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Restoring Political Discourse

Posted by Rick · September 8th, 2004 · 2 Comments

Mark King disagrees with a comment I posted in response to him on the issue of what, for lack of a more succinct way of putting it, I’ll call the “sincerity” of rank-and-file Republicans. Specifically, Mark says,

I must disagree with your thesis that all of those who follow the Repugnicant talking-points are blissfully ignorant of what they are saying and the kind of fascism they are supporting. See comments posted to my article entitled “Kerry ‘Honored’ by Hanoi War Crimes Museum,” September 4, 2004.

Well, first, there’s a minor correction to make here. And it’s a correction that actually goes to helping make my point.

I never said, “all,” so Mark isn’t really disagreeing with my thesis. My thesis, to the extent that it deserves such a lofty title, is at best that the majority of the Republican rank-and-file really believe what they purport to believe, i.e., among other things, that the Republican Party is better aligned with their ideals than the Party of the Democrats. I happen to think the majority of Republicans are wrong about that. I don’t think they’re making an informed decision, though, and hence they are not intentional supporters of evil.

Mark also notes,

The vast majority of the Repugnicants are happy knowing that the true will of the majority Florida voters was thwarted by five members of one court. They think fascism is sexy and/or manly somehow. I don’t think they are as ignorant as you appear to believe. See comments posted to my article entitled “Kerry ‘Honored’ by Hanoi War Crimes Museum,” September 4, 2004.

Supposedly, the fictional Sherlock Holmes once said something to the effect of “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth.” This is always balanced out by Occam’s Razor, “entities must not be multiplied beyond what is necessary”; with several possibilities of varying probability left, you have to weigh them one against the other.

In this case, we don’t need some grand conspiracy of otherwise ordinary Americans, who happen to be Republicans, to explain how the Republican Party is able to get away with decimating our Constitution and our Nation. You can, after all, fool all of the people some of the time and fool some of the people all of the time. And no one — not even Republican Party leaders — is wrong all the time. Mix in some good with the bad and people are more easily lead astray.

As Montesquieu said, “Corruption seldom begins with the people.” Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws 42 (Anne Cohler et al, eds., 1989) (1748). Furthermore, “[i]n a government that lasts a long time, one descends to ills by imperceptible degrees, and one climbs back to the good only with an effort.” Id. at p. 49.

My own feeling is that we are sliding into “ills” rather rapidly, but not so rapidly that everyone recognizes it. “The senate must, above all, be attached to the old institutions and see that the people and the magistrates never deviate from these.” Montesquieu, supra, at p. 49. In this case, the old institutions would be the same ones that grew out of Montesquieu’s work: The Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. The more familiar one is with those works, the more horrifying what is happening to our country appears and the more rapidly we seem to be sliding towards the end of democracy as we’ve known it for over 200 years. But “recalling men to the old maxims usually returns them to virtue.” Ibid. And this is best done when we avoid intentionally and unduly insulting them.

I firmly believe that most people intend good most of the time. And I’m even more convinced that most people desire their own interests most of the time; no one intentionally shoots themselves in the foot. (Not even George Bush.) Mark himself has pointed out to me on occasion that your approach to others has an impact on how well-received you are.

In reviewing Mark’s assessment of Republican rank-and-file on the Florida issue, it seems clearly wrong that they are “happy knowing” that the Supreme Court (in a 5-4 split, by the way, which is itself significant) “thwarted” the will of the voters. Personally, I think it’s absurd to claim that the majority — particularly the “vast majority” — of a group of voters are pleased that the will of the voters was thwarted. It makes much more sense to think that they don’t believe this is what happened. And, indeed, I’m pretty sure if you asked even the most obnoxious of Florida Republicans, they would simply disagree with the premises that the Supreme Court thwarted the voters and that Gore, in reality, won. To the extent that they’re happy, they are happy because they believe — whether rightly or wrongly — that the process worked and their guy really won. And as for them not being “as ignorant as [I] appear to believe,” it seems to me that it’s a much greater ignorance that is attributed to such people by Mark. Anyone who truly believes that the best way to maintain our country, when our very greatness is built on 200 years of constitutionally-guided republican democracy — remember that “republican democracy” is a term used by Montesquieu and adopted by our Founders; it doesn’t mean “Republican” as in “the Republican Party” — anyone who believes that the best way to maintain such a country is by ignoring and subverting the Constitution is much more ignorant than someone who has been mislead by persistent and skillful marketing into believing that what is being done is only done in conformance to the constitutional ideals upon which our nation was built. So, in fact, I’m the one arguing that the American people deserve more credit. They are too smart to believe that dismantling the Constitution is what’s best for our country; instead, they are tricked into thinking what’s being done is not destructive of constitutional ideals and is beneficial to us. In short, it’s not that they believe “fascism is sexy and/or manly somehow” so much as that they don’t believe what’s being done represents fascism.

