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Wednesday, June 1, 2005
The Evil that Books Do
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 10:43 am

Human Events online provides us with the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

This strikes me as an odd exercise, to say the least, and one which smacks of anti-intellectualism. Books, per se, aren’t harmful-to borrow and slightly alter a phrase: books don’t harm people, people harm people.

The issue here is clearly one of singling out specific ideas and ideologies, more than books per se. Indeed, beyond even the question of what the books themselves might say, but more how they were interpreted and put into practice by persons other than the author (with the exception of Main Kampf). I do agree that ideas can be dangerous, but only, of course, when put into action. The very existence and discussion of ideas, however, is a good thing, as understanding has a greater chance of preventing the deployment of harmful ideas than does the suppression of free exchange.

The idea of proclaiming books “harmful? is to say that exposure to ideas can be a bad and harmful thing in and of itself. I don’t think so. There is plenty to be found in the books in question, many of which I have read either in part or in their entirety, and can honestly say that the consideration and discussion of ideas that are wrong, either in part or in their totality, can be extremely fruitful. Indeed, it is a necessity for someone who seeks understanding of the complex world around us.

Further, even authors/thinkers who were wrong about a lot, can still be right about quite a bit (e.g., Marx). Marx made some legitimate sociological observations about the effects of capitalism and modernization. Further, his analysis of class in a generic sense has some merit. Now, he was clearly wrong about a lot of things, but not about everything. At a minimum his strain of though represents an important response to modernization and industrialization in the nineteenth century.

The book that is the most easy to call harmful, Mein Kampf is hardly worth consideration as an intellectual text, but if we wish to try and understand the horror that was Nazi Germany, then it can tell us something. And I would remind the editors and panel at Human Events: Mein Kampf didn’t kill anybody, and Hitler would have been Hitler had he written the book or not.

I found the inclusion of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (one of my personal favorites) on the “Honorable Mention? list (shouldn’t that be Dishonorable?) was mildly surprising. However, that bespeaks of the hardcore social conservative nature of the panelists, as no doubt they object to the Harm Principle—as Robert Bork did in Slouching Towards Gomorrah.

On a lighter note, Rodney Balko notes:

What’s particularly amusing about the conservative group Human Events list, though, is that not only is each “harmful” book linked to, it’s linked with the Human Events Amazon associates tag, meaning that while these books may be evil, Human Events obviously has no qualms about making a buck or two from disseminating the ideas inside them.


Postscript: It occurs to that since I wholly believe that Mill was right about ideas and the importance of freedom of expression as one of our most fundamental rights that I find this to be an odd exercise.

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Arguing with signposts… » Commercial break: linked with [...] cial break: Wednesday, June 1st, 2005 @ 11:14 pm in [ Blogging ] Books don’t harm people, people harm people. Heh. | Trackbacks ( [...]
Saturday, May 21, 2005
Mosques Closed in Protest
By Steven L. @ 3:56 pm

Yahoo News reports that Sunni clerics have closed mosques as a protest to killings blamed on Shiite militias. Both Sunni and Shiite clerics have been targeted by the other side in a series of revenge actions.

The killings of two Sunni clerics — whose bodies were found Tuesday — helped spark the Sunni protests. Sunnis also complained that security forces had raided their mosques. On Friday, in the central city of Baqubah, three Shiites who owned stationery stores were shot to death, provincial spokesman Ahmed Karim Hasan said. Gunmen asked to see posters of Shiite religious leaders, then killed the store owners when they produced them, Hasan said.

Also on Friday, a car bomb exploded near a Shiite mosque in Baghdad, killing at least two people and wounding five, police said, according to the Reuters news agency.

The continued violence and bad blood threatens to continue a cycle that will be hard to end. The news story, however, does point out positive signs:

- Religious leaders on both sides are urging restraint to their followers;

- The closing of the Mosques is both a recognition that the lives of the people worshipping are more important than the building and a form of peaceful protest that is a great improvement over blowing things up; and

- Both sides recognize that the violence is aimed at splitting the Iraqi people and pitting them against each other. That recognition will help defray some hard feelings and assist in placing blame at the feet of the outsiders who are in all probability fomenting this trouble.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005
God Bless James Madison
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 9:24 am

Given the difficulties I have had in helping to shepherd through the ratification of a modest Faculty Council consitution for Troy University, I can only imagine the fun that Madison & C0. had in getting the US Constitution approved.

All I know is that my stint as Faculty Council President has provided me with a profound appreciation for the appeal of dictatorship over democracy.

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Saturday, March 26, 2005
This is Strangely Familiar
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 9:31 am

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Friday, March 25, 2005
Podhoretz: “Soul-Believers” v. “Rationalist”
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 11:57 am

Rush Limbaugh notes the following column by John Podhoretz

Those who want her to live tend to view life as a gift-a treasure beyond value that has been bestowed upon us and that we therefore have no right to squander. The giver of the gift cannot be seen by the human eye, and the essence of the gift cannot be seen either.

