Comments and observations on social and political trends and events.

Monday, May 7, 2012

If I wanted the truth to fail

This article by Holly Munson in the Huffington Post talks about a video by a group called Free Market America which has received over 1,000,000 hits on YouTube. She compares it to an essay by E. L. Doctorow titled Unexceptionalism: A Primer. As Munson summarizes both:

The video opens with a grave-faced narrator: "If I wanted America to fail, to follow, not lead ... I'd start with energy." He then outlines a litany of objectives, such as using public schools to teach schoolchildren that people are causing global warming. The ominous kicker at the end: "If I wanted America to fail, I -- I suppose I wouldn't change a thing."

Then, this Sunday, the New York Times published an op-ed by writer E.L. Doctorow titled "Unexceptionalism: A Primer." The essay begins: "To achieve unexceptionalism, the political ideal that would render the United States indistinguishable from the impoverished, traditionally undemocratic, brutal or catatonic countries of the world, do the following" -- followed by step-by-step instructions, such as, "If you're a justice of the Supreme Court, decide that the police ... have the absolute authority to strip-search any person whom they, for whatever reason, put under arrest." The finale: "With this ruling, the reduction of America to unexceptionalism is complete."
Munson closes her article with a section titled The Analysis.

So what should we make of the arguments made by Free Market America and Doctorow? Are they contributing to the lack of civility in public discourse by demonizing the opponent? Or are they thoughtful arguments, articulated in an effective, albeit emotionally manipulative, way?”

There is room to argue that these are valid exercises in satire.

The problem is that when someone equates a particular policy position with The Destruction of America As We Know It, or equates those who hold that position as evil (and/or stupid), they disregard the fact that reasonable people can disagree, and that their opponents probably have decidedly non-sinister reasons for believing what they do.

It's also worth pointing out that both parties are guilty of this -- it's something we all need to work on.
I agree that many people find it much easier to demonize their political opponents rather than carefully, objectively analyzing their positions. Given the name of this blog you can probably guess which way I lean. However I also believe that a video or an editorial essay (or political commercials) are not appropriate vehicles for well constructed arguments. There is a legitimate place for passionate polemics and there is a place for probing debates and detailed analysis. (For the later check out publications by the Cato Institute and Brookings Institute.) I’m concerned that equating the two methods of spreading one's message smuggles in the solipsism of saying no one is right nor wrong. In the process incorrect or unfounded beliefs get treated as equivalent to well-founded ones. The truth gets lost in the process. And we lose.

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