The other day, in my post about liberal condescension, I said that
conservatives are often as contemptuous of progressives as progressives
are of them, and that when it comes to making a space for intelligent
dialogue, there is little to choose. Glenn Greenwald has some good
examples of inflammatory conservative rhetoric.
Greenwald is an interesting, informed, and bravely unpredictable commentator (see his unflinching praise
for the Supreme Court's decision on Citizens United, a ruling that
enraged most liberals). He is a constitutional fundamentalist, and
follows the logic of his arguments wherever it leads - an admirable
trait, mostly. But he is nothing if not angry. Any decent person would
be, he believes. That leads me to wonder about the argument he is
Conservatives, he says, can be just as intemperate and defamatory in their opposition to liberalism as progressives are to conservatives. Conservatives who say otherwise are hypocrites. Agreed. But does Greenwald think this equal and opposite rage is OK? Is this how a healthy democracy works - with one side talking about Dumbf***istan and the other about "liberal fascism"? Or would we get further if both sides toned it down and tried talking to each other?
Greenwald, to judge by his own commentary, is very much against
toning it down. But this must qualify his objection to conservative
extremism. He can attack the claim of "liberal fascism" on the merits;
and he can complain of hypocrisy on the part of conservatives who deny
their own side's rhetorical violence. But he can hardly object to
violent rhetoric in its own right. He is for that. In an adversarial
democracy, it is fine to despise a good number of your fellow citizens,
if they deserve to be despised.
I wonder if there is a disconnect between this way of thinking and reverence for the constitution. Greenwald
does not admire the constitution because it always gives the right
answer. He argues that if the constitution rules something out (an
abridgment of free speech, torture, whatever) you obey the prohibition
even if the results are bad. If the constitution gets something wrong,
you amend it, you don't just ignore it. This is a very defensible
position, though not always a convenient one. But the question is, why
exalt a necessarily imperfect constitution to that degree? This is not
a religious commitment. It is an instrumental undertaking. The reason
must surely be, in part, to make it possible for people with different
views to engage productively in civil society. If productive engagement
is the purpose, that argues not just for a beautiful constitution, but
steady effort to see merit in the other side's positions. In a way, the
constitution exists to institutionalise that effort. Ideological rage
and commitment to the constitution seem to pull in opposite directions.
I also wonder if Greenwald would be more effective in advancing his
views if he dialed back the anger. The answer to that is not obvious,
however. He would have a smaller following, most likely. But I think he
might have more influence, because people who disagree with him would
find his (always deeply reasoned) arguments harder to ignore.
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