Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Capturing the low ground

In my last post I defended Whole Foods CEO John Mackey from the less temperate responses to his Wall Street Journal editorial on health care and suggested that a call to boycott is not exactly a constructive contribution to the health care debate.

Of course, there are intemperate reactions on both sides of the political divide. Over on the right there are people who are carrying out their own campaign to stifle rational debate by resorting to invective, distortion and intimidation.

First there’s the fellow who showed up at the health care rally with the gun on his hip and the sign quoting Jefferson’s remark about the tree of liberty and the blood of patriots. This made a lot of people’s hair stand on end, and for good reason.

It’s not the gun per se I have a problem with; in New Hampshire he wasn’t violating any law. It’s the implication that a federal role in health care poses a threat to our liberty so urgent and so draconian as to justify violent revolution that makes me wonder what this gentleman has been ingesting besides that good mountain spring water. Taken together with the gun, I think we have to say that this disqualifies this particular citizen from a seat at the roundtable. Intimidation has no role in the discussion of public policy problems.

Then there are all the Obama-Hitler comparisons popping up in various venues, from the fringes of rally crowds to Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. If there’s one thing guaranteed to transform a debate instantly from a rational discussion to a shouting match, it’s an implication of fascism. As tokens, Hitler and his Nazis remain the polemical equivalent of tossing a match into a pool of gasoline.

Liberals, of course have been blithely comparing conservatives to Nazis for a long time, so perhaps a backlash was inevitable. The comparison of Democrats to Nazis is currently fashionable in some conservative circles partly because of a book by Jonah Goldberg called Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, which reminds readers of the ‘Socialist’ part of National Socialism and points out similar elements in the history of the American left. But the point of Goldberg’s book is to attack careless use of the term ‘fascist’ by the left, and Goldberg himself says, in the current issue of the National Review, “...I don’t think it is remotely right or fair to call Obama a crypto-Nazi.”

Doing so may be merely hysterical, or it may be a dishonest attempt to preempt debate. That was true when the left was comparing Bush to Hitler, and it’s true now. It’s an attempt to make people’s minds snap shut instead of remaining open for the long slog of evaluating evidence and arguments. It’s an attempt to avoid doing your homework on the issues.

I don’t know who’s ahead in the dishonesty sweepstakes; at this point there are lots of people on both the left and the right who would rather caricature and demonize their opponents than tackle the hard work of calm, rational analysis and persuasion. So when people start trading accusations about whether the right or the left is more dishonest, I lose interest.

I’ll listen to anyone who is genuinely interested in the truth. But if you’re more interested in scoring points than in advancing the debate, don’t pester me. I’m too busy doing my homework.

Sam Reaves