Preaching to the Choir

Contributors to conservative sites such as this one are often reminded, and sometimes accused, of merely “preaching to the choir” and thus of having little effect on the corpus of public opinion. Why bother spending time and energy insisting on certain themes to the community of those who share the same set of social and political beliefs? Oddly, so far as I’ve been able to determine, commenters to left-leaning sites rarely apply the equivalent argument to their own contributors, owing, I suspect, to the overwhelming sanctimoniousness that inhabits the liberal left mindset. But it is different for many on the right. The threat of despondency, of the onset of a debilitating pessimism and even hopelessness, hovers on the polemical horizon.

But it is also true that conservative sites are visited by readers of a different persuasion, some of whom are obviously trolls, members of what Robert Gibbs has called the "professional left," whose only purpose is to subvert, insult and denounce, and many of whom, it appears, are actually on salary. There is clearly no dealing with them, no trading of ideas with such interlopers via comments and threads. The only language they have mastered is parrotese. However, there is also a species of antiphrastic readers -- i.e., who have misconstrued the meaning of “liberal” -- who come with the laudable intention of scanning the counter-arguments, perhaps of learning what the “other side” has to say, of entering into legitimate debate, and, optimally, of broadening their understanding of the acetylene issues of the day. Perhaps even of scrolling toward enlightenment.

Of course, there are daily skirmishes and exchanges of epithet fire between the conservative right and the liberal left. The term “culture wars” is distressingly accurate and there are doughty warriors in either camp who lay about them and give no quarter. Political debate seems almost Byzantine in its complexity and ferocity, like a re-run of the pitched battles fought between the Blue and Green factions in mid-millennium Byzantium. “The population in every city,” wrote Procopius in The Secret History, “has for a long time been divided into two groups, the Greens and the Blues [who] fight with their opponents … respecting neither marriage nor kinship nor the bonds of friendship.” Only now, in the U.S., the colors are Blue and Red.

It should nonetheless be remarked that the degree of verbal violence perpetrated by the liberal left seems almost unprecedented in its intensity, and it is this particular factor that makes rational reciprocity the most elusive of goals. The obscene abuse and irrational condemnations heaped by leftist commenters on conservative politicians, journalists and movements for presumably motivating Jared Loughner’s Arizona shooting spree is a case in point. The slagging of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as Hitler or Mussolini redivivus for trying to repair the state’s out-of-control budget is another serrating example. Yet, judging from the occasional positive interventions of those on the near left (the far left is too distant to be reached), there appears to be room for a sliver of “hope and change,” in the meaningful acceptation of that duplicitous phrase.

Given this development, the posting of articles and columns elaborating a conservative point of view is not merely a function of preaching to the choir, but also of engaging the visitors from another continent of thought and belief who drop in to check out the scene, to observe the nature of the proceedings, even to appreciate the quaintness — or the drama — of the liturgy, like tourists enjoying the spectacle of the service in some ancient cathedral mentioned in a Lonely Planet guidebook.

What is interesting from the standpoint of clergy and congregation, so to speak, is the occasional conversion, or at least the willingness on the part of some of these visitors to reflect on what they have experienced. I have read comments to posted articles which indicate a change of heart and mind and have received emails from people who have undergone the painful process of reconsideration. Convinced leftists today are stuck in an evolutionary dead end but contemplative liberals will from time to time come to accept or acknowledge the conservative gravamen and re-order their social and political premises. As David Swindle writes, “We can — and should — present all the facts and arguments available to try and wake people up to the sinister forces that threaten us. Because we will snap some people out of their slumber.”

Which is why it is important to persist despite the Herculean labor of the task and to refuse to be deflected or disheartened by the “preaching to the choir” requiem. And even amidst the distractions that tend to disperse meditative impulses in the current digital and cellular environment, there is always that little gleam of possibility. As T.S. Eliot proleptically wrote in his Four Quartets, “Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.” Moreover, the choir also needs to be encouraged every now and then to prevent slippage and to provide incentive. But we should always remember that there are these visitors and tourists who come to fill their photo albums and sometimes leave with a different view of the world, prepared to re-think their congenial assumptions.

It is only fair to recognize that the reverse procedure may apply equally to liberal left venues, but the tenor of the discourse there is generally very different from what we have grown accustomed to in much of the conservative media. For not only are such left venues also preaching to their choir, but the tone of the service, as noted above, is usually far more vulgar, humorless, splenetic and defamatory, often to the point of breaching the rules of common decorum or mature expectation. Conservative readers on the whole are more likely to take offense at, rather than be influenced by, the stench of such productions. Indeed, conservative talkbackers are at a premium on these sites and would probably need to be wanded aboard. It is reasonable to assume that the “conversion rate” among liberals would now be demonstrably higher than among conservatives.

Still, the conservative camp has for many years fought a tortuous, uphill battle when the prospect of victory seemed impossibly remote. Happily, this appears to be changing, however slightly. To go back to the Arizona tragedy and the leftist “blood libel,” even Jon Stewart and David Brooks have adopted a comparatively sensible and moderate perspective on the event. And as Roger Simon points out, the sale of the Huffington Post to AOL may plausibly indicate that the left-oriented site “is apparently going more centrist…Progressivism, which was riding the crest of popularity on the election of Obama, is over. It is no longer good for business.” Let’s hope he’s right.

Nevertheless, I admit to those moments of dismay in the face of a vast and monolithic opposition when I have been tempted, like some of my colleagues on the right who have had similar doubts, to leave off political writing, sell my house, buy a yacht in the Caribbean, stock it with booze and babes, and let the world go hang. Why sacrifice whatever modicum of pleasure remains to us? Let America collapse. Let the nanny state devitalize its citizens. Let the phalanxes of the left unleash their mad tirades and predictable disasters. Let the West succumb to the Islamic virus. A civilization that wants to die should be allowed to go quietly — or violently — into that good night.

But such reveries of disaffection never last long, and I know that we must continue preaching both to the choir as well as to that group of fortuitous callers and transients, some of whom may decide to stay. The yacht is for later, when the tide has finally turned.