We usually call that essence the “soul.” Our souls define us: They make us who we are in the deepest sense. And they transcend us as well: They are our connection to the divine, to all in the universe that is unseen and unknowable but is still there.

Most religious people share this set of beliefs, which is why those who have pushed hardest to save Schiavo are devout Christians.

The funny thing is that it would seem to me that those who believe that this life is all that we have would be more prone to cling to it no matter what and those who believe in an eternal soul would believe that at some point (and I will grant that it is a difficult point to determine) that that soul ought to be released.

I don’t see the logic that believing in God or an eternal soul automatically means that one has to believe that life should be maintained no matter what.

Understand: I come to this conclusion as one who is a devout Christian who is the member of a very conservative denomination (i.e., Southern Baptist) who has done a good deal of Bible study, and has taught adult Sunday School.

I would argue that Podhoretz creates a false dichotomy in terms of the “rationalist” v. the “soul-believer”. I know some of my secularist friends will disagree, but I do not see those categories as mutually exclusive, nor do I see either as logically leading to a specific conclusion on this case.

I do agree with the final sentence of his piece:

This is not something that anyone should celebrate.

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Thursday, March 24, 2005
Something that Troubles Me
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 8:41 pm

I have noted commentators in various conservative corners this week regarding the Terri Schiavo situation who have argued that, essentially, there comes a time in which, because of the rightness of the action, that officials should be compelled in one capacity or another to ignore existing institutions and laws. In the abstract I suppose I agree (if Congress passes a law that the FBI should shoot all blond people, then that law shoudl be ignored), but in my mind such extreme actions are to be reserved for radical circumstances, not in the course of basic public policy debate and judicial discourse. And if one strips away the emotion, that is what we are dealing with here: there are established laws and precedence; there are procedures. This is not as extraordinary as many think that it is. Indeed, if Michael Schiavo didn’t have a girlfriend, or, if he and the Schindlers agreed on the course of action in this case, there would be no story.

However, forget the Schiavo situation, per se. As I stated above, there is a remarkable (in my mind, anyway) urge on the part of many (including many with whom I generally have cause to agree) to have various elements of government act in ways that conservatives normally argue against. Dr. Rusty Shackleford, for example, states that “[o]ften times morality is trumped by legality” and therefore supported the idea that Governor Bush somehow take custody of Terri, regardless of the legal barriers in place (a view shared by Bill Bennett). Yet, I respectfully submit that to allow Jeb Bush to act just because he thinks it is the right thing to do is to vest in one man extraordinary power. Further, the precedent would be onerous and allow, by extension, any number of actions by governors who deemed themselves to be doing the morally right thing. If Jeb Bush can seize Terri Schiavo, why can’t another governor declare the death penalty null and void, or another to state that all DNRs are invalid (all in the name of life)? The number of decree that could be handed down in the name of promoting life is high indeed. If life is to be preserved at all costs, why not mandate that all cars in the state of California be adjusted so that they can go no more than twenty miles an hour? There is no doubt that such a decree would save life-indeed, it would save numerous innocent lives. So why not? No doubt the banning of motorcycles, motor scooters and pocket bikes would save even more lives. I can see the pens of governors across the states issuing decrees as I type. And forget those silly do nor resuscitate orders! If ER staffs work as hard as they can on very patient, more people will, by extension, live. Forget all that pesky law stuff.

Others seem wholly undeterred by the fact that Congress clearly took a decisive step against federalism by inserting the federal courts into an area that, heretofore, had been the domain of the states. Now, I recognize (lest any one argue this point) that Congress has the right to set federal court jurisdictions. However, having the power to do so does not mean it is proper to exercise said power. If the argument is that this matter was so important that the Congress not only had to trample on federalism, but to do so in a very active-central-government kind of way, then, I state, there is no principled position on either federalism nor on restraining government within the Republican leadership of the Congress nor within many who supported this action. That is, I confess, a very strong statement. However, if the argument is that if something it really, really important, then Congress can do whatever it wishes, then this is no different than standard liberal arguments on issues such as abortion or gay marriage, or whatever other issue that gives social conservative hives, because, my friends, the liberals consider those (and many other issues) to be of such central and moral significance as to facilitate, nay demand, the imposition of them upon the entire populace without regard to state borders. And whether it is the Congress or the federal courts influencing such policy is irrelevant-the imposition of views onto the states outside the delegated powers of Congress is, by definition, an erosion of federalism. To take power away from states just because the leadership in Washington thinks it is “important enough” is to say that state power is a fiction to be ignored when it is inconvenient to abide by it.

