Sunday, March 28, 2004

Further Thoughts on The Margolis Incident
(i.e., the attack by anti-Bush protesters against pro-Bush protesters)


What I Was Wrong About]

At one point I write that 'We're the...good guys'. Matthew Cromer calls me on this point, and Anonymous backs him thusly:

"Let me amplify on Matthew Cromer's response (ROFLMAO.) I'm not laughing because the quoted item is so damned offensive. You could have said, "I completely disagree with how we as a country should proceed", and that would be vigorous but fair disagreement. But no, you say very pointedly that your side is the good guys, and do you think we can't infer that it makes our side of the argument the bad guys? What do you want--a frickin' civil war?

Please get a grip and lets discuss this a fellow-citizens, OK, and enough with the vilification? (Yes, some of us are adept enough to realize that backhand vilification is still vilification.)"

Well, when you're right, you're right, and when you're wrong, you're wrong. Matthew Cromer and Anonymous are right, and I was wrong.

Let me offer you a fragment of my incipient theory about how mistakes like this get made--and how this mistake of mine in particular got made. Er...that Reaganesque 'mistakes were made'-esque locution wasn't intentional. That is: let me tell you how I made this mistake...

My reaction to the Margolis incident was rather more complex than I let on. Like many people on my side of the political fence, it really went a little something like this:

No way! @#^$! assholes...oh, Christ, the wingnuts are really gonna milk this one for all it's worth...probably had it coming anyway...WHOA there dude, what are you, one of them? That's the kind of thing THEY'D say...oh, there you go again, THEY are US, after all. Not all Bushies are nutty...not all Bushies are nutty... What is this, Central America? What next? Riots in the streets? Liberals don't act like that...well, some lefties do...but not liberals...but those guys probably weren't liberals...populists, out there protesting against gay marriage next week... Those construction-workers who beat up those student protesters...didn't Nixon invite them to the White House? That's the difference between them and us...ugh...there I go again...oh, man...

(This, let me point out, is a fairly typical sample of my initial thinking about political issues...)

I am (by constitution and by training) inclined to think that one should think in an analytic way, producing what we might call modular theories--the parts will interact in certain ways, but they should, to some extent, be "stand alone." It seemed clear to me that we had to make it clear that neither Liberals nor Democrats will stand for the use of political violence in support of their causes. This conclusion, I thought, had to be established independently of any other points about contextual factors that complicated the situation.

Of course I anticipated many of the typical responses from liberals: the right would be making excuses if the shoe had been on the other foot, the right does stuff like this more often than we do, etc. I think those things are true, but it sickens me when such claims are offered as excuses. Regardless of what some other guys somewhere else are like, you are as you are and you must take responsibility for your own actions. (Set aside, for the time being, the question of collective responsibility.)

This kind of excuse-making-by-comparison is, I believe, what led America to virtually lose its soul during the Cold War--the Soviet government was evil (note to liberals: it really, really was), and, consequently, we tried to excuse even our most loathsome actions simply by pointing out that the Soviets were worse. And, of course, since our opponent really was so terrible, this strategy led us farther and farther down the path toward the Dark Side (note to conservatives: it really, really did).

I believe that liberalism currently faces a similar threat to its soul. I believe that the Bush administration is more deceitful, dogmatic, and ruthless than any of us--and that includes conservatives--could have predicted in 2000. If liberals were to come to believe that our actions are justified so long as they're not as awful as those of the Bush administration, then we'd be starting down the same kind of road to perdition that the U.S. went down during the Cold War.

(Conservatives might not like the analogy. Bush is, of course, no Stalin. No one, including me, is stupid enough to suggest otherwise. Nothing in my analogy should suggest that I think they are morally equivalent. Stalin was evil almost beyond imagining. Bush is merely a very, very, very bad President. Also: to try to score points for Bush merely by pointing out that he isn't Stalin is to make the very mistake under discussion.)

So: it seemed to me that liberals needed to recognize the Margolis incident for what it was, admit wrong-doing on the part of the anti-Bush protesters in an unequivocal way and without resorting to comparative excuse-making.

