doctrine of hatred, a political demonology to drive the dehumanization campaigns against their opponents:

As a kind of universal secular Church, Marxism succeeded, in a historically unprecedented way, in satisfying the ideological, political, and psychological needs of marginalized and alienated intellectuals scattered all over the world. It became the first secular Umma of intellectuals....

Marxism has always been little more than pseudo-universalism, a false promise of intellectual and moral universalism, for an exclusive ideology, by definition, cannot be universalistic. Far from a symbolic design for human fellowship and peaceful coexistence of societies, cultures, and civilizations, Marxism rests on the assumption of radical evil and also on the quest for enemies.
This quest for enemies consumes far left-wing partisans. It is an endless search seeking to delegitimize and dehumanize those who would threaten the safety of a secular, redistributionist world of exclusive false brotherhood and psychological security.

This is why I think there are variations in the propensity to surrender to hate. The left's psychopolitical agenda is "
clothed in darkness." It is this very difficult for them to find that "one good thing" about those with whom they differ.