Conservatives/Republicans/whomever who supported this move by Congress, and especially those who think Governer Bush should defy the orders of various courts and essentially seize custody of Terri Schiavo are simply saying that institutions and laws don’t matter, only power does. And if that is true, federalism, limited government and all the rest be damned, because all that really matters is how many seats one has in the legislature and whether or not your guy sits in the executive branch. Nothing else matters, because if the stakes are high enough, action is justified. And is that what we want? Further: is that the extremes we should be willing to go to in a case that, had Michael and the Schindlers agreed, could have very easily ended in Terri’s tube being removed sans any fanfare whatsoever?

It is this point that really amazes me in terms of the various principles many seem to want to set aside: this is not a radically unique case in terms of the actual procedures and outcome. It is unique because of the publicity, not because no one has ever taken a feeding tube from a persistently vegetative patient before. This is not the first time this has happened, and it shan’t be the last. Further, there are numerous other case in which a feeding tube is never inserted so as to avoid having to remove it from a person who will never recover. I repeat: this is not unique. And yet, some want extra-legal, extra-constitutional actions that will empower government and vitiate principles of federalism and limited government.

I believe very strongly in the significance of established institutions and laws and having to work through them. It part of the brand of conservatism to which I subscribe. If institutions and laws are unjust, then change then via democratic means, not fiat of elected officials who are “doing the right thing”.

Update: I note that Glenn Reynolds has similar thoughts:

I’m quite astonished to hear people who call themselves conservatives arguing, in effect, that Congress and the federal courts have a free-ranging charter to correct any injustice, anywhere, regardless of the Constitution. And yet my email runneth over with just those kinds of comments. And arguing that “it’s okay because liberals do it too” doesn’t undercut my point that conservatives are acting like liberals here. It makes it.

Every system generates unjust results. This may (or may not) be one of them, but there’s no reason to think that Congressional action on an individual legal case is likely to improve things. My lefty law professors used to think that more procedures were always better, and seemed willing to tie the Constitution and the rules of procedure into knots to get to the result they liked. Even they have learned, to a degree, that more procedure doesn’t necessarily lead to better outcomes overall. And conservatives, as opposed to bleeding-heart liberals, are supposed to understand that there’s more at stake than the outcome in individual cases, and that there are real costs to putting whatever thumb-pressure on the scales it takes to get to a desired outcome in each case. Or so I thought.

Update II: Glenn also notes another case of someone calling for Jeb to seize Schiavo. In this case it was Fox’s John Gibson.

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Thursday, March 10, 2005
Blast from the Past: War Motivations.
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 9:13 am

This post by Ann Althouse made me think back to my own views on the war and the motivations to action. While I was wholly convinced of the existence of WMD in Iraq, I also believed that the war could lead to a positive liberalization in Iraq.

To wit, here is a column I published in the Birmingham News on March 23, 2003 (the first column I ever had published, in fact):

Liberation faces test in Iraqi experiment


At approximately 5:35 a.m. Baghdad time on Thursday, the military action to oust Saddam Hussein from power began. This war is primarily being waged for reasons of national security; however, a very important second element is present: the idea of liberation (and, indeed, liberalization of their way of governing). This concept, articulated by both the American and British administrations, now takes the form of a great, and grave, experiment in Iraq.

The war that has come contains within it a test of the fundamental tenet of classic liberalism: That the natural state for human beings is liberty; that regardless of where one is born and under what culture one was raised, one is free. This is the very idea that is embodied in our Declaration of Independence, which asserts that “men are created equal” and that their very birth provides them with “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

This is to say that the human being have rights not because governments grant them, but because of the very fact of their own existence. To be human is to have rights, and that government, more often than not, takes away rights rather than protects them.

These types of assumption, often unconscious, undergird American political culture and American political thought. And, therefore, the calls for the liberation of the people of Iraq are not hollow sloganeering. We do, fundamentally, believe that humans ought to be free.

Indeed, success in this war is, in large measure, based on the core belief that human beings, including the citizen of Iraq, desire freedom and that freedom is the birthright of all.


There is a belief at the center of policy-making in Washington that the U.S. military will be greeted and celebrated by the Iraqi people as liberators, not conquerors. Success, after the bombing stops, is based on this assumption that the people of Iraq want to be free, will welcome being free and will be able to act freely once the tyrant has been removed.

As such, the conflict is a great experiment on the question of what human beings are born to. It is a weighty experiment, one that will be furthered by violence.

Of course, freedom has its own problems, not the least of which is that humans are self-interested and often use freedom to seek the wants of self, rather than of the community. And, further, not all cases of democratic experimentation succeed. The current turmoil in Venezuela, once considered the most democratic country in Latin America, is a good example. It is also noteworthy that Lebanon was once considered a successful democratic state.

So, even if the experiment in liberty is successful, a second experiment will unfold, and that will be finding a way to structure the relationships among free peoples Kurds, Shiites, Sunni and so forth in an institutional structure that both promotes freedom and dulls the impulse to self-interested behavior.

