Talking Back to the Talkbackers

When I published my conservative critique of Canadian poetry and fiction, Director’s Cut, in 2003, I was appalled to read the comments on diverse blogs and websites. Practically none attempted to approach or to contest my arguments, but many had a lot of pejorative things to say about my mental abilities and some even targeted certain of my physical attributes -- without the slightest visual corroboration, be it said. Most of these commenters, writers themselves, whom I either know personally or know of via the grapevine, form part of the great liberal constituency in this country which flatters itself as progressive and enlightened.

It was no different after The Big Lie came out in 2007. I suddenly found myself being dissed right and left (well, mainly left), pricked with derogatory nicknames, and snidely repudiated by people I had once respected, including onetime friends and acquaintances of a distinctly leftist stamp. Again, few of my detractors were willing to meet the book on equal terms, to sift the testimony I had amassed to establish a case, to consider my deductions, to counter my conclusions with attested facts of their own, or even to absorb the authentic data and historical events laid out in its pages. There was nothing that resembled a conversation. It was far easier merely to denounce my attitudes as archaic, bilious, ineptly grounded, or -- the ultimate put-down -- as neoconservative. This raving fusillade was supposed to pass for judicious and legitimate disputation.

Cognitive paralysis is a staple human failing and none of us is immune to it. But one can always hope that a saving skepticism regarding one’s own motives and inevitable myopia may kick in at some point and compel one to reexamine one’s condign prejudices and emotional investments. I’m sure it was tough for Horowitz and Radosh, or reputable bloggers like Charles Winecoff at Big Hollywood and Jeremiah Duboff at Jeremayakovka -- and others in a similar ideological bind -- to reconceive half a lifetime of thought and practice, to admit mistakes, and to proceed in a different direction. It’s also deeply humiliating to acknowledge that one’s political allegiances and commitments over the course of many years were fueled by myth, make-believe, and magical thinking.

One can move both ways, of course, from left to center-right as did David Horowitz, or from right to liberal-left, as did Andrew Sullivan. The difference in the current political arena, however, is decisive. The conservative generally finds himself out of favor, whether in the media, the academy, or the political administration; the liberal is the recipient of special dispensation and sympathetic treatment, especially as he gravitates further to the left. There is no incentive to “go conservative” -- it is a question of conscience and entails pretty severe risks. But there is every temptation to profit from embarking on the opposing trajectory, which also guarantees the pleasures of what Czeslaw Milosz, drawing from the Arabic, characterized as ketman, the being “at one with others, in order not to be alone.” Which makes one wonder -- without impugning any particular individual -- on which side of the divide one is more likely to find those evanescent qualities of political integrity and personal rectitude.

Although most conservative thinkers I am aware of tend to argue their case with precision, a respect for history, and, for the most part, a disciplined graciousness, the distressing truth is that the protocols of debate are honored more in the breach than in the observance. Of course, there are hortatory nutbars and slouching troglodytes on the political right -- as Jeff Barak notes above -- but in today’s ideological world the incidence of rancor, malice, and spite is appreciably higher on the hard left and the liberal-left. This is so across the board, from President Obama and his apparatchiks and disciples seeking to discredit their opponents as a mischief-making rabble, an “angry mob,” “Neanderthals,” “astroturfers,” “Brown Shirts,” the “Brooks Brothers brigades,” and other choice epithets, to the ordinary run of leftist talkbackers on traffic-driving sites like Fark, many of whose comments decency forbids reproducing. Where there’s Smokey, there’s fire.

In the same way, conservative sites are often prey to sophisticated leftist hackers, who prefer unsavory means of competition to appropriate modes of objection or rebuttal. As of this writing, the latest victim of such illicit tactics is the watchdog organization HonestReporting.com, which is robustly pro-Israel. CEO Joe Hyams reports a “massive upsurge” in cyber attacks, over 740 in the last few months alone. There is no mystery from which quarter these attacks emanate. They plainly belong on the same continuum of misbegotten leftist riposte.

I have no statistics at my disposal. Nevertheless, the affective residue of the last several years in which I have been involved in the “political realm,” as writer, reader, and concerned citizen, have made it fairly clear to me that civil discourse and common decency are not conspicuous properties of the literary and political left. These traits are more likely to be found on the conservative-right -- which is to say, among those who profess the tenets of classical liberalism -- with its tradition of individual responsibility, cordial encounter, political accountability, and epistemic grist. This is by no means a hard-and-fast rule, but it is, despite the exceptions, a demonstrable tendency. Republican Congressman Joe Wilson’s famous outburst during Obama’s health care speech at a joint session of Congress on September 9, 2009, was palpably churlish, but we might recall in context the heckling leveled at George Bush, not by a single representative who happened to lose his temper, but by a contingent of primed, irascible Democrats.

It appears there is not much we can do about the leftist penchant for vituperation, impropriety, and -- to use Humpty Dumpty’s favorite word -- “impenetrability.” Pajamas Media, too, among the many excellent discussions that embellish the trailer segments, has its share of pugnacious commenters for whom the Marquess of Queensbury’s boxing code, as applied to the discursive ring, do not always seem to apply. This is unfortunate. Certainly, though pugilistic strategies may be employed and blows exchanged, none should be below the belt. It would be nice if we could do better and allow the norms of chivalry to govern our forensics.