The way is dark, the light is dim

15 01 2011

So I was going to write something about civility in politics.

Three times, I was going to write something about civility in politics—even had a header for one of ’em—but then I remembered: Been there, done that.

I think civility is a fine thing, and as mentioned in a very early post, I very much like the idea of going at it hammer and tongs with someone—and then eating pie.

Argument and pie: What could be better?

I still believe that. But I also believe that, in the face of incivility, tut-tutting about the rudeness of the other fellow is of no use; no, the correct response is tit-tatting: if he broke a metaphorical bottle over your head, and if you don’t like having metaphorical bottles broken over your head, then you smash one over his. If he comes back with a verbal fist to the face, then a lexical plank upside the head is appropriate.

Do not let the adversary get away with anything. Make him pay. And when he gets tired of being bloodied—and acts accordingly—then so should you.

The rules of politics are set and enforced by the participants, so if you want civility, you not only have to practice that civility, you have to enforce it—which means you have to punish incivility.

There is no other way.


It should be obvious that what works in politics does not necessarily work in, say, intimate or even collegial relationships, nor, for that matter, in the practice of science or in the arts or religion. (The truly interesting question is whether these gladiatorial tactics are appropriate to war—but I leave that to the military strategists among you.) My understanding of politics is predicated on conflict; my understanding of friendship is not.


I don’t think the Tea Partiers are fascists anymore than I thought GW Bush was Hitler, and any such comparisons are as sloppy and mendacious as those linking Obama to Stalin or Osama bin Laden.

“Sloppy and mendacious”: But what if people really are afraid that Obama is a Secret Musselman in thrall to an anti-colonialist anti-American communist conspiracy?

Grow up.

The evidence is lacking, just as evidence that Bush planned the hijackings on Sept 11 is lacking. The sincerity of beliefs matters not one whit if those beliefs are, to quote a couple of automotive philosophers, “unencumbered by the thought process”.

The proper response to such charges is either mockery or a swift linguistic kick in the shins.


Well, okay, the fists-up response is not always appropriate. One can engage in a kind of political discourse which seeks understanding, and to which nonsense might best be met with questions as to why the interlocutor believes that, or even a polite I disagree.

And, ff course, if one is outnumbered and such verbal disagreement could lead to a physical beatdown, keeping one’s trap shut is also a fine tactic.


I hate eliminationist talk, and find it stupid and counterproductive, if not potentially dangerous. I don’t  engage in such talk, don’t laugh at jokes about assassination, don’t as a general matter invite the spectre of real violence into the arena of politics.

It’s not because I’m good, but because I’m an Arendtian, and I think politics has a purpose which can be shattered by violence.

(Yes, I have invited public figures to engage in anatomically impossible acts on themselves, and will likely do so again the future. These aren’t my best moments, but I think a not-unreasonable response to the denigration and dehumanization of an entire category of human beings.)

Aristotle and Arendt both thought politics ennobling; a part of me agrees that yes, it offers the possibility of us inhabiting one of the highest kinds of human being.

But, as Machiavelli pointed out, one rarely reaches that pinnacle unscathed.

h/t, and for a completely different set of views, see James Fallows here, here, here, and here


It’s not going to stop, so just give up

18 02 2009

At what point does one give up? And what reasons for such up-giving?

This is (for this post) a political and intellectual question, rather than an existential one: At what point does one give up engaging across the political spectrum?

Hm, actually, it’s even narrower than that: At what point do I stop reading someone with whom I often disagree?

And what if the reason is that I don’t think this blogger is as thoughtful as I thought s/he was? What if I think s/he’s not as smart as I thought she was?

I’m a snob—that’s not the issue. No, huh, I guess one more refinement: How do I figure out if my weariness/irritation with a blogger is due to political differences or intellectual ones?

There are all kinds of blogs and books and magazines I don’t read because I think they’re stupid, and I’m not bothered by that. (See snob comment, above.) I’m interested in argument, and if all a blogger can do is impugn, malign, sputter, and/or channel the Party Line, then I won’t be interested—I’ll be bored. It’s not about agreement or disagreement, but engagement.

But what of those cases in which disagreement and a suspicion of thoughtlessness are tangled? Giving up on a leftist blogger doesn’t bother me, because the reason for such abandonment is clear: this person bores me. If I stop reading a rightist, however, I have to wonder if it’s because I’m too close-minded to deal with the argument.

I think it’s important to read outside of my political zone, not only to keep myself sharp, but to remind myself that those on the other side are smart, have good arguments, and are almost certainly not allies of Satan. Yes, I might get irritated or even yell at the post as I’m scrolling through or responding to it, but as long as I’m challenged, such irritation strikes me as reasonable—we do disagree, after all.

What if, however, the argument in the post is unreasonable, such that no reasonable response is possible? I get that that’s going to happen on occasion or with certain issues (the blogging equivalent of ‘oh, that Harry, you know how he gets’), but there are times I wonder if  the blogger doesn’t get that s/he’s posting a shitty argument.

Such as, the blogger sets Standard A for her side, Standard B for all those not on her side—and refuses to recognize the double standard. When he refers to evidence in support of his position, but ignores counter-evidence. When she deliberately distorts the positions of the other side, and complains when her own words are pulled out of shape. When he throws a bomb into the argument, then points at others for fanning the flames. Or, as she’s tossing that bomb, sighs that she’s soooo tired of dealing with explosions.

I’m only occasi0nally bothered by such strategies among political actors and campaigners—the point is to win, not to persuade. And while there’s a hell of a lot of unfairness in politics, mainly having to do with unequal access, there’s no such thing as (legal) unfairness among candidates. If you can’t handle the other side’s (mis)representations of your views, then get out. Strife and campaigns go together, so prepare not only to be bloodied, but to bloody. That’s how you deal with unfairness: You fight back.

But at the level of argumentation, where the point (arguably!) is to persuade, you can’t fuck with the rhetoric. Or, you can, but only at risk of being called a fuck-er.

Okay, so where does all this lead, vis-a-vis the not-so-thoughtful opposition? How do decide if the problem is with the thoughtlessness or the oppositional-ness?

I guess I provided myself with my own answer: when the person is fucking with the rhetoric. But even that doesn’t always help, not least because there are also fundamental differences at play. I might think she’s skewing the grid, but from her perspective, the lines are all straight. She’s not cheating—I just don’t get it. And I want to get it.

Dammit. I don’t know my way around this.

I’ll keep reading, I guess, until I can’t. How’s that for a set standard?