Two claims:

However, to say that Iraq is not suited for democracy is to make one of two claims.

The first claim would be that we are wrong liberty is not the birthright of humanity, and therefore it is the luck of the draw that allows some humans to live free, while others are in chains. As such, it would mean our political culture is predicated on a falsehood.

The second is that liberty simply isn’t for everyone; that some are born to freedom and others are not. This would imply that some human beings are superior to others in their capacity to live free, a proposition filled with hubris and based, at a minimum, in ethnocentrism and, at a maximum, in racism of the worst sort.

There have been many cases in the recent past in which it was assumed that democracy “could not work.” Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, post-Soviet Eastern Europe, or even much of Latin America in the mid-1970s were all cases in which democratic governance seemed impossible. Yet, somehow, democracy took hold.

There is existing empirical evidence to back the claim that we are born to freedom. Iraq, and indeed the whole Middle East, is the new testing ground for that proposition.

This entire affair is, as Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has noted, a major gamble. I concur it is a gamble worth taking, and one that has potentially very positive results.

However, it is a monumental undertaking, the scope of which has not been fully appreciated by many observing the events that are unfolding. The events of the next several months are going to set the stage (indeed, the turmoil in the United Nations has already set the stage) for international relations for decades to come.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2005
Locke Til You Drop
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 3:26 pm

Since we were discussing Locke’s Second Treatise today in my Political Theory class, I found the following from Crooked Timber to be rather amusing: 2nd Treatise Rap.

Also Chris, in another post, points to Locke in modern English.

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Tuesday, March 1, 2005
Questions for Small Government Conservatives
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 4:09 pm

Allegedly, one of the hallmarks of the modern conservative movement (which I will grant is difficult to adequately define) has tended to be a sincere and deep distrust of government. However, of late, it seems that there are a lot of conservatives who wish to give the government radical powers.

Two cases come to mind:

1) Ward Churchill and Tenure/Academic Freedom: It would seem that there are a number of conservatives who, because of Ward Churchill, want to empower state legislatures, or some other, ill-defined body, to determine the quality and worthiness of speech. Setting aside whether or not they think Churchill should go, they have used the situation to attack tenure, professors and academic freedom. For example, Newt Gingrich (and alleged small “g” conservative) wants to empower somebody (it is unclear to me as to whom) with the ability to root out “anti-Americanism” in our universities.

Precisely how is empowering governmental entities, at whatever level, with the ability to police thought in any way construable as a small government conservative position?

2) Jose Padilla: There are many (including Rush Limbaugh on the radio today, another self-avowed small “g”er”) who sees absolutely nothing wrong with granting the President the power to categorize a citizen, and then hold that citizen indefinitely without any due process. How can this not be seen as ultimately as anything other than a gross expansion of executive power? The answer, typically, has something to do with the fact that Padilla is a terrorist. Of course, the problem is, we don’t actually know with certainty that he is a terrorist until there is a trial or some type of substantive due process.

And in response to the idea that since the government says he’s a terrorist that means he mus tin fact be one, I would ask: remember Richard Jewell? Are we really that trusting of the government that just cuz they say a guy is guilty, that we accept that fact and move on?

How is that being a small government conservative?

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Tuesday, February 1, 2005
For Want of Reasonable Dialogue
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 10:33 am

Ann Althouse laments her “sad experience” with the seeming lack of desire of many in the Blogosphere to engage in useful, rational, reasonable debate. (I assume it was this that got her attention-mostly because of the innovation of the term “wingnut”-which struck me as unnecessary).

I share this lament (as I have noted here and here-the second post being more indicative of my general disappointment as I wrote it after a polite invitation to serious discussion was declined in a very exclusionary way-i.e., that the left needed to talk to the left only about the issues in question).

Certainly we all get caught up in our “side” of issues, but usually the world isn’t really confined to two clear “sides.” More likely than not there is a spectrum of positions on a given topic and sometimes the only way (certainly, normally at least, the best way) to fully understand an issue is through vigorous discussion. Why is it that so many are afraid of that? (and I don’t cast this critique at any particular portion of the ideological spectrum).

We should all remember that while our party system requires, on balance, dichotomization-the real world doesn’t. To re-iterate a point I made in regards to the Iraqi elections (at the bottom of this), and an idea that some day I plan to better develop: politics isn’t a football game in which every action is about advancing towards a score to the detriment of the other “team.”

And while I certainly have partisan preferences, the promotion thereof are not my main goal here (and granted, many blogs exist to promote not the discussion of politics, or the promotion of a given set of philosophical positions, but, rather, hardcore partisanship, and that is part of the problem). I blog primarily because I enjoy it, but I really do like the idea of contributing to a broader political discourse. I am willing to engage in debate, accept criticism and to adjust my thinking over time (I don’t subtitle this place “A Rough Draft of My Thought” for solely whimsical reasons).

