A pair of columns in the NYT yesterday provides a jumping off point for a discussion of political civility and argument. I first read this piece by Arthur Brooks entitled “The Thrill of Political Hating” that decries political hatred. Brooks intends to make his argument even-handed, implying that both those on the right and on the left can get into political hating. This is true, but only in a limited sense. In the U.S. today, to claim an equal weight of political invective and hatred between right and left doesn’t match reality. At one time, perhaps, in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, but today, with few exceptions, vitriol on the left is largely missing. In fact, much of popular conservatism, I’m talking ordinary Joe and Jane Doe (well, I’d wager John much more than Jane) who might post anonymously and those who feed upon their fears (Fox “News”) and its offspring, hatred. (I’m not referring to most intellectual conservatives, like Arthur or David Brooks, Ross Douthat, David Frum, etc.) The most frightful and disturbing phenomena in much of popular politics today is the fear-driven, angry aspect of so much of popular conservatism. (I think that the phenomenon is much better described as “reactionary” than “conservative”, but I’ll defer to the popular nomenclature for the moment.) I understand those who favor lower-taxes (always), less government (always), and favor the use of violence as a first resort. I don’t agree with these lock-step approaches to running a government, but I understand self-interest. But the frightening and difficult thing about much of popular conservatism stems from its irrational nature, the “what’s the matter with Kansas?” phenomenon. We’re talking about mostly white, blue-collar, marginally employed workers. Their understandable frustration and anger sends them careening into the arms of those who will most likely harm their collective interests. The Koch Brothers and the Koch Brother’s U.S. Congress® aren’t the friends of Americans on the economic margins.
While I agree that hate is not the answer, what do we do with those who cynically exploit those driven by fear? To borrow a stock but relevant example, should we have hated a Hitler? What of those who cynically exploit the less sophisticated to augment their own power and desires? At some point, the messenger is the message. I’m not talking about garden-variety ambition that is the mark of any high-ranking politician. (I was recently shocked that someone like Russ Roberts could object to Hillary Clinton because of her ambition? Really? And what about every person who’s ever held the office of president or wanted to do so?) I’m talking about those for whom all moorings to the public good as an independent goal have loosened, and only private gain, power, and glory drive the office-holder.
Let me hasten to point out that this essay is not entitled “In Defense of Hatred”. In fact, I yearn for the (sort of) good ol’ days when there was dialogue across the aisle. Ronald Reagan provides an example of one who could speak radically (right) and act (relatively) pragmatically. (Reagan, like Clinton, wanted to be liked.) I don’t find personal vitriol useful. Even those with whom I disagree, I hope I can reason with and establish some common ground. For instance, I’ve voted against Charles Grassley every opportunity that I’ve had (100% unsuccessfully) since 1974, but I’m sure I could enjoy a chat with the Senator. I’ve seen him at the airport and at girls' volleyball tournaments by himself, no entourage, and he appears to be modest, unassuming, and pleasant. On the other hand, his attitudes have moved from H.R. Gross conservatism to Tea Party nuttiness. While he’s probably a swell guy, his politics are antediluvian. (The fact that Iowa could elect him and Tom Harkin all of those years shows how “swell guy” counts for more than any particular political stance.)
And what should we make of Brooks’s comments about mockery, citing the work of psychologist John Gottman? I assume that he’s aiming at Jon Stewart and (the late) Stephen Colbert. Sometimes they’ve walked the edge with their mockery, but most of the time their satire and parody have seemed the only appropriate response to some of the inanity that attempts to pass for legitimate political and cultural discourse. A medieval court fool was probably more likely to lose his head than to influence the king’s policy, but in a democratic society, we should cherish the “fools” who mock the pretenses of the powerful. It can edge toward cynicism, but only for the truly cynical at heart. I believe that Jon Stewart and (the late) Stephen Colbert, for all of their mocking and satirical humor, probably are better citizens and persons than many of those whom they mocked.
And for those who post anonymously? Almost always an act of unjustified cowardice and often indicative of the traits that Brooks lists: “sadism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism”. (N.B. “Machiavellianism” is not representative of Machiavelli’s project as a whole.)
Paul Krugman’s column, “Fighting the Derp”, provides a fitting bookend to the Brooks piece. In it, Krugman defines “derp” (courtesy of “South Park”) as “people who keep saying the same thing no matter how much evidence accumulates that it’s completely wrong”. (Query: is “derp” the people who keep promoting the same disproven contentions or the disproven contentions themselves?) In any event, Krugman’s piece raises a couple of important points: How can we distinguish derp from honest policy disagreements based on limited knowledge? And how should we fight derp? As to the first point, Krugman suggests the policy prescriptions and descriptions of reality that don’t vary with changing evidence and circumstances is a strong sign of derp. And we must be on guard within ourselves to avoid derp, primarily by remaining vary cautious about ideas, reports, and recommendations that fit with our preconceptions (the confirmation bias, in Kahneman terms). By the way, Krugman filed a follow-up piece entitled "I Do Not Think That Derp Means What You Think It Means", further defining and distinguishing the issues.
Thus I think that I’m resolved to hate derp (the phenomena) and love (as best I can can) the derper (my word of the person conveying the derp), a variant on the Christian injunction to hate the sin but to love the sinner. But I must say, I reserve a sense of caution about a serial derper, about this person’s intelligence and, more importantly, about this person’s ethics. I’m loath the trust a serial derper.
And as to public debate and intellectual battle—let it fly! Let me end with this quote from C.S. Lewis, no stranger to intellectual combat:
Do not misunderstand. I am not in the least deprecating your insults; I have enjoyed these twenty years l’honneur d’etre une cible and am now pachydermatous. I am not even rebuking your bad manners; I am not Mr. Turveydrop and “gentlemanly deportment” is not a subject I am paid to teach. What shocks me is that students, academics, men of letters, should display what I had thought was an essentially uneducated inability to differentiate between a disputation and a quarrel. The real objection to this sort of thing is that it is all a distraction from the issue. You waste on calling me liar and hypocrite time you ought to have spent on refuting my position.
Zaleski, Philip; Zaleski, Carol (2015-06-02). The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams (p. 472). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
To this I say, "Amen".