It has been interesting to consider the prospects for the stated purpose of Left2Right; that is, for progressives and independents (who happen to think about moral and political issues for a living) to engage in reasoned discourse with right-wingers and conservatives (so-called) about such issues as are presently facing the nation. The comment threads are fairly illuminating on this score. Dividing through by right/left content, it's all too easy (with sadly few exceptions) to identify the right-wingers by their poor skills at writing and argumentation (Leiter notes some examples here, but pretty much any comment thread illustrates my point). Again, I'm dividing through by content. The failures of argumentation that are frequently manifest are the sort that characterize the writing of my worst students, and include attributing claims, views or attitudes to the poster that are nowhere to be found in the post, failure to recognize or address the topic of the post, unsupported or poorly supported claims, and overheated low-level emoting (failed attempts at sarcasm being common).
I've been reading progressive blogs for 1 1/2 years now, and generally the level of analytic and emotional insight is quite high. It has been kind of a shocker to see how the level of discussion degenerates once the righties are invited to the table. All this, by the way, has been consistently tracked by Leiter, who has had quite a bit of experience with failed attempts to rationally debate persons on the right-ward end of the spectrum.
But really, why should I be surprised that right-wingers are generally not very good at good argument ? We progressives really are "bleeding hearts"---not only for all those who are presently being oppressed by the pitiless imperatives of corporate capitalist warfare, but also for those poor suckers who for one reason or another keep shooting themselves in the foot in the voting booth, endorsing various unsustainable prejudices, believing repeatedly refuted falsehoods, willingly submitting to the unlistenable propaganda spewed by Fox News, Bill O'Reilly and the like (or the more sophisticated but equally delirious Wall Street Journal and National Review), and (though it is practically taboo not to do so) gullibly embracing various religious hallucinations. We progressives continue to think: surely such people are not intrinsically stupid, mean, greedy, and/or reprehensibly credulous. Rather, they must be victims of some sort, operating under brainwashed false consciousness, who would embrace the good, the just and the true if only they were made aware of it.
But why think this? If the people who currently hold the prejudiced, factually corrupt views and attitudes that characterize the American right were inclined to be open to exposure of these views as prejudiced and factually corrupt, then (again, with exceptions) they probably would already have given up these views. It's disingenuous to pretend that we think that "intelligent people can disagree" about the value of the progressive agenda. This agenda is correct, by every reasonable factual standard and nearly every reasonable moral standard (such that provincial prejudices and antiquated religious dictates are not enshrined as virtues). And it may well be that those who have failed to perceive its correctness by this point are, shall we say, not operating under appropriate epistemological standards. Supposing so, why think that it is possible to get through to them using reasoned argumentation?
The unfortunate truth is that all this endless handwringing (not so much in Left2Right, but throughout the progressive sphere, as in this week's Nation) about how we can get through to the right may well be a waste of time.
Perhaps it's time to start thinking in different terms about the relation between left and right. Rather than trying to fruitlessly bridge the divide, we need to start protecting ourselves from the right and its agenda. Along these lines, I offer for your illumination the following brilliant post by Mel Gilles, on the Politics of Victimization:
Watch Dan Rather apologize for not getting his facts straight, humiliated before the eyes of America, voluntarily undermining his credibility and career of over thirty years. Observe Donna Brazille squirm as she is ridiculed by Bay Buchanan, and pronounced irrelevant and nearly non-existent. Listen as Donna and Nancy Pelosi and Senator Charles Schumer take to the airwaves saying that they have to go back to the drawing board and learn from their mistakes and try to be better, more likable, more appealing, have a stronger message, speak to morality. Watch them awkwardly quote the bible, trying to speak the new language of America. Surf the blogs, and read the comments of dismayed, discombobulated, confused individuals trying to figure out what they did wrong. Hear the cacophony of voices, crying out, “Why did they beat me?”
And then ask anyone who has ever worked in a domestic violence shelter if they have heard this before.
They will tell you, every single day.
The answer is quite simple. They beat us because they are abusers. We can call it hate. We can call it fear. We can say it is unfair. But we are looped into the cycle of violence, and we need to start calling the dominating side what they are: abusive. And we need to recognize that we are the victims of verbal, mental, and even, in the case of Iraq, physical violence.
As victims we can’t stop asking ourselves what we did wrong. We can’t seem to grasp that they will keep hitting us and beating us as long as we keep sticking around and asking ourselves what we are doing to deserve the beating.
Listen to George Bush say that the will of God excuses his behavior. Listen, as he refuses to take responsibility, or express remorse, or even once, admit a mistake. Watch him strut, and tell us that he will only work with those who agree with him, and that each of us is only allowed one question (soon, it will be none at all; abusers hit hard when questioned; the press corps can tell you that). See him surround himself with only those who pledge oaths of allegiance. Hear him tell us that if we will only listen and do as he says and agree with his every utterance, all will go well for us (it won’t; we will never be worthy).
And watch the Democratic Party leadership walk on eggshells, try to meet him, please him, wash the windows better, get out that spot, distance themselves from gays and civil rights. See them cry for the attention and affection and approval of the President and his followers. Watch us squirm. Watch us descend into a world of crazy-making, where logic does not work and the other side tells us we are nuts when we rely on facts. A world where, worst of all, we begin to believe we are crazy.
How to break free? Again, the answer is quite simple.
First, you must admit you are a victim. Then, you must declare the state of affairs unacceptable. Next, you must promise to protect yourself and everyone around you that is being victimized. You don’t do this by responding to their demands, or becoming more like them, or engaging in logical conversation, or trying to persuade them that you are right. You also don’t do this by going catatonic and resigned, by closing up your ears and eyes and covering your head and submitting to the blows, figuring its over faster and hurts less is you don’t resist and fight back. Instead, you walk away. You find other folks like yourself, 56 million of them, who are hurting, broken, and beating themselves up. You tell them what you’ve learned, and that you aren’t going to take it anymore. You stand tall, with 56 million people at your side and behind you, and you look right into the eyes of the abuser and you tell him to go to hell. Then you walk out the door, taking the kids and gays and minorities with you, and you start a new life. The new life is hard. But it’s better than the abuse.
We have a mandate to be as radical and liberal and steadfast as we need to be. The progressive beliefs and social justice we stand for, our core, must not be altered. We are 56 million strong. We are building from the bottom up. We are meeting, on the net, in church basements, at work, in small groups, and right now, we are crying, because we are trying to break free and we don’t know how.
Any battered woman in America, any oppressed person around the globe who has defied her oppressor will tell you this: There is nothing wrong with you. You are in good company. You are safe. You are not alone. You are strong. You must change only one thing: stop responding to the abuser. Don’t let him dictate the terms or frame the debate (he’ll win, not because he’s right, but because force works). Sure, we can build a better grassroots campaign, cultivate and raise up better leaders, reform the election system to make it failproof, stick to our message, learn from the strategy of the other side. But we absolutely must dispense with the notion that we are weak, godless, cowardly, disorganized, crazy, too liberal, naive, amoral, “loose”, irrelevant, outmoded, stupid and soon to be extinct. We have the mandate of the world to back us, and the legacy of oppressed people throughout history.
Even if you do everything right, they’ll hit you anyway. Look at the poor souls who voted for this nonsense. They are working for six dollars an hour if they are working at all, their children are dying overseas and suffering from lack of health care and a depleted environment and a shoddy education. And they don’t even know they are being hit.
UPDATE: an exchange that clarifies my position. (Maybe dialogue with those on the right can serve a purpose... if not the one intended.)