American Culture

Election 2016: defining discourse down, again

I noted in a Facebook post the other day that the current political environment is reminding me of the early 2000s and the run-up to the Iraq invasion. I still believe this, and further thought has only deepened my concern. People seem to be losing their bearings, and since it’s happening to people I have often respected in the past, this is a bit disorienting. But it seems as if battle lines, once again, are being drawn, and I’m happy with neither the situation that’s developing, nor with the likely outcomes.

What concerned me then, and what concerns me now, is the extremes to which political alignment can go—what Eric Hoffer would have called the True Believer effect. This is hardly new, but it is still surprising when it occurs in unexpected places. Back then, it was clear that following 9/11, a number of people I respected and enjoyed reading had lost their bearings—or at least I thought they had. So I suddenly found myself on the opposite side of a major policy debate with people like Christopher Hitchens. I always had enjoyed reading Hitchens—he was thoughtful, a lively and elegant writer, and funny as hell much of the time. Best of all, he was almost always on the same side, and he made my arguments much better than I ever could, and the points on which we differed were trivial. Iraq changed that, and I thought changed him as well. Yes, he lived in DC, and was part of the intelligentsia there, in spite of being British to the core. But other intelligentsia (James Fallows, Michael Kinsley, and notably Paul Krugman) didn’t go down the same road, although there were a whole lot who did. And I thought it changed Hitchins—his intolerance levels rose, as did his condescension and outrage against those who didn’t share his commitment. So his books departed, sadly, from my library.

Hitchins wasn’t alone. Other writers for whom I had some fondness and respect went the same way. Victor Davis Hanson, whom I thought usually had informed and intelligent things to say about Greek democracy and the state of American agriculture, became an aggressive war hawk, and popular on the conservative speaking circuit by insulting people like me. Like Hitchins, his books no longer deserved a place in my library, so they went too. Here in the UK, Nick Cohen became enraged because I couldn’t understand what a bad man Saddam Hussein was, since that was the ineluctable conclusion of my failure to support military action to take him out. The list here is surprisingly long. Obviously, Tom Friedman—he who suggested that France be voted out of the Security Council because of their opposition to the war– was no surprise, but I never respected him in the first place (or would call him an intellectual), and this was highly predictable anyway. Jacob Weisberg and Peter Beinart were a bit more surprising, although I understood that people with a connection to, or just sympathy for, Israel might have a somewhat different view of a leader who cheerfully lobbed missles at Israel the previous decade—so I could persuade myself that I got that. (Both, along with a number of others, eventually recanted—still, thanks a lot.) And not everyone had this connection–Andrew Sullivan, for example, who at the time regarded people like me as traitorous. And not just Americans—remember when Vaclav Havel was gushing support for Bush? The admirable (and sorely missed) Tony Judt penned a good essay about this phenomenon (Bush’s Useful Idiots), and Frank Rich in 2014 penned an excellent analysis of how the Iraq war poisoned everything here. As Mark Danner observed, “We live in a world the Iraq War has made.”

Much of this took place in pre-blogging times—or, more precisely, when blogging was coming along and journalists still didn’t get it. But in 2002 it seemed as if it was largely the blogging community that passed for relative sanity at the time, and the MSP, as embodied by the Iraqi coverage in The New York Times (remember Judith Miller?), had been co-opted by the pro-war establishment. But since then, of course, the blogging community has become considerably more fragmented and diverse, and it shows.

So the current polarization between Bernie and Hillary supporters is starting to resemble the kind of battle lines drawn in 2002-2003. Full disclosure—I’m a Bernie guy. I think my reasons for being so are sound and well thought out. But that’s not the point. We’ve moved so far past that point that what passes for political debate has become farcical. I’m not a fan of Hillary, also for what I think are pretty good reasons. But I could be persuaded by some argument based on, you know, reason and evidence.  It’s an Enlightenment thing. But that’s not what I’m getting, and it’s surprising me who I’m not getting this from. (I note that Republican and conservative bloggers have their own issues to deal with these days—I should be sympathetic, but they’re the ones who reduced political debate to the level that we are currently operating at to begin with, so my sympathies are limited.)

Starting with Paul Krugman seems almost too easy, but I was a fan of Krugman for a long time—there were times when it seemed as if he was the only voice of reason out there (on the scale of being a columnist for The New York Times.) He was perhaps the only person in the NYT stable who opposed the Iraq invasion from the start. What do I get now? This. This is argument? This reflects thought? It comes across as a screed full of hostility, insult and condescension, in spite of its pretense to civility. Why would I want to engage in a debate on that level? Debate is actually foreclosed here.

Other examples appear at a rush, uninvited, but standing in the doorway anyway. John Cole over at Balloon Juice did offer a reasoned rationale for his support of Hillary several months ago. It was one I didn’t necessarily agree with, but I understood how he got there. Since then, however, he’s gone increasingly off the registration, and his comments are starting to look, well, just strange. I like Cole, but I’m tired of being insulted—so he’s gone, or, more accurately, I am. Mark Kleiman has become unreadable on this subject, and since I don’t actually have to read him, I won’t. That’s the great thing about the intertubes—you can be a selective as you want. Less strident, but still notable, examples include Daily Kos, whose biases got a bit too much, and even Josh Marshall, who for a while there sounded a bit less impartial when the Hillary/Bernie issue came up—although both, thankfully, seem to have become a bit more balanced recently. What mainly appears to be the issue, aside from the obvious fact that all Bernie supporters are just plain rude with no respect for their elders, is…well, what, exactly? Our immaturity? Our flabby thinking and reliably poor judgment? Our unreasonableness? It’s hard to say, but all of these claims are thrown about repeatedly, and the level of invective keeps rising. The response here will undoubtedly be “nya nya, you guys started it.” Well, that sort of response doesn’t help, even if it were true.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a case to be made for Hillary—Kareem makes one here. And it’s the sort of case that I would expect to be able to have a conversation with Kareem about, if I should ever be so lucky. Kareem, notably, does not take this to the level that Krugman (and thousands of blog commentators, it seems) take this to, for which I am grateful. But I also think a rational case can be made for Bernie and against Clinton—Naomi Klein makes what I believe is a persuasive case here, and Daniel Larison makes an equally valid one here, for a different reason.

Not everyone will agree, of course. But these are political disagreements, and should be treated as such. These are not moral failings, and I’m no longer in the mood for being treated as if they were. I have voted more or less straight Democrat for the last 45 years (except when we lived in Rhode Island in the 1970s, of course). Over that period I have watched, with increasing dismay and bafflement, the Democratic Party lurch further and further to the right, and watched core issues be compromised so much that they are barely recognizable any more. But that’s a political debate I am prepared to have. What I am no longer prepared to do is engage with anyone who starts out by insulting me.

1 reply »

  1. “These are not moral failings, and I’m no longer in the mood for being treated as if they were.”

    Best sentence I’ve read in a while. Thank you Wufnik.