Marginalize The Demagogues, Engage The Demos

by Conor Friedersdorf

Over at his exceptional policy blog, The Agenda, Reihan Salam wrote something that I want to strip of it's context for a moment: is generally a good thing for the views of large numbers of citizens to be part of the larger public conversation. This allows others to gauge those views and to make judgments about them, and it helps dissipate the anger that tends to build among people who would otherwise feel excluded. My libertarian friend interpreted this as a straightforward utilitarian claim -- i.e., so the anger will dissipate and these people won't become violent extremists, ergo we will save lives. That's not quite how I would put it. This isn't really a hypothesis we can rigorously test. Rather, it is a gut instinct.

I concur with that gut instinct. It's why as editor of my college newspaper, I insisted on preserving a policy where all signed letters to the editor were printed, why I'm so enamored with the excellent new site Ricochet, where right-leaning readers engage in all manner of forceful disagreements in the comments section (often debating with yours truly), and why I adamantly oppose the sorts of hate speech laws that are present in Canada and certain parts of Europe.

As it happens, it is more possible than ever before for large numbers of citizens to participate in the larger public conversation. It turns out that the contest of the remarks above is the public debate over the mosque and community center near Ground Zero, where the viewpoints of mosque opponents and proponents alike are being reflected on national television, inside magazines, on countless Web sites, through social networks, and even in old fashioned conversations.

Earlier in his post, Mr. Salam writes:

I can't speak to Conor's views, but I think it's safe to say that many people really do believe we should ignore the sentiments of large numbers of citizens. Some are libertarians, with an instinctive fear of populist excess, and others are liberals who embrace populist language when it is directed at those characterized as rich and powerful but not when it is directed at those characterized as poor and vulnerable.

It seems to me that by virtue of linking, excerpting, and rebutting views that I find unpersuasive or even objectionable, I am including them in the larger national conversation. I am certainly not ignoring them, and while I can't speak for all libertarian writers with a fear of populist excess -- a descriptor that could certainly characterize me -- I can't think of very many blogs I read that are ignoring the views of those with whom they disagree on this subject. It's true that some people are writing things like, "Anyone against this mosque is a bigot." That's unfortunate. And on the other side, some are basically writing, "If you support this mosque you're disgracing the memory of 9/11 victims." Also wrongheaded. I'd echo to both kinds of people what Mr. Salam wrote elsewhere in that post:

Like J.S. Mill, I believe that advocates of cultural change should make their case to the wider public, not just to elected officials or judges or other people with the power to ignore or overrule public sentiment.

There is one additional thing I want to say, and I'm unsure if Mr. Salam and I disagree about this or not: the mere fact that members of the public believe something isn't a defense of its assertion by a professional journalist or talk show host, especially when they don't believe it themselves. In a column in The Daily Beast, Mr. Salam once wrote a defense of Glenn Beck that made a utilitarian case for his unhinged, conspiratorial rants, whatever their basis in truth. The idea was that his show takes the deep-seated anxieties of marginalized viewers seriously, and channels them, acting as a sort of release valve that dissuades them from violent explosions. It isn't a defense that persuades me, nor does it strike me as any less condescending than insisting that Mr. Beck shouldn't say anything unless he believes it to be true. Deliberately misleading millions of people on many occasions cannot be justified by an untested guess that it might sooth the nerves of an unknown fringe.

The media elites I've been complaining about most during this mosque argument aren't just channeling legitimate concerns, they are irresponsibly spreading misinformation that exacerbates the most paranoid fears of mosque opponents. They're asserting defamatory things about Imam Rauf, and stating outright that his motives are malign, when they can know no such thing. Unlike Mr. Salam's libertarian friend, I don't want to "marginalize or ignore majorities that hold 'bigoted' views," but I do want to marginalize media elites who exacerbate the majority's antagonisms by misleading them, whether deliberately or through wanton negligence.

I do think Mr. Salam is saying something very wise here: that a viewpoint, however offensive, doesn't just go away when you ignore and marginalize it. That insight ought to inform our public conversations. But so too should this one: whereas it's plausible that media elites might act as a release valve by echoing the anxieties of the population, it's demonstrable historical fact that elites can provoke ugly, sometimes catastrophic backlashes against minority groups with deliberately inflammatory rhetoric, and that before the fact it's hard to predict when the line is going to be crossed. The engagement with America's majority that Mr. Salam counsels seems to me the best way forward, and grateful that he reminded me as much, I'll endeavor to do my part, aspiring to match his intellectual generosity.