But even if, in part, Mark was correct in his assessment, there’s a way that’s fairly guaranteed to stop people from listening to what one tries to tell them. Call them names. Insult them deliberately and mercilessly.

Can I claim to have mastered that lesson myself so that I avoid doing these things? Heck no. You know me. And if you didn’t, you’ve read some of the things I’ve written here. It’s not as if I never stick my foot in my own mouth. It’s not as if I always assiduously avoid making fun of people or calling them names. And, even if I didn’t slip up from time to time, most people don’t want to be told they’re wrong.

There’s an interesting idea from my Evidence class at the law school that seems to fit here. As the legal types reading this blog may know, one of the questions asked regarding evidence is whether the material to be admitted is more prejudicial than probative. The question is of unfair prejudice, though; because if someone is on trial for a crime, any evidence that they committed the crime is, in some sense, prejudicial. To the extent that such evidence — rightfully admissible — convinces you that the defendant committed the crime, it’s prejudicial. Naturally, then, we can’t exclude all evidence that’s prejudicial; our goal is to avoid undue or unfair prejudice.

In the same way, when I argue against policies that I’m convinced are harmful, people who support those policies are going to be somewhat insulted even if I’m right and even if they ultimately come to realize I’m right. When people sincerely believe something, arguing against those sincere beliefs is tantamount to insulting them in the same way that supplying evidence against someone in a trial is tantamount to prejudicing the trier-of-fact (e.g., a jury) against them.

The trick, then, is similar to what happens in the courtroom. There, we attempt to avoid undue prejudice; here, we attempt to avoid undue insult.

This is particularly important because none of us can be correct about everything. Assume for the moment that Mark, me and others like us are right: Republican policies, in general, are harmful to the United States. Even when you assume that’s all true, it’s not necessarily true that everything we say or observe in discussing this point is necessarily true. Particularly, for example, one of us could be completely on target in believing Republican policies are harmful while simultaneously being completely off target in thinking that most Republicans understand this and nevertheless choose to endorse those views anyway.

It seems important to me to try — even if I ultimately fail — to create an environment where people can talk. Sure, I believe I’m right about what I believe. Don’t you? I mean, don’t you believe you’re right about what you believe? Anyone who thought they were wrong would most likely change. They would drop beliefs they thought were wrong and latch onto new ones they believed were right. To the extent that I think I’m right, I maintain this blog for two reasons. One of them is to communicate to others what I think is right, in hopes they’ll adopt those views themselves. After all, I think they’re right! Why shouldn’t someone want to adopt them?

At the same time, believe it or not, I read everything people write here, even when I disagree, with an eye towards seeing if I’m missing something. (This is true for all except for one person, who I long ago realized would not write a cogent argument based upon anything resembling truth; his stuff, I merely skim.) This is one reason I miss the more timid folk like Abi Sutherland and Bob Marcotte. I usually, but not always, agreed with Abi; I less often, but still often enough, agreed with Bob. When I disagreed with them, I learned from both. After someone else — not me — criticized a posted comment here, the writer of the original comment wrote me and said, “See? That is why I don’t post comments to your blog.” My response to that individual was that I believe we learn more from those who disagree with us than from those with whom we always agree, at least so long as they’re engaged in honest discourse. (Although, I suppose, one can learn even from those who engage in dishonest discourse; it’s just less rewarding.)

