Steven Taylor at PoliBlog notes the decline of rhetoric in the blogosphere:
I partake of a wide array of media ideologically speaking. But tend to shy away from authors and publications that are extremist (which is a relative term) or overly vitriolic. If I stopped reading sites with a point of view, I would be limited to Wizbang Tech–a fine site, but decidedly apolitical (unless you count its position on BlogSpot).
And it isn’t just about the left side of the spectrum. I am not a fan of the Free Republic and NewsMax lets its ideological POV sway its coverage of the news far too much for my tastes.
Really, what I want is intelligence, rational dialog. I don’t like rants, screeds or emotion-based diatribes. While I can see the occasional need to vent some stream, if that is your style, then I have little use for you.
The reason I can sympathize, to a degree, with Bryan’s position, is that it does seem with some partisans that it is impossible to engage in reasonable dialog. We all get too caught in our “side” on occasion—treating politics like sports and rooting for our team. If you have a point of view, make your case. You don’t have to call names or curse. I like to think of myself as reasonable, and therefore amenable to a reasoned argument. If you just want to yell at me or to yell at the opposition, then what’s the point? We all can get passionate about what we believe, but passion need not result in insult.
He is most certainly onto something, and it’s something I’ve noticed many times myself: people do not know how to argue.
What passes for rhetoric in this country is appalling. People don’t know how to convincingly argue their opinions, and instead rely on the cheapest forms of rhetoric – ad hominem insults, unsupported substantiations, logical fallacies, changing the subject, etc. As Dean Esmay astutely notes:
The sheer level of hatred and vitriol coming out of politics today is soul-crushing. It’s not fun. It’s not funny. Every time I post something that looks like it might be mildly bad news on the economy or on the war, I cringe knowing there’ll be a bunch of whackjobs who feel compelled to post comments blaming Bush or reiterating vile lies about it. Every time I post something that seems vaguely positive I get more whackjob comments from Bush haters trying to tell me it ain’t so or I’m ignoring something else.
…Anyway, I’m tired of people who can’t just say, “I dislike and disagree with this politician, but I’m going to try to be fair to him. I’m not going to quote him out of context, I’m not going to twist his words, I’m not going to disparage his character. I’m going to talk about his ideas and his policies, and try to understand where they’re coming from without snide accusations about his motives.”
I’m tired of partisan hackery from all sides. I really am. Republicans are not evil. Democrats are not communists. Neither party’s “attack machine” is any more powerful or well-oiled than the other and both are overrated.
I’ve noticed this myself. I can’t abide Ann Coulter any more than Atrios. Both are deeply partisan individuals who does little more than sling mud at the other side. Reading either the far left or the far right of the blogosphere is an effort in partisan masturbation and little more. You don’t tend to learn anything, you don’t tend to find anything of particular value, and you’re only getting one side of the story.
What I find most problematic is that people don’t consider the larger philosophical ramifications of their positions. For example, the anti-war movement is based on a premise that they represent human rights and solidarity with oppressed peoples – except the consequences of their positions would leave someone with a horrible human rights record who oppressed millions in power. These two positions are completely in tension, and the only way to claim both is to try to use a complete redefinition of what human rights means – which is basically being redefined as “in opposition to US policy specifically and Western culture generally.” However, an objective observer has to admit that the human rights situation in the US is nowhere near as bad as it is in a dictatorship like North Korea or Iran. Yet the radical left as represented by groups like ANSWER continue to ignore this tension and make arguments that are fundamentally flawed. This sort of reactionary logic based on a simpleminded opposition is how tyranny triumphs. Mere opposition to something is not a worldview.
Yet even the more moderate quarters of the left isn’t immune to sloppy reasoning. In debate (I’m an old parliamentary debater, if that isn’t clear already), definitions are an important part of the debate. However, defining things in an abusive way is a major sign of an unacceptably weak argument. When one side tries to define itself as the very paragon of virtue and the other side as evil, nothing of substance is being debated. If one can’t see through their own partisanship to acknowledge the legitimacy of another’s position then there’s no debate going on. This is the primary problem I have with sites like Eschaton, Free Republic, or now The Daily Kos.
Now, perhaps it’s somewhat ironic that this is coming from someone who is an admitted partisan. However, I still strive (but not always reach) for a justified partisanship – not self-justified, but justified in the context of a larger philosophical framework. My worldview is liberal, but liberal in the classical sense of the world rather than the modern corruption of the term. Given the choice between choosing a side that supports democracy, individual rights, and the rule of law and one that provides even a tacit justification for autocracy, theocracy, or the subjugation of the individual, I’m going to chose the former. Given a choice between a policy that emphasizes individual economic liberty and one that empowers the state, I’m going to choose the former. I believe these values are all prima facie goods.
Furthermore, I’m not an absolute partisan. I’ve praised Paul Wellstone. I’ve criticized Bush’s profligate spending policies as well as his steel tariffs and his position on campaign finance reform. When Trent Lott didn’t immediately back away from his irresponsible statements regarding Strom Thurmond, I said he should step down. However, in the end, I do support the President, and I’ve made my reasoning for this decision clear.
This position does not make me a “facist” or a “wingnut” or any of the other terms used by the left to smear those who think differently. Those who use such terms in an ad hominem are advertising their lack of credibility or willingness to respect the other side. When some comment troll does it, it’s one thing. When a major Democratic blogger does it, and many Democrats defend them, it’s a sign of the overall decline of the Democratic Party. On the same hand, when Trent Lott offers an apologia for Strom Thurmond’s racist past or Ann Coulter tries to justify McCarthyism it is encumbant upon responsible conservatives to show why such positions are unacceptable.
If people would only be willing to drop their partisan blinders and consider the ramifications of their positions, it would immeasurably increase the quality of debate in the blogosphere. But as long as there remains a partisan echo chamber in which lefty bloggers reflectively bash Bush while right-wing sites like Free Republic or NewsMax continue to flog the dead horse of past Clinton scandals, such sites will generate much heat, but little light.
UPDATE: It’s PoliBlog, not PoliPundit. My PoliBad…