In case you missed it, on Friday Demosthenes posted a bit of commentary on Mahablog’s Patriotism v. Hate Speech post, the latter of which I found via the incomparable Dave Neiwert. Aside from strongly encouraging you to head over to Mahablog and check out the post in question (and whatever else you stumble upon—there’s a lot of good stuff over there), I’d like to say two things.
First off, I must confess to being a bit mystified by a couple parts of Demosthenes’ response. The allegation that the post in question is “heavily slanted towards “rightie” examples” seems to me to miss the point entirely, given that the thesis of the post is that a) hateful political rhetoric isn’t something we can dismiss by saying both sides do it in equal measure, and b) the difference between the hateful rhetoric on the two sides is qualitative, not merely quantitative. The original post notes, parenthetically:
One occasionally runs into some fairly ghastly examples of eliminationism coming from the extreme Marxist fringe — marginalized even by most of the Left — and from juvenile anti-Bush protesters with poor judgment and worse impulse control. […] I’m saying I don’t see eliminationist rhetoric from people who are prominent enough to have some following among liberals, progressives, or Democrats or who hold prominent elected office or positions in the Democratic party.
This is a more or less empirically-oriented point that cannot be reasonably dismissed as a product of slant or bias. It is both qualitative and quantitative, I suppose—there are demonstrably fewer instances of eliminationist rhetoric on the left, and what examples can be found of such rhetoric on the left aren’t typically from prominent voices (pundits, politicians, significant bloggers). Far from “[dismissing] certain classes of “marginal” “leftists” who contradict the argument at hand,” Mahablog rightly notes that there is in fact rhetoric on the extreme left that is probably as bad as that on the extreme right, but that the groups espousing such views cannot reasonably be considered part of the mainstream left in the same way that extreme right-wing views have taken hold of “mainstream” Republican politics (and even when such views are supposedly not part of the mainstream, the rhetoric is adopted by that same mainstream, such that the end result is pretty much the same).
Mahablog and Demosthenes are both right when they distinguish between the right wing and conservatism. Mahablog says:
I don’t want to put all conservatives in the same boat here. Traditional conservatives whose ideas are based in conservative political philosophy certainly can, and do, find much to criticize in liberal political philosophy and in many progressive policies enacted in the past (not many progressive policies around at the moment to take potshots at). What must always be understood is that the hard heart of our current political Right is not conservative.
The crucial point here, I think, is that the right has been effectively divorced from political conservatism. Rather than being at heart a political philosophy, the right has become a monolithic cultural machine, based on manipulative and hateful rhetoric for the sake of political expediency (and, y’know, advancing the causes of big business and evangelical Christianity—the other big business). This disconnect is relevant in all sorts of ways, from the abandonment of fiscal conservatism and small, efficient government to the embrace of jingoistic foreign policy and the erosion of individual rights. These are all things worth pondering, but the point I want to make here is simply this: right-wing political orthodoxy of the 21st century has only a remote connection to conservatism as a political philosophy. It is, more than anything, about the sort of overly reductive, “you’re with us or you’re against us” dogma that has been so prevalent since 9/11. It is about nationalism over patriotism, to the point where any position of criticism can be dismissed as unpatriotic and treasonous. In this way, there is an ideological connection between the right and eliminationist rhetoric. As long as political conservatism has been so completely abandoned in favor of neoconservative/theocratic “culture wars” nonsense, it’s just not enough to say that there’s no connection between rhetoric and “underlying attitudes.” Yes, the hateful rhetoric is primarily a product of “the current political climate,” but when genuine political philosophy has been replaced by dishonest and combative fear-mongering, we must examine the ideological roots of these strains of eliminationism and hatred. We can agree, I think, that any sort of fundamentalism is objectively bad by definition (being an abandonment of reason in favor of orthodoxy), whether it comes from the left or the right, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hold the right culpable for being the source of the overwhelming majority of hate-masked-as-politics.
Secondly (and more succinctly), I want to embrace something Demosthenes said in his closing paragraph:
Our phenomenal access to information is simultaneously unprecedented access to disinformation, and indeed the positive deluge of information makes it all the more easy to shut down and pay attention to only the most reductionist viewpoints.
A lot has been said about the information age and the paradigm shift it ushered in (and may still be in the process of ushering in). The ubiquity of the internet and the other mass media has made it amazingly easy for almost anyone to access an overwhelming number of facts and opinions, more than one person could ever hope to sift through on his or her own. Often the facts are misrepresented or the opinions masquerade as facts, and with the breaking down of traditional media hierarchies, there is an increasing amount of uncertainty about who to trust. The sad reality is that most people don’t have the critical thinking skills to weed out the bad information and the misleading rhetoric—and many of them don’t really care to try, so they trust the first or the loudest voice they come across. As it turns out, the loudest voices are usually the least credible.
This is all the more reason for us to embrace rationality and the teaching of critical thinking skills. It is also a reason for us to stand up to the politicization of science, the gutting and manipulation of education, and the dishonesty of media pundits. People need to have some basic ability to evaluate the credibility of information and opinion, especially these days, else democracy goes down the shitter. And we should, as a society, be doing everything in our power to weed out bad information and dishonest commentary.
Informed participation, not just participation, is the name of the game.