The struggle — for me, anyway — is to find a way to let this happen without alienating people. It’s nice to find people who always agree with you on everything. The fact that people can so widely disagree must not tempt us to assume them “all” intentionally evil, even if the result of their holding particular views is, ultimately, evil. If, as I think, we learn when we disagree, it’s all the more important to avoid this tempatation regarding one another’s motivations.

And to the extent that we really do think we’re right and that we really must convince others to change course before too much damage is done, we must find a way to engage them that does not unduly insult them. At least if we want to have any hope of swaying them.

To do otherwise deprives us of an opportunity to work communally to improve life for all of us.

Categories: Politics-In-General


2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Chepooka // Sep 8, 2004 at 3:35 pm

    I think you raise some really interesting points to ponder.

    I agree with you that most people have good intentions. Some of them are ignorant, and I hardly blame them for that – ignorance is bliss. I also believe that most people that enter into public service do so with good intentions.

    (Hell, Hitler thought he was “right” and from his perspective, his intentions were good.)

    Some people, though, are fully and enthusiastically supportive of the neo-con and/or evangelical agenda. They are not dumb, they are smart like foxes.

    These people prey on our weakness – that is, our fear and our ignorance. The founding fathers were paranoid, fearful of this – of tyrany, of zealotry, of too much power concentrated in one place. Why aren’t “we”?

    I will not give up on the portion of the population that doesn’t know any better. In many contexts, I participate in respectful discourse with people who disagree with my point of view. I can guarantee that even if I haven’t changed a mind (and I think I have a time or two), I at least gave them something to think about. This happens ONLY, as you suggest, when you don’t insult them, but rather, when you RESPECT them.

    However, when it comes to my blog, that is hardly the purpose. I suppose that I need to VENT and express my anger at those people that are NOT ignorant, but willfully trying to change the landscape of our country, the definition of America itself.

    I think that progressives have a tendency to be too accomodating to other points of view, too open-minded if you will. But sometimes, they are just WRONG. No question, no courtesy – they are just wrong.

    To preserve and restore the vision of America that we’ve lived with for over 200 years – that just might take more of a fight. I believe that we are struggling for the right ideological course for this country. I don’t know that you can always win by being polite. Not when you’ve got people like Karl Rove at the helm.

    Am I getting a bit too cynical for my own good or what? lol

  • 2 Rick // Sep 8, 2004 at 4:54 pm

    I don’t think you’re cynical in the least.

    My own blog isn’t really aimed at providing me the opportunity to vent, although I suppose it sometimes serves that purpose. I started it because I wanted an opportunity to share my views and participate in discussions about them.

    Over time, it has evolved to include that primary goal, but — in the face of what I see as actually the last decade (or two) before the Constitution is utterly meaningless (the end, I think, will be signaled not by the final snuffing of civil rights, which is nearly the case now, but when Arnie succeeds in getting the Constitution amended to allow non-American-born “citizens” to be eligible for the Presidency) — it now includes attempting to educate about the purpose and meaning of our kind of republic.

    There is no doubt in my mind that what we’re seeing in the Bush Administration, particularly because of the corporate involvement, is the closest any nation has come to reversing the Enlightenment since it began. We are, in my opinion, literally setting the stage for a return to serfdom. Already, large segments of our population live pretty close to the same lifestyle as the serfs of the Dark Ages. It’s just more difficult to identify the Nobles than it used to be. (I’m talking about visually. In the Dark Ages, people could spot the Noblemen; today, they hide behind legal entities called “Corporations.”)

    In that sense, we’re worse off than the serfs of old in some ways. At least they knew they were serfs. Serfs these days often don’t believe they’re serfs. “I don’t live in a thatched hut tending sheep!,” they think. And somehow they believe that makes all the difference in the world. That they have as much power in our society as serfs of old had in theirs doesn’t open their eyes to their plight; they willingly pass their wealth and power to the modern-day nobility.

    And nowhere do I find this more tragic than in the United States, whose Constitution was perhaps the apotheosis of the Enlightenment.

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