Saturday, December 26, 2009

On Purity and Purges and the War of Ideas

Not very long after the 2004 elections, a friend of mine, a Progressive to his very core, convinced me to attend a Drinking Liberally event at a pub in town. He knew I kept up on politics and the news, and that I've been known to enjoy the occasional free exchange of ideas among friends and strangers alike. He'd been to a couple such events, and said he'd be interested to see what I'd make of the whole thing. Being a one to enjoy both lively discussion and the tipping back of a pint or two, I was happy to oblige.

Now remember, this happened at a time when George W. Bush had just won reelection and been sworn in for another four years, which led, as you might expect, to a great deal more swearing on the part of nearly everyone to the Left of Center in these United States. The folks at Drinking Liberally, doctrinaire liberals to a one (with the exception of myself) were not happy, and, having done a little liberal drinking, were more than happy to vent.

I won't go too deeply into the discussion, as the details didn't really stick even at the time, but the thing that struck me then, and sticks with me now, was the fervor of the crowd, most especially of the two guys who spoke loudest and most (again, with the exception of myself; I am a well-known loudmouth when it comes to a good argument). To be honest, the whole thing was probably more therapeutic than substantial, and while I understand the value of catharsis, I lose patience when it bleeds over into substantive policy discussion.

What really got to me, in the end, was that the proposal on the table, which almost everybody there seemed to accept as just the most natural and obvious thing, was that what really needed to happen in the wake of such a painful electoral defeat was a purge of the unbelievers, the DINOs of the world, who, though they may have registered or run as Democrats, were not sufficiently fervent in their left-wingitude (anybody who thinks the crazy is confined solely to the right extreme of the spectrum is sadly mistaken, alas) to pass muster, and had muddied up the message. These were the folks who'd come out early and hard for Howard Dean, who'd descended on Iowa in their hundreds and thousands, canvassing door to door, phone-banking, handing out literature, sure in their convictions and their campaign's deep, deep pockets, and delivered their man a singularly unimpressive third place finish in the caucuses, but who still became wild enough at the 'victory' celebration to call forth the famous 'Dean Scream' that doomed Dean to sideshow status.

The logic, and I'm not making this up, was that if only the Democratic party could undertake a massive purge of everyone to the right of, say, Ralph Nader, that the Progressive message, muddied as it had been by the fact that the Democratic party is not made up entirely of Progressives, would be allowed finally to shine through, its self-evident awesomeness immediately and uncritically convincing everyone in the country and possibly even the world of its Truth, Beauty, and total Righteousness, therefore causing a massive swing to the Left of the entire country and possibly even the world.

It's one of those things that might make perfect sense in your head, but when you say it out loud, you (or at least the people around you) realize that, actually, it's not really very smart at all.

For a while, after Barack Obama won the election, you could see the same thing happening on the Right. The Tea Party movement, such as it is, represents exactly the same process as the folks at that Drinking Liberally get-together were espousing. In the case of the Tea Party folks, they've even gone so far as to lose their chosen party a seat that it'd held for more than a century, by endorsing Doug Hoffman over Dede Scozzafava, who was too moderate for their tastes, thus handing the seat to Kirsten Gillibrand [see below]. The folks behind the move, like RedState's Erick Erickson, are so loony as to consider it a victory, since the squishy 'moderate' Republican lost the seat, thus sending a message to the rest of the caucus to pander to the crazies or else beware.

[CORRECTION: As JC pointed out in comments, it was actually Bill Owens who won the NY-23 seat, not Kirsten Gillibrand. That's what I get for not double-checking my all-too-fallible memory. D'oh!]

Now we're seeing it on the Left again. It's gotten so out of hand that there have been calls to oust Bernie Sanders, who is a SOCIALIST, from his Senate seat, because he's endorsed the Senate's Health Care bill. I'm sure from the angry place that such calls originate from, it makes perfect sense, but take a step or two away from the crazy and you have to wonder just what these people are thinking. I realize they're upset because electing Barack Obama did not immediately and magically change the nature and rules of politics in America, which most every sensible and right-thinking person does want, but when a Socialist isn't Progressive enough for you, you have gone off the deep end. For realz.

But what I really want to talk about is this: to issue demands, and to call for purges of the insufficiently ideologically pure misses the point of both Democracy and the Free Marketplace of Ideas. To demand that everybody think like you because of the self-evident awesomeness of your ideas and beliefs is childish. To take your bat and ball and go home because everybody else doesn't want to play the game just like you do is even more so. If you believe your ideas and ideology really are the best of all possible ideas and ideology, then you should have faith of their power to convince others, and you should be willing to engage in the competitive marketplace of ideas on a fair and square, level playing field.

Look, part of the basic respect that you're supposed to have for your fellow travelers through this life and this universe includes allowing them to decide for themselves what they think is right and why they might think that. If what you think is right differs from that, well, then by all means engage them in a free exchange of ideas. Open their minds, if you can, to the virtues of your own beliefs, and, even more importantly, open your own mind to what they have to say. There's not a soul in the world that's got this whole thing figured out, and it is not only possible but almost certainly the case that there's something you haven't thought of that'd be worth your time to figure out and maybe even integrate into your own worldview, something that might expand your horizons and make your own living-world richer and more rewarding.

That said, I am still a firm believer in not arguing with fools, not only because passersby might not be able to tell the difference, but because I think it makes you dumber, and, at least in my case, it sure as hell makes me angrier (I find it difficult to suffer fools gladly, especially when they are so fully convinced of their rightness that they're unwilling to even hear out the other side in a discussion). Opinions are indeed like assholes. Everybody's got one, and they all stink. But if you do really have the courage of your convictions, you owe it to your beliefs to engage with those who don't share them. But the object is to convince, not to demand conformity. If your ideas are robust enough to survive the crucible of the War of Ideas, then you shouldn't have to demand they be uncritically accepted. And if you have to demand that acceptance, well, your ideas are probably not strong enough to survive and triumph on their own merits, and you maybe ought to think about reconsidering them.

1 comment:

JC said...

I agree with your post, Dallas. Just wanted to make a little correction: it was Bill Owens (D) who won the congressional seat in NY's 23rd district after Scozzafava stepped down. Gillibrand is our senator.
Sorry for being annoying. :)