Tuesday, December 21, 2004

In Defense of the Dialectic

It is no secret to TIA readers that my most frequently cited right-leaning blog is the Belgravia Dispatch, penned by Gregroy Djerejian. Some readers have questioned my taste, my judgment, and my propensity for linking to Belgravia Dispatch - appealing to arguments of a partisan nature and accentuating the differences between our respective world views.

After discussing my motives, most readers agreed with my rationale, but the exchange caused me to consider the tendency for people to seek out exclusively like-minded voices and opinions - not that any of those readers are guilty of this because for most the opposite is true. Still, I think these habits that we all fall prey to, including and especially myself, represent the wrong approach for the blogosphere and the body politic in general. I have always been more interested in reaching across the aisle and encouraging a meaningful dialogue between differing voices, rather than merely preaching to the choir or charging up the base, although those functions are valuable in their own right to some limited extent. I have not witnessed as much of this as I would have hoped on most blogs, although I remain optimistic that progress can be made.

At the risk of repeating a trite observation, America is a higly polarized locale at this juncture in time, and the information explosion represented by 24-hour news programs, talk radio, and the internet, specifically the blogosphere, has in some ways exacerbated this phenomenon for both sides of the highlighted divide. However, it would be wrong to completely exonerate the current political leadership for their part in the process, especially the likes of Tom Delay and Bill Frist, a point driven home by the
shameful display of partisanship and small mindedness embodied in the boycott of Tom Daschle's farewell speech on the floor of the Senate, especially telling in contrast to the well attended bon voyage of Bob Dole in 1996 which included effusive praise from his Democratic colleagues.

Nevertheless, this polarization comes at a great cost to us all. People lose the perspective, moderation, and common sense that grows out of a dialectic when one side is ignored, or worse, shouted down. Instead of comparing ideas and utilizing the best elements from various theories and approaches in a coherent synthesis, we have become purveyors of absolutes, adherents of ideologies, and, subsequently, a nation of gaping blind spots. We are encouraged as politicians, policy makers, and citizens to go for broke in an all or nothing quest for total victory, all too frequently making the perfect the enemy of the good and annihilating adversaries and voices who have valuable contributions to offer in the evolution of thought and action. At our worst, we have become like cheerleaders for a team, hyperdefensive and prone to circle the wagons at the slightest hint of criticism. Plagued by a perversion of post-modernism, we are a nation that rejects facts if conveyed by certain voices, instead focusing on the messenger to undermine the truth in the message - if not engaging in outright misinformation and duplicity ourselves.

It is a constant struggle to reassess and re-evaluate one's beliefs, especially in a cultural context in which partisan attacks create a siege mentality. But the process of exchange is necessary and useful, and without it, ideas and beliefs become unrealistic, imbalanced and overly self-indulgent. One of the most cogent and relevant critiques of the policies pursued by the Bush administration is not necessarily their ideological thrust or theory, but rather their practical application - so often sorely lacking in efficacy and competence, which should be expected given the lack of dissent tolerated, the ideological loyalty demanded, and the dearth of dialectical method employed. Such a uniformity of viewpoint is a recipe for disaster.

Within this context, I welcome the perspective of Djerejian who I consider to be an intelligent, honest, and relatively moderate conservative. At the very least, he has displayed the rare ability to admit error, remains realistic, has welcomed dissenting views (encouraged them even, by linking to posts that take him on), and even goes as far as to criticize his own camp, which is refreshing and encouraging in the world of trench warfare politics. Of course we do disagree on many subjects (what do you expect, he is a conservative after all and if you want to dialogue with opposing views you must learn to tolerate and engage them), and he has, on occasion, shown the same partisan narrow mindedness that we all display, but we also find many points in common, and even in disagreement, he offers a welcomed challenge to my beliefs. Above all, I get the impression that he is trying to be objective and measured, and that is to be valued.

For example, Djerejian has been a brutally honest, yet entirely balanced,
critic of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. While doling out praise for some of Rumsfeld's worthy achievements, and there are some that bear mentioning, he has not hesitated to call Rumsfeld on his obvious shortcomings. To appreciate the integrity and courage of Djerejian's partisan blasphemy, read the comments to his Rumsfeld posts which contain the predictable level of knee-jerk, group-think oriented defenses of their team's man as well as a fair share of hostility directed at Djerejian. He has even raised the ire of Glenn Reynolds, inspiring a bit of a blogger spar between he and Reynolds - whom I consider to be a myopic partisan who will go to great lengths and intellectual contortion to always champion his side.

Again today, in a post entitled
Catalogue of Shame, Djerejian provides an unvarnished appraisal of the torture that took place at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and elsewhere, as informed by a series of memos acquired by the ACLU and others through Freedom Of Information requests. In particular, Djerejian makes an insightful observation about the treatment of Muslims that exemplifies his willingness to get beyond the partisan dynamic plaguing our public discourse.

But anyone with half a brain who continues to insist that the torture (sorry, "abuse") story is about a few bad apples taking a frat hazing a tad too much to heart at Abu Ghraib alone are full of it and doing the country a disservice through their intellectual dishonesty. It's clear that, while not some God-awful American gulag archipelago--torture has manifestly occurred in detention facilities from Afghanistan to Iraq to Cuba. Likewise, it's time to say loud and clear that the fact that those tortured are Arab and South Asian detainees is noteworthy. Why? Because it's reminiscent of the different treatment afforded the Japanese enemy as compared to the German during WWII. Recall that the Japanese during WWII, above and beyond Korematsu, were more viciously dehumanized in the popular culture than their less offensive Kraut partners in crime. Put differently, race matters. Can anyone imagine the tortures that have taken place in places like Bagram, Gitmo and Abu Ghraib having been inflicted against, say, Bosnian Serbs in Brcko or Banja Luka? Highly doubtful indeed. 9/11 happened, of course. And Islam has too often been conflated in the popular imagination with the radical jihadists who would so gleefully kill thousands as they did in lower Manhattan that fateful day...Still, it's time for intellectuals who care about the moral fiber of our polity, on both the Left and Right, to start speaking more loudly about these worrisome trends. America's better angels, and our more aspirational national narratives, simply demand it. [emphasis added]
He is right of course. Regardless of party affiliation, all Americans should be outraged (not at the outrage Senator Inhofe) at the desecration of our common values and principles as manifested in some level of state endorsed torture and brutality. To hear Americans defend these practices is astonishing, especially because I am fairly certain that many of the apologists would be equally strident in their criticisms if these abhorrent practices were occurring under a Democratic administration (and of course it is likely that many on the Left would reverse roles as well). Recognizing the racial element involved is also crucial to addressing the broader issues, so it is promising to hear this charge emanating from the Right, which will hopefully undercut the instinctual skepticism that seems to pervade all discussions of racial politics amongst denizens of the conservative side of the spectrum (although the Left bears some guilt for being overly inclined to cast issues in such a manner). When I said I was "pining for republicans" in a prior post, this type of principled conservatism is what I had in mind. It doesn't mean 100% agreement, but it rests on common values, integrity, and it does create room for reasoned debate and bi-partisan interaction and compromise.

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