Hot tempers flashed yesterday on my Facebook page: the subject was whether or not Rush Limbaugh’s description of Sandra Fluke’s testimony to Congress on the subject of the government’s paying for her contraception was destructive and obnoxious. In short, Rush called her a “slut,” and walked right into a political trap (the distraction of culture war talk instead of focus on statist social policy) from which there was no escape. No consensus was reached on my FB page and we retired to our respective corners, each side perhaps feeling abused by the other.
In this short blog, I want to restate my position about how we fight, or, the rules of engagement in public space. (For a longer essay see http://clarespark.com/2009/06/04/modernity-and-mass-death/, one of my first blogs, that will be of special interest to artists and writers.) During the rise of the second wave of feminism (during the 60s and 70s), many feminists angrily denounced men (the collective object of their wrath) as “male chauvinist pigs.” Outraged males returned the compliment with such terms as “feminazis” or, more recently, the proponents of the welfare state as avatars of the “nanny state,” the latter a bossy maternal entity that was also linked to fascism. Still other “true conservatives” are angry with such “RINO’s” as George W. Bush, John McCain, and Olympia Snowe, all of whom are tied to the “Massachusetts moderate” Mitt Romney, hence are beyond the pale of decency.
One of Alexander Hamilton’s lesser known contributions to government in a representative republic is his connecting “truth” with the defense against libel and slander. I.e., it was neither libel nor slander if the speaker being sued for defamation was accurate in his or her characterization of the plaintiff. (For a valuable and accessible discussion of the free press question, see Ron Chernow’s biography of AH, pp. 668-71. It does much to answer those who associate Hamilton with the Alien and Sedition Act.) Such a rule clarifies the limits of free speech and fills out what he might have meant by “popular sovereignty” (see Federalist #22, specifically the voice of the people as the source of legitimate authority). It is impossible to deliberate over what is to be done in controverted questions of public policy if either side in the battle resorts to the shorthand of personal insults and malicious intent. It is repulsive and counter-productive when any participant in a conflict muddies the waters with ad hominem attacks, as opposed to clarifying the question at hand with facts and reasonable arguments. The appeal to reason is our best defense against the sadists who withhold the details of their own conduct from would be knowledgeable voters, all the while resorting to the mind-management I have constantly condemned on this website.
Hamilton’s summation of his six-hour speech in the Croswell case brings tears to my eyes: [Hamilton speaks, in Chernow, p. 670:... "I never did think the truth was a crime. I am glad the day is come in which it is to be decided, for my soul has ever abhorred the thought that a free man dared not speak the truth." The issue of press freedom was all the more important because the spirit of faction, "that mortal poison to our land," had spread through America. He worried that a certain unnamed party might impose despotism: "To watch the progress of such endeavours is the office of a free press. To give us early alarm and put us on our guard against the encroachments of power. This then is a right of the utmost importance, one for which, instead of yielding it up, we ought rather to spill our blood." [end, Chernow excerpt]
The internet and talk radio potentially offer much to the mob: anonymity; distance from the frowns, screams, and daggers of enemies; catharsis as a way of life: all in all, reinforcement to our most antisocial impulses. I abhor such conduct whether it comes from revolutionary socialists, or from “liberals,” or from “conservatives.” The persistence of such violence at a distance will destroy the sense of safety that serious citizens require to speak their minds, often in dissent from fashionable ideas in any particular partisan camp.
Conversation on the internet is priceless when we consider the positive effect it could have in building community, consensus where possible, and in educating each other about subjects that are often mystified or hidden by various elites—elites who are also gatekeepers who discourage fact-finding, and who cannot withstand close examination by “hoi polloi.”
For many, it is a pleasurable relief to discharge rage to a distant crowd. But the thrill wears off quickly, only to leave the enragé depressed, and finally without any friends at all.