Wednesday, February 23, 2005

This I don't like. At all.

Arguing and polarization is one thing. I like debate and discussion as well as anyone. It is the very nutrient source of the democratic process.
Lumping great piles of people, sources, organizations and movements into a database and labeling them "The Enemy" is something else again.

When Deborah White linked to Discover the Network I made note of it to check it out later. Last night I took a look, and WOW! I haven't run into such a coordinated effort at stuffing a cannon with ideological grapeshot since walking into an American Opinion bookstore in Florida one afternoon and picking up a harmless-looking magazine, leafing through to see what it was about. I found one of the ugliest defamatory descriptions of Eleanor Roosevelt by Westbrook Pegler imaginable. Until that moment, I was naive enough to believe that no one would be that nasty in any magazine or column that might be printed and sold. What a wake-up call that was.

Talk about innocence lost. That was a formative moment in my life. Now, years later, I remember it as though it was last week. By then the era of Joseph McCarthy was becoming a dim memory, but the fires of the same cause were still being kept alive by HUAC, the House Committee on Unamerican Activities. It was no longer fashionable for politicians to browbeat high profile people, soil their reputations with unfounded accusations and questions about their patriotism, and compile blacklists. But there were many people who couldn't tell the difference between an extremist from the KKK and a local favorite son who may have been running for office. It was the time that Barry Goldwater pronounced, "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue."

I don't know if I was more angry or frightened by events unfolding around me. But it makes no difference. All I can say now is that in retrospect I was witnessing the indications that an era of serious debate and conflict was beginning. What followed was not pretty.

Matthew Iglesias has an inciteful post this morning.

Turns out Jimmy C.'s not the only one "on the other side." The good people at Powerline actually think that "The whole mainstream of the [Democratic] party is engaged in an effort that is a betrayal of America." That there would be a very serious problem for our nation's security, and I take it the call to start up a new Gulag won't be far away. Is even Norm Minetta in on the plot? For that matter, the overwhelming majority of federal employees are, by this standard, on the other side. A somewhat paradoxical situation, to be sure, but just another day in the life of the increasingly-deranged hawkosphere.

Last week he took a swipe at Power Line for what looked to be a careless line that could have been nothing more than an editorial oversight. I blogged it at the time and didn't think too much more about it until now. This morning's follow-up, together with the link to Discover the Network do not strike me as coincidence.

I don't know how many people are aware of this site, but I find it as scary as anything from the days of my youth when the nation was coming unglued, it seemed, at every seam. I mentioned Zbgniew Brzezinski in my other post. I ordered one of his books after learning about him from Future Shock, that now-forgotten very important book of the sixties. Here are words of Brzezinski, published in 1970:

There is something awesome and baffling about a society that can simultaneously change man's relationship to the universe by placing a man on the moon, wage and finance a thirty-billion dollar-per-annum foreign war despised by a significant portion of its people, maintain the most powerful and far-flung military forces in history, and confront in the streets and abet in the courts a revolution in its internal racial relations, doing all this in the context of the explosion of higher learning and its rapidly-expanding and turbulent universities, of rotting urban centers, of fumbling political institutions, and of dynamically growing frontier industries that are transforming the way its citizens live and communicate with one another. Any one of the above aspects would suffice to transform values and self-image of a society, and a few might be enough to overthrow the system. All together, they create a situation that defies analogy to other societies and highlights the singular character of the contemporary American experience. (Between Two Ages, America's Role in the Tecnetronic Era, p. 195)

This description of the sixties is as accurate and comprehensive as I have seen. The writer is trying to make observations that are not loaded with value judgements. If anything, he stands in awe (he says so) of a scene that looks like something from a novel, but was, in fact, a description of the way things were. He is correct that any one of the aspects of social change he described could have a transformative effect on the future. The system was not overthrown, but those events cast a very long shadow.

The fabric of the time was woven of extreme positions. I am old enough to know that extreme positions may sometimes be needed to hold things together. But I am also old enough to realize that extreme positions can result in a lot of what we euphemistically call "collateral damage." Just last night I was listening (helplessly) as a black speaker carefully and correctly listed a devastating list of social and cultural challenges facing the black community, which he called "the village." It was surely someone of importance, but I don't know. I turned off the radio and came on in to the house, because like so many segments of today's society our black neighbors have circled the wagons, for better or worse, having long ago stopped listening to anything that I or any other concerned white people might have to say. (In fact, black leaders themselves are challenged to say anything that will make a difference. Witness the unwelcome response to what Bill Cosby is saying.) This is only one dimension of the larger problems caused by polarization, but one which anyone, black or white, should be able to understand.

This is yet another too-long post, and probably only a couple of people other than I will bother to read it. But I had to get it off my chest. In the same way that the specter of the Great Depression transformed the way that our parents' generations understood life, that the specter of Terrorism is now overshadowing every thing that is happing now, both at home and elsewhere, so too did the extremism of the Sixties make a lot of us wary of broad brushes that cannot paint small details.

This website that Deborah White found is one of the most despicable places I have ever seen, not because it is not well-done, but because at a time when most of the population thinks and acts in soundbites, ideas that do not extend to a paragraph, much less a chapter (and forget about reading an entire book), a little knowledge does, in fact, become a very dangerous thing.

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