We should not caricature bloggers based on whom it was they voted for in November, or whether they support the Iraq War or not (which seems to be the simplified lenses through which many-including pundits, professors and politicians-view the world). Such a stance on the complexities of the given political views of a specific individual is ludicrous in the extreme. Indeed: if any who read this, for example, actually feel that they are perfectly represented in every way by the ideological positions and policy outputs of their political party of preference, drop me a line, as I would like to chat with such a rarity.

(Also: Ann makes some interesting observations about left and right in the Blogosphere in her experiences at any rate).


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Outside The Beltway linked with Comments on Blogs: Left vs. Right
f/k/a . . . . linked with open web, closed minds
Arguing with signposts... » When we don’t have anything else to talk about .. linked with [...] s note the hostility toward reasoned debate by those on the other side of the aisle (e.g., Steven Taylor and Ann Althouse). I must admit that I find the discussion somewhat fascinating becaus [...]
Thursday, January 27, 2005
Speaking of Human Rights
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 3:59 pm

Here’s one of my favorite selections from John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government from Chapter 2, Section 6:

The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another, as if we were made for one another’s uses, as the inferior ranks of creatures are for our’s. Every one, as he is bound to preserve himself, and not to quit his station wilfully, so by the like reason, when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he, as much as he can, to preserve the rest of mankind, and may not, unless it be to do justice on an offender, take away, or impair the life, or what tends to the preservation of the life, the liberty, health, limb, or goods of another.

And to the secularist in the audience, don’t get too hung up on the “maker” part and focus on the logic: there is no justification for the subordination of one human by another, and further, if we would apply reason to the situation this is clear, becuase the only way that I can live in safety and freedom is to respect the security and freedom of others-the only other option is to going to war with my fellow man. Self interest dictates that we should treat each other with equality.

And, from Section 7:

In transgressing the law of nature, the offender declares himself to live by another rule than that of reason and common equity

and he becomes, what Locke terms a “noxious creature.”

Any other system apart from a system of natural rights, will be predicated on whatever system the strong can impose on the weak.

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On Human Nature
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 1:31 pm

George Will has an interesting column that is focused on the Larry Summers flap regarding his comment over whether men and women have genetic differences vis-a-vis certain aptitudes. Given that I am wholy unqualified to deal with the question of genetics and mental abilities, I have not taken a foray into this topic.

However, within the column Will points to a debate that is utterly fundamental to all discussions of politics, but one that is rarely directly discussed in public discourse on politics:

The philosophy of natural right — the Founders’ philosophy — rests on a single proposition: There is a universal human nature.

From that fact come, through philosophic reasoning, some normative judgments: Certain social arrangements — particularly government by consent attained by persuasion in a society accepting pluralism — are right for creatures of this nature. Hence the doctrine of “natural right,” and the idea of a nation “dedicated,” as Lincoln said, to the “proposition” that all men are created equal.

The vehemence of the political left’s recoil from this idea is explained by the investment political radicalism has had for several centuries in the notion that human beings are essentially blank slates. What predominates in determining individuals’ trajectories — nature or nurture? The left says nature is negligible, nurturing is sovereign. So a properly governed society can write what it wishes on the blank slate of humanity. This maximizes the stakes of politics and the grandeur of government’s role. And the importance of governing elites, who are the “progressive” vanguards of a perfected humanity.

This debate is fundamental to the debate between those who believe that only in a context of freedom can human beings truly flourish and those who believe that a sufficiently well crafted application of the mind can design the “best” state.

It was at the core of the East-West conflict in the Cold War, it was at the core of the war against Hitler (and today’s observance of the horror that was Auschwitz is a testament to the evil the human mind can create), and is the philosphical basis of Bush’s second inaugural address, as well as the hope behind the elections in Iraq this Sunday.

Perhaps the assumption that there is a universal human nature is flawed. However, the alternative is a view of human beings in which ascriptive characteristics or specific behaviors become the delineator of human nature-and that is a dangerous road to take. If some of us have different natures, Auschwitzes become far easier to construct.

Update: Part of today’s OTB Traffic Jam.

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Sha Ka Ree linked with Universal Rights
Tuesday, December 28, 2004
More on Dealing with Ideological Rivals
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 1:16 pm

On Christmas Eve Eve, I posted a lengthy piece entitled On Talking to (and Viewing) the Opposition. The inspiration of my post was a piece on Barbara O’Brien’s The Mahablog wherein she criticizes Bush supporters and “righties? generically (and rather harshly). Because I had had some (granted limited) pleasant personal contact with Barbara over her book on blogging, I thought I would take her post as a starting spot for a discussion (hopefully on numerous blogs) to deal with, in a modest way, the rather poisonous position that appears on a multiplicity of blogs that a give “side? (right, left, Republican, Democrat, pro/anti Bush, pro/anti the Iraq War, whatever) is so overwhelmingly right (as in “correct?) that they have to right (as in “privilege?) to excoriate their opponents.