The really unfortunate thing is that in the end I failed to do what I thought should be done, and, actually, did something that are in certain ways worse. (One might reasonably claim that mine was a relatively minor infelicity, but I beg to differ.) Instead of committing the relatively more minor mistake of comparative excuse-making, as Cromer and Anonymous point out, I said that liberals/anti-Bushies are the good guys, and, by clear implication, suggested that conservatives/Bushies are the bad guys. As Anonymous notes, back-handed vilification is still vilification. Mine is the kind of sloppy and divisive claim that's helped to lead American politics to its current deplorable state. I hereby admit its falsehood, reject it, and apologize for making it.

Thing is, it's easy to let yourself let comments like that slip by. Funny how stupid human beings are, and how easy it is to trick them. And it's easiest to trick yourself, of course, because you yourself are an accessory to the crime. Even so transparent a ploy as concealing your insult in a transparent but unstated implication can allow you to let something slip by that you wouldn't have allowed yourself to say explicitly. And that's what I did. Let this be a lesson to, I mean...

On the other hand, to some extent my claim was an exhortation to liberals to remember--as I now wish I'd put it--that we're good guys. Not THE good guys, but good guys. (Well, many or most of us are, anyway.) We can't let ourselves slip into comparative excuse-making, because that's not what good guys do. See, that's a good point...

The exhortation point is an important one. As I've admitted, my real thinking about the Margolis incident was more complicated, characterized by less of what has come to be called "moral clarity." ('Moral clarity' is apparently supposed to mean something like a state characterized by a lack of sophistical casuistry, but I am inclined to think that it really means a state characterized by oversimplified thinking about moral issues.) But I tend to think that simplification (though perhaps not over-simplification) is acceptable in some cases in which you are trying to exhort someone to let his better rather than his worse self come through. Thing is, my efforts to ignore the contextual factors mentioned above failed, and my irritation about some of those factors squeezed out in the form of a thinly-veiled insult. Or, anyway, that's my guess. (It's certainly not intended to be an excuse...seems like it'd be a pretty lame excuse, anyway.)

In the end, perhaps I should have adopted an approach more like that of Mark Kleiman in his comment on my original post. I don't take back anything in my original post other than the irresponsible implication aforementioned, and I don't agree with Mark completely, but I now think that we do have to take what we might call a more realistic look at the events in question. Here's what I think it's important to note:

(i) The attackers are assholes, and deserve to go to jail.

(ii) Anti-Bush sentiment--while, I think, largely warranted--is tending to get out of hand in some quarters.

(iii) A group as a whole is not responsible, under conditions like this, for the actions of a few members of the group.

(iv) The attackers are clearly not representative of liberals (or Democrats or anti-Bushies or Males or Americans or Human beings or rational creatures) as a whole. Margolis himself notes that the attackers did not seem to be pro-Kerry.

(v) Such incidents are reprehensible, but so long as they are rare and minor, they're not tragic or disasterous.

(vi) Conservatives will have a tendency to exaggerate the severity and significance of the events in question; liberals will have tendency to do the opposite.

(vii) Both urges described in (vi) must be controlled.

(viii) The problem of such political violence is not currently a major one in the U.S.

(ix) However, we must have a zero-tolerance policy toward such violence, in part in order to prevent such actions from seeming acceptable.

(x) When we take a broader view of the matter, the American right has at least as much (and probably more) to be ashamed of than American liberals. It is elements of the right that have been the most willing to use political violence. Furthermore, the current spate of mutual loathing in American politics began with anti-Clinton forces, not anti-Bush forces.

None of this excuses the appalling actions of those who attacked the FReepers in Boston, of course, and liberals must keep that in mind. On the other hand, conservatives must resist the urge to make this incident into something that it is not.

Americans can improve the quality and increase the civility of our political discourse in general by raising them a little bit at a time, starting with our discussion of this incident. And we can do that by being honest with ourselves about what happened, about how significant it really was, about what it reveals or fails to reveal about Bush supporters and detractors, and about whatever mistakes we might make along the way in trying to figure this thing out.

There is no doubt in my mind that we [Americans] can do this if we try. We are, after all, good guys.


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