A colleague directed me to a blog written by a leftist friend of mine—someone whose views on everything from metaphysics to politics are radically different from my own.  We have not seen each other for years but we had worked together rather closely for a short while and I thought I knew something of his character.  But as I read his blog entries I felt more his hate than his tolerance, more his pain than his reason.  I discovered in my own reactions a sense of separation—the kind of separation that comes when one ceases to believe that a genuine exchange of ideas is possible.  We have nothing to talk about, it seems.

I reflected on the contemporary forms of political talk that allow or even encourage splenetics.  Rather than venting with buddies over a beer, we can vent to a larger group of virtual friends.  But unlike the face-to-face venting, the words of the blog hang around, becoming more solid, more self-evident, by virtue of their seeming permanence. I suspect that the more one asserts claims in such a public forum the less likely one is to challenge one’s own beliefs. Of course a political splenetic serves no real political purpose—it doesn’t seek to persuade and it doesn’t open the door to compromise and it doesn’t contribute to anyone’s understanding.

Possibly I’m wrong.  Maybe this form of venting, this written scream, not only makes one feel as though one’s voice has been heard but also cements one’s relationship with others who share all the same political views.  Perhaps this is a good thing, but I doubt it. I, for one, feel the loss of something important—the possibility of political friendship among those who disagree.

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Ted McAllister is a native of Oklahoma, now living in Moorpark, California with his wife, Dena, and his two children, Elisa and Luke. He yearns for his own chunk of land and for those bits of nature that please him, but not for farming or for unnecessary drudgery of the sort that involves physical labor.  He is an aesthetic agrarian, not a practicing one. Educated as an Intellectual and Cultural Historian at Vanderbilt University, he now teaches at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy where he pursues with his students the enduring questions rather than the particular answers.  His book, Revolt Against Modernity:  Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Post-Liberal Order launched him into the study of political philosophy, though his epistemological orientation is much shaped by his training as a historian.  Working presently on Walter Lippmann as well as a US History textbook, he expects soon to write a multi-volume history of the Baby-boomers.

9 COMMENTS

  1. It seems to me that in the public sphere these days, nuance is lost. The people that gain listeners and cheerleaders are the people that speak loudly and entertainingly. Winning a debate means you shouted louder than your opponent or made your audience laugh more, not that your arguments were in some way better or more convincing. We don’t argue (in the fine noble sense) much anymore; we quarrel or we joke.

  2. Thanks for this post, Ted. I’m also a lefty, but I read blogs like FPR and Crunchy Con because they have a real humane sense of reason and respect for the other side – something I rarely see on Daily Kos or Hugh Hewitt. May there be more political friendship among those who disagree.

  3. The loss of polite political discourse is directly related, I think, to the fact that culturally we’ve reached denouement in terms of the “spectaculum of modernity,” e.g. we have attained, in our majority of citizens,that which our Greek brethren referred to as nosos (a spiritual-pneumopathological condition where we have experienced the loss of nonexistent reality).
    If we are to regain social order, it will happen as Voegelin suggested, by recapturing the experiences of transcendence. It is as Dr. Lawler might suggest, both dark and light.

  4. This doesn’t seem an accurate diagnosis to me. In European countries and even Canada, debates may get heated, but they haven’t reached the poisonous level of acrimony they have in the United States, and those countries have no more experience of transcendence than the US does; they’re generally even more secular.

    If anything, I would argue that the trouble in the United States stems from the fact that so many of its members do have some sort of transcendent experience, through a kind of Christianity that is anathema to the secular members who would be a majority in the other countries. More God, at this juncture, may well make the problem worse.

    But be that as it may – an accurate diagnosis of the problem is less important than a refusal to contribute to it. Whatever the reason we think others refrain from polite and respectful discourse, it is still salutary to engage in it ourselves, and I don’t want to lose sight of that point.

  5. Political incivility has been a near constant in American history. We often point to the elections of 1800 and 1828 as examples, but hard, ideological attacks are found in most periods. However, the nature and the context of the attacks change. I was wondering if there is something particularly divisive about the way people feel free to vent in public venues while not having to be in front of the people they vent about. I’m sure that if my friend had me in mind when he wrote about the subjects of his blog, that he might have found a different way of expressing himself. Since he didn’t have me or another flesh and blood conservative in mind (I rather suspect) he used the opportunity to say rather vile things. He indulged, in other words, in the pleasure of rabid and irrational assaults, often claiming that his targets are rabid and irrational.

    My reaction to his words surprised me. I was pretty sure of the kinds of political positions he would take and what lines of argument he would employ against those with whom he disagrees. Had I read strongly worded polemics I would have considered them an invitation to engage and respond. But what I found was venom and the most reckless accusations. Instead of wanting to respond to his posts I wanted to shut off my computer before my disappointment turned into something much darker. And so, I posted this brief account because it seems to me that one of the unexpected consequences of this particular form of political expression is to produce animus and to create ever-hardening lines that separate us into differently constructed sheep and goats.

  6. Arnold: “But be that as it may – an accurate diagnosis of the problem is less important than a refusal to contribute to it.”
    The problem differentiates to a simple understanding of a tension existing between existence in truth and those derailed modes of existence e.g. ideologies, gnosticism, apocalyticism, etc. and even further into a disordered existence that is in this case predicated on an abandonment of the transcendent pole. That is the culture, generally speaking, has derailed into a hypostatized understanding of reality, that is usually expressed as a doctrinaire existence, where the dichotomy falls between those who believe in open existence (the metaxical comprehension of experienced truth as part of the horizon of reality) and closed existence (where there exists certain impediments to the flow of truth into consciousness and to the “pull” of the transcendent).
    Simply put, there exists, I think, a demonic component, where one side has the ability to express the truth of reality and the other,refusing the reality of Infinite Being has no understanding of either the logos or the symbols; the soul is captured by the libido dominondi or the superbia vitae and exists, silent before God, in a condition of sin. There not only is no ‘communication,’ communication is not possible.
    Here the problem of ‘freedom’ is focused sharply on the ‘need’ to recapture that which has been lost. There exists those cultural and social elements that would by means of force prohibit the act of restoration, the idealogue for example, those that have no knowledge but the knowledge of alienation where man is estranged from the timeless and devolves into a stranger in this world.
    I would argue that, with these people, impolite political conversation, may be the least of our worries.

  7. Catch Gordon Brown doing the Wednesday Questions in Parliament and then tell me again that there is more civility in Europe.

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