Please understand: I am not trying to start a flame war with anybody, nor am I attacking Barbara O’Brien personally. I am attempting to engage in a conversation with whomever it is that would like to talk. I will admit that I take exception to a lot (quite a bit, in fact) of what she writes on her blog, but in the spirit of what I am trying to get at here (i.e., increasing the quantity and quality of political discourse) I am not going to get involved in a food fight. Indeed, by not going bonkers over her characterization of “righties? I am trying to demonstrate that she is simply incorrect in her views on this subject. At a minimum it should be quite clear that overly broad generalizations are neither correct nor helpful.

While I fully understand the fact that anyone who has an opinion on anything is likely to wish to defend it, and further, that political opinions are especially likely to inspire passion, but I have to question the desire from any ideological position to feel an entitlement to demonize one’s opponents—especially in a liberal democracy such as the United States. Surely we have sufficient common ground that we can, at a minimum, engage in discourse. None of us has a monopoly on truth, given that even if we have some possession of truth, none of us is perfect in either our understanding of that truth or in our articulation thereof (setting aside any question of whether there is truth or not). Further, when it comes to things like public policy debates it is unlikely that there is a Truth so perfect as to be beyond debate.

Perhaps the only issue that I understand as one that is difficult to come to compromise on is abortion, and even there it is possible for intelligent people to engage in fruitful conservation. Sure, there are deep feelings and diverse opinions on the Iraq War, but I can’t see it as a topic that should result in lack of conversation. And certainly moving to issues of taxes, Social Security, Medicare, education, or whatever, there is room for discourse. Look, you want to assert your right to commit genocide, then the opportunity for conversation is out the window (or say things like this and dialog is, shall we say, a tad hard to accomplish).

As such, I was quite disappointed that Barbara’s response to my post was a polite e-mail stating that she didn’t want to engage in a conversation. Quite frankly, to dismiss one’s opposition, and to not wish to engage them on the playing field of ideas is an extremely illiberal position, and therefore a very disappointing one.

Really, my ultimate goal here was twofold: 1) an encouragement of recognition on all sides that any claims of utterly perfection are misguided, to say that least, and 2) that civil discourse is a vital part of liberal democracy.

Again, I would remind us all of the words of J.S. Mill:

We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.

First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true.


Let us now pass to the second division of the argument, and dismissing the supposition that any of the received opinions may be false, let us assume them to be true, and examine into the worth of the manner in which they are likely to be held, when their truth is not freely and openly canvassed. However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth.


But there is a commoner case than either of these; when the conflicting doctrines, instead of being one true and the other false, share the truth between them; and the nonconforming opinion is needed to supply the remainder of the truth, of which the received doctrine embodies only a part. Popular opinions, on subjects not palpable to sense, are often true, but seldom or never the whole truth. They are a part of the truth; sometimes a greater, sometimes a smaller part, but exaggerated, distorted, and disjoined from the truths by which they ought to be accompanied and limited. Heretical opinions, on the other hand, are generally some of these suppressed and neglected truths, bursting the bonds which kept them down, and either seeking reconciliation with the truth contained in the common opinion, or fronting it as enemies, and setting themselves up, with similar exclusiveness, as the whole truth. The latter case is hitherto the most frequent, as, in the human mind, one-sidedness has always been the rule, and many-sidedness the exception.

Now, no one is, per se, advocating the silencing of the opposition in this particular case, but I would argue that by failing to engage in multi-party discussion, the basic result is the ignoring of other points of view, and therefore in silencing those views for oneself. Silence is silence, and if one utterly refuses to engage the other sides of an issue, one falls prey to one or more of the problems that Mill describes above.

The issue that seemed to hit home with the other bloggers who responded (such as Joe Gandelman, Jon Henke at QandO, and Doug Petch) was the fact that ideological/news and commentary self-isolation is clearly problematic and creates intellectually unhealthy mindsets.

I study politics and blog on politics because I find politics truly fascinating. As a result of studying and pondering the political world I do, in fact, develop opinions and views on a whole host of topics. However, my goal in doing this, and in pursing a career that is focus on things political, is to increase my knowledge and understanding of the political world, not to get everyone to agree with me. Do I like it when people agree with me? Sure I do, but I don’t see those who don’t to be my enemies.

If one wishes to be taken seriously, one has to be willing to take the views of others seriously as well. At a minimum one cannot truly refute a wrong opinion lest one thoroughly understands that opinion.

I am not espousing a simplistic Rodney King-esque “can’t we all just get along? intellectualism. However, as a member of the academy, and as one who believes in the value and power of words, facts, logic and reason, I am at a loss as to why intelligent persons who claim to be students of politics, cannot engage in meaningful dialog, but would rather simply call names and stay in their clubhouses hangin’ with their peeps and their peeps alone.

