Tone, Discourse, and that Dreaded Rhetoric

Friday, January 14th, 2011

I’ve read lots of “tone” in today’s papers. Civility, responsibility, guns, blame, and civil discourse have been the themes of the last week or so. Consider David Brooks in his essay titled Tree of Failure. In the column, Brooks’s tone can be considered civil and thoughtful. Here’s how he begins

President Obama gave a wonderful speech in Tucson on Wednesday night. He didn’t try to explain the rampage that occurred there. Instead, he used the occasion as a national Sabbath — as a chance to step out of the torrent of events and reflect. He did it with an uplifting spirit. He not only expressed the country’s sense of loss but also celebrated the lives of the victims and the possibility for renewal.

He calls Barack Obama’s memorial speech “wonderful” and “uplifting.” He characterizes Obama’s approach as “an occasion as a national Sabbath.” The subject of the essay is his take on the “roots” of civility. He writes

Civility is a tree with deep roots, and without the roots, it can’t last. So what are those roots? They are failure, sin, weakness and ignorance.

Brooks ties these ideas to “modesty” and a need to re-carve it into our relationships: “Most of all, there will have to be a return to modesty,” he writes. He places “modesty” in contrast to “narcissism.” The frame for this “modesty” is wrapped in the language of Genesis: “But over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness.” Finally, Brooks calls on the words of Reinhold Niebuhr to make his final appeal, which is an interesting choice.

In addition to Brooks, I took a look at Paul Krugman piece entitled A Tale of Two Moralities. I did this because I also read Charles Krauthammer’s piece Rabid Partisans Hallucinated Shooter’s Reasons and I wanted to see why he comes down so hard on Krugman, which, of course, simply led to the reading of the essays.

Krugman begins his piece this way

On Wednesday, President Obama called on Americans to “expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together.” Those were beautiful words; they spoke to our desire for reconciliation.

Krugman’s thesis has to do with his difficult reconciliation might be given divisiveness. He writes,

But the truth is that we are a deeply divided nation and are likely to remain one for a long time. . . . For the great divide in our politics isn’t really about pragmatic issues, about which policies work best; it’s about differences in those very moral imaginations Mr. Obama urges us to expand, about divergent beliefs over what constitutes justice.

The nature of this division, according to Krugman, has to do with points of view that can’t be squared. Here’s how he characterizes the differing views:

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

These “characterizations” are generalized and I don’t necessarily agree with their implications. Having “a right to keep what they earn” doesn’t necessarily lead to charges of “tyranny.” In the first, “liberal” characterization, one doesn’t necessarily need to view a “progressive tax code” in context with “welfare state.” To place them back into Brooks’s scheme, we would need to ask “Who’s the narcissist?” which doesn’t seem like an appropriate question. In any event, it is possible to not to react with spleen to Krugman but to build an argument in disagreement. He ends the piece with this:

It’s not enough to appeal to the better angels of our nature. We need to have leaders of both parties — or Mr. Obama alone if necessary — declare that both violence and any language hinting at the acceptability of violence are out of bounds. We all want reconciliation, but the road to that goal begins with an agreement that our differences will be settled by the rule of law.

Here’s my disagreement. Developing the two sides and their points of disagreement would have been more helpful, especially on the technical nature of the issues, to Krugman’s thesis. Is it naive to say that we don’t spend enough time examining and debating whether this is that bolt size will do the job better? I think this Krugman’s point.

Charles Krauthammer’s Rabid Partisans Hallucinated Shooter’s Reasons attempts to make the case that blaming Sarah Palin and the Tea Party for the Arizona tragedy is unsupported by evidence and that those who do so are evincing their own style of “hallucination.” He begins the essay in a legal frame:

The charge: The Tucson massacre is a consequence of the “climate of hate” created by Sarah Palin, the tea party, Glenn Beck, Obamacare opponents and sundry other liberal betes noires.

The verdict: Rarely in American political discourse has there been a charge so reckless, so scurrilous, and so unsupported by evidence.

To bring the point home, Krauthammer identifies those he believes have made the “charge” and then rounds things off with a repetition of the thesis

Not only is there no evidence that Loughner was impelled to violence by any of those upon whom Paul Krugman, Keith Olbermann, The New York Times, the Tucson sheriff and other rabid partisans are fixated. There is no evidence that he was responding to anything, political or otherwise, outside of his own head.

Krauthammer goes on to explore the apparent issue with the shooter, Loughner, and his mental health problems and then places martial metaphors in their context. He writes

Finally, the charge that the metaphors used by Palin and others were inciting violence is ridiculous. Everyone uses warlike metaphors in describing politics. When Barack Obama said at a 2008 fundraiser in Philadelphia, “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun,” he was hardly inciting violence.

Why? Because fighting and warfare are the most routine of political metaphors. And for obvious reasons. Historically speaking, all democratic politics is a sublimation of the ancient route to power — military conquest.

When profiles of Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, noted that he once sent a dead fish to a pollster who displeased him, a characteristically subtle statement carrying more than a whiff of malice and murder, it was considered a charming example of excessive — and creative — political enthusiasm. When Senate candidate Joe Manchin dispensed with metaphor and simply fired a bullet through the cap-and-trade bill — while intoning, “I’ll take dead aim at (it)” — he was hardly assailed with complaints about violations of civil discourse or invitations to murder.

The above is a long quote, as I want to illustrate Krauthammer’s method. He ends the piece with a pointed expression at Krugman: “The origins of Loughner’s delusions are clear: mental illness. What are the origins of Krugman’s?”

I would make the case that Krauthammer’s fundamental point may be correct: that Loughner’s motivations might have been spurred by mental illness rather than by “politics.” I write “might” because the facts are actually not in as of yet. Krauthammer’s method, however, falls flat and makes his conclusion, which may indeed be hasty, very difficult to take as serious polemic. It would’ve been entirely agreeable to simply disagree with Krugman (or The New York Times, with what exactly about it’s reportage?) straight down the line instead of accusing the opposition of being delusional and “rabid” which draws in the specter of unnecessary ad hominem and a reflective charge of being “rabid” also. Why? Because it is possible to be incorrect without being delusional. Indeed, the approach should have been to establish exactly where the disagreement is because in Krauthammer’s case, as in Brooks’s and Krugman’s, it’s difficult to agree on the precise issue at hand.


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