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October 1, 2007

"the historic line of decency"

I spent part of the weekend at a conference on the political process attended by some academics and reporters plus political operatives like Donna Brazile, Doug Bailey, and Ed Rollins. After dinner in a Washington steak house, participants rose to make impromptu speeches against the harshness and narrowness of today's political discourse. I'm afraid I found most of the speeches quite superficial and banal. While people spoke, a Republican lobbyist and former elected official made heckling remarks which indicated that she felt the room was biased against her worldview. She finally rose and said (in my paraphrase): "What if Columbia University invited David Duke instead of Ahmadinejad to speak? I think there would be a huge protest. There are some people in America who just need to shut up."

The comment was a non sequitur; but based on her other remarks, I think she meant that Columbia University is part of a leftist establishment. The University invited the Iranian president to speak because it had some sympathy for his views. The problem with American political discourse is that such views are expressed and tolerated.

I certainly didn't reply, but I think my considered response would go like this: Whether to invite Ahmadinejad to Columbia--and how to treat him once he arrived--were delicate questions. The University needed to consider John Stuart Mill's argument that we are always better off with a public debate versus the claim that offering an individual a prominent speaking role at a distinguished institution grants him recognition (which someone like Ahmadinejad doesn't deserve). The University had to consider the norms of hospitality and respect for a head of state versus the duty to speak truth to power. And it had to weigh its own principles versus the consequences of treating Ahmadinejad badly. It would, for example, be possible to denounce the president publicly (in keeping with Columbia's principles) and thereby strengthen Ahmadinejad's hand in Iran. In that case, principles and consequences would collide.

In any case, it's a triple mistake to see Columbia's actual decisions as emblematic of any leftist agenda. First, Columbia encompasses ideological diversity; it isn't leftist. Second, the decision to invite Ahmadinejad was based on classical liberalism of the John Stuart Mill variety, not on some leftist doctrine. Third, if Columbia has a leftish bias, that puts it on the opposite side of the political spectrum from an Iranian mullah who despises homosexuality, favors theocracy, and wants to preserve traditional gender roles.

I left the conference and poked around a little on the Web, where conservatives seem to be furious at MoveOn for rhyming Petraeus with "Betray Us," liberals are outraged that Rush Limbaugh called troops who favor a withdrawal "phony soldiers," Columbia is denounced for inviting Ahmadinejad, Stanford is attacked for hiring Rumsfeld, the denouncers of Columbia and Stanford are denounced for selectively ignoring free speech, and everyone sees hypocrisy everywhere. The game is to associate one's opponents with some of the worst statements made by people supposedly on their side in the debate, so that they either look bad or have to distance themselves from their allies.

I don't think I can respond in any way that's less banal than the after-dinner speeches on Friday; but I would say: We have serious issues before us, such as what to do in Iraq. Especially when the issues are complex and difficult and there are no good answers, it is extremely tempting to conduct the debate by proxy--attacking Limbaugh and MoveOn (and Scooter Libby) instead of proposing and defending courses of action. The rhetorical temperature inevitably rises, and people start crossing what Senator Cornyn called "historic line[s] of decency." They attack generals, claim that soldiers aren't soldiers, and so on. But these lines of decency are vague and disputed, so there are all kinds of opportunities to find inconsistencies in the other side's position. How can a Senator vote to condemn MoveOn but not Limbaugh? How can a university invite Ahmadinejad but not Duke? And so on, endlessly.

I fail to see how any of this serves the republic. In fact, if I were a Democratic Member of Congress, I'd be inclined to abstain on an anti-Limbaugh resolution, saying: "Enough is enough. We could spend the rest of the session finding stupid statements to denounce on a tit-for-tat basis. There's enough stupidity on all sides of the political debate to keep this body permanently busy with resolutions. Why don't we actually decide what to do about Iraq?"

October 1, 2007 6:52 AM | category: none



You have found examples of Tu Quoque, the greatest scourge upon political debate. Why are humans so predisposed to believe that two wrongs make a right when it confirms their prior biases?

I think the solution has to be more accountability for all political speakers. Political speakers need to suffer rather than benefit from using these deceptive tactics.


October 1, 2007 12:56 PM | Comments (1) | posted by Michael Weiksner

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