Others who commented on my original post: Dean Esmay, Rick Heller at Centerfield, Whispers in the airstreams, The Myopist, and Signifying Nothing (x2).

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Watcher of Weasels linked with Submitted for Your Approval
PoliBlog: Politics is the Master Science » More on Newmark v. O’Brien linked with [...] ll note that Barbara O’Brien does foster that view with great elan at MahaBlog-for example (and not to pick on Barbara, as I think she did a good job on her book, as I have noted, in terms [...]
PoliBlog: Politics is the Master Science » For Want of Reasonable Dialogue linked with [...] 20;wingnut"-which struck me as unnecessary). I share this lament (as I have noted here and here-the second post being more indicative of my general disappointment as I wrote it after a [...]
Thursday, December 23, 2004
On Talking to (and Viewing) the Opposition
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 3:15 pm

After having given her book a positive review earlier in the week, I hate to pick on Barbara O’Brien of MahaBlog, but in a post this morning she makes some claims that I think require discussion and scrutiny—and hopefully a worthwhile dialog can be established as result.

To be honest, my inspiration for writing this post (aside from the fact that I am avoiding some grading I need to do) is that her post is indicative of stuff I see all the time in the Blogosphere, i.e., wherein an ideological blog thinks its side is the nicer one, and the other side is just full of angry rubes who don’t deal in facts, but only diatribes and emotions.

Barbara makes a couple of claims that I think are over the top.

For example:

If you spend time cruising both sides of the blogosphere, IMO there is a marked difference in overall tone between right and left. There’s plenty of snarkiness all around, and it’s no secret that left and right don’t trust each other. But generally, leftie bloggers post about current events and explain (with reason and factual support) what the blogger likes or does not like about said events. And generally, rightie bloggers just spew out hate.

I find this to be grossly unfair and patently false (and, btw, I have seen righty blogs saying the same thing about lefty blogs—both “sides? have a tendency to assume the best about their side and the worst about the other). No doubt one reads criticisms of one’s own views and that criticism seems angrier and meaner than things written by people with whom one agrees.

When I read Kos or Atrios, they often seem quite angry to me (if not mean), but I suspect that when Barbara reads them, she probably thinks they are being eminently fair. One has to recognize the lens through which one views such things.

Further, I would note that it really isn’t fair to state that lefty bloggers uses facts and reason and righty bloggers don’t. Quite frankly, most bloggers don’t use either as much as they think they do. And, for that matter, both sides use facts and reason that often appeal to their point of view.

Further, I would say that blogs that I would think fall into the “righty? camp such at InstaPundit, Outside the Beltway,, and Signifying Nothing, do a good job of being both reasonable and non-angry.

Along the same line there are those in the “lefty? camp who argue well, even if I don’t agree with them or find them annoying, sarcastic or even dead wrong at times, if not often. For example, I often read Kevin Drum, Brad DeLong, Mark A. R. Kleiman, among others, with whom I may not share ideological kinship, but who write intelligently on their blogs.

Along these lines, I just don’t get this statement:

The few rightie bloggers who manage a civil tone are still intellectually dishonest about it, dismissing any news story that violates their ideological sensitivities as “liberal bias.” Whether the facts presented in the story are or are not true is rarely a consideration.

This is simply painting with too broad a brush. Not only is this statement rather condescending in the sense that it is assumed only a handful of rightie bloggers can manage civility, it further slams those by accusing them, writ large, with intellectual dishonesty. Let me note for the record: it is possible for someone to be in disagreement with another person and have both parties operating with intellectual honesty. In other words: even if I am wrong, it doesn’t mean I am being intellectually dishonest.

Another point where I think Barbara is off the mark is here:

However, that’s not the kind of post rightie trolls leave. Rightie trolls leave posts that say you’re a liberal so you stink, except with more vulgarity. Rightie troll posts rarely come with reason or factual support. Usually rightie troll posts are nothing but gratuitous insult.

What I would say here is that if one strikes the word “rightie? from the paragraph, and aim it just at trolls, then she has a point. The bottom line is that trolls are trolls, left, right, center, whatever. To state that only “rightie trolls? are rude is to demonstrate that perhaps one hasn’t looked enough at the comments sections of other blogs. It is no doubt the case that if one has a right-leaning blog, one’s obnoxious trolls probably come from the left, and if one runs a left-leaning blogs, the obnoxious trolls are righties. Still, trolls are trolls, and from personal experience I can readily state that there are no ideological monopolies on rudeness or stupid comments.

As a generic point, I would note that citing Freepers as being a representative sample of conservatives is an disingenuous as saying that the Democratic Underground is representative of liberals. Both sides need to come to grips with the fact that there are obnoxious people on both sides of aisle.

I think that we all tend to get to isolated in our own little ideological worlds, especially in the current world of niche media. We all spend too much time reading columnists and blogs that agree with us, listening to radio that agrees with us and watching cable news shows that agree with us. As such, we find our own view reinforced, while the other side seems more and more foreign (and wrong). Perhaps the we should all take a trip on the other side of the aisle more frequently and try to view our own positions through alternative lenses. At a minimum, one will find that one is better able to defend one’s own positions if one knows how the other side will attack. And beyond that, it might actually cause us to actually think more deeply about our own views. Such a concept, yes?

Of course, when Barbara makes the following statement, intelligent debate becomes difficult:

The bald truth is that to be a Bush supporter means that you are (a) ignorant of what’s going on; (b) suffering massive cognitive dissonance; or (c) are a soulless sociopathic bastard.

She certainly has the right to subscribe to such a position, but really, this is hardly helpful, constructive, or true. This is simple demonization which does nothing to further intellectual discourse.

She continues:

I postulate that rightiness (as opposed to actual political conservatism, which is something else entirely) is less an ideology than a pathology, bordering on sociopathy. Those who don’t tidily conform to their world view are not human beings, in their minds. Democrats, liberals, neighborhood children who might be electrocuted, the poor, and often minorities -are not human beings. Just caricatures. They don’t bleed. They don’t think. They don’t have souls, or mothers. Therefore, it’s easy for righties to suggest that killing a few of these vermin might be a good thing, and no twinge of conscienceness stops them. This is sociopathy on its face.

Well, I shan’t argue the point, if her definition is correct (which I dispute). However, I am unaware of any substantial number of persons who believe such things. Oddly, by describing “righties? in such a way, Barbara is engaging in the same kind of dehumanizing sociopathic classification of her fellow citizen that she is accusing “righties” of doing. Really, if these people (i.e., “righties”/”Bush supporters”) really think this way, why take them seriously? Why treat them as fellow citizens who ought to be treated with any modicum of respect?

Perhaps I am missing her definition of “righties? but since it seems to encompass “Bush supporters? I am at a loss to construct a particularly narrow definition.

Bloggers such as Stephen Green, Dean Esmay, James Joyner, Betsy Newmark, Glenn Reynolds, Sean Hackbarth, Ann Althouse, and myself (to list a few) are all definable as “Bush supporters? to one degree or another, yet I don’t think any of us are sociopaths.

Now, I will readily grant, there are some hateful, angry blogs out there, but they are on the right and the left-anger and hate are non-ideological, equal opportunity nouns.

I think she needs to rethink her position on this topic.

She concludes her post stating that she respects “conservative opinion,” but not sociopathy. Let me join her is condemning the sociopathic, but I am vexed as to her exact definition of “conservative opinion? and to degree to which she sincerely respects it (since at one place she links it to intellectual dishonesty and seems to link it to sociopathic thought processes elsewhere). And, of course, I dispute her broad-brushing large swaths of Americans as sociopathic.

At any rate, I offer up this post as the basis for discussion with Barbara and anyone else who wishes to get into the act—all in the spirit of classic liberal discourse.

Generically, it seems that there is a cautionary tale here for all of us in the way in which we view our ideological rivals.

Filed under: US Politics, Political Philosophy/ Theory, Blogging | Comments (28) |Send TrackBack | Show Comments here

Flight Pundit linked with Know thy enemy
Wizbang linked with Earthquare? Tsunami? Blame the U.S.
QandO linked with
Centerfield linked with Which Blogs Hate More? linked with More Than A Million Weblogs
The Myopist linked with Jeebus, not another Sweeping Generalization.
Signifying Nothing linked with Right-wing sociopaths
Signifying Nothing linked with Clarifications and amplifications
The Moderate Voice linked with BLOGGING: Which Shows More Hate? The Left Or The Right Blogs?
Dean's World linked with On Communicating With Intellectual Rivals
PoliBlog: Politics is the Master Science » For Want of Reasonable Dialogue linked with [...] erm “wingnut"-which struck me as unnecessary). I share this lament (as I have noted here and here-the second post being more indicative of my general disappointment as I wrote it [...]
PoliBlog: Politics is the Master Science » More on Dealing with Ideological Rivals linked with [...] vals By Steven Taylor @ 1:16 pm On Christmas Eve Eve, I posted a lengthy piece entitled On Talking to (and Viewing) the Opposition. The inspiration of my post was a piece on Barbara O’Br [...]
Whispers in the airstreams » arguing about who is worse linked with [...] they can apply to demonstrate thier point. [referring to ] Steven Taylor, aka Poliblogger dealing with intellectual rivals … Taylor wrote his piece after reading this post by blogger Ba [...]
Tuesday, December 21, 2004
Video: The Argument Clinic
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 1:01 pm

For those who are unfamilar (how sad) with the Argument Clinic sketch I mentioned the other day, I have found an online video of it.

Click and enjoy.

Filed under: Political Philosophy/ Theory, Academia | Comments (3) |Send TrackBack | Show Comments here
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