Friday, May 04, 2007

Gentlemen's Disagreement: A Response to Rothenberg, Pt.s I and II.

I am all about the conversation. I am all about the conversation going beyond sloganeering and ideological orthodoxies. I’m about digging deep and getting to first principles and questioning assumptions.

When I wrote this post about Senate Bill 16 and my misgivings about some of the rhetoric liberal bloggers were using to oppose it, I knew it would not be universally popular. I was, after all, deviating from the developing narrative that the bill is Bad and therefore what the bill seeks to regulate is Not Bad. While I expect (and welcome) argument arising from a post like that, I did not expect to be accused of trying to squelch free speech. But that is what has happened.

Today on Progress Ohio Executive Director Brian Rothenberg posted the latest edition of his periodic column. Entitled “Can You Hear the Creep of Shattered Glass?” the post calls me out for two instances in which I publicly disagreed with something that was somehow associated with Progress Ohio. The column not only appears on the PO blog, a teaser and link was emailed to everyone on the PO list:

It appears I have picked a fight with someone who buys virtual ink by the barrel.

(Before we go on, a bit of disclosure. When the organizers of Progress Ohio were setting up the organization, I was one of the bloggers who, after being contacted, submitted a resume and was interviewed for the techie/blogger position that Eric Vessels got and that Dave Harding now holds. I was cool with the decision: I was underqualified for the tech part of the job and knew that if Eric wanted it, he was the best choice. That history has nothing to do with my occasionally disagreeing with PO, but depending on how deep this fight gets, best you hear about it from me.)

Back to it. The PO post has so many things wrong with it – starting with the bizarre word choice in the title (how does shattered glass creep?) – that it’s hard to know where to start. As in all things, best to begin and the beginning.

I. I Am Not a Metaphorical Nazi


Here’s how Brian starts the piece:

    “Do you hear the sound of shattered glass?” Back eons ago, in the late 1970s in religious school, that simple question made the concept of free speech click for me. I cannot recall the teacher, but it is one of those moments that by chance can frame a young mind.

    The discussion that day was “Kristallnacht.”
“Uh-oh.” says the veteran Pages reader. “Here comes Godwin’s law.” Yes, at first it sounds like a situation for Godwin who observed that "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." And more importantly, it appears time to invoke the Godwin-derived rule that the first person who invokes Nazis loses the debate.

But no, Brian is ready for that:
    I fully recognize that very little can compare with November 9, 1938, when German Jewish citizens (some of my own family members) endured a pogrom which destroyed 267 synagogues, 7,500 shops, killed 91 Jews and unjustly arrested 20,000 others. But Kristallnacht (“the night of broken glass”) is a metaphor that helps explain what extremism can do to a free society. So before some blogger claims I’m misinterpreting the severity of that night and the holocaust, let me be clear that for me, it is a metaphor about the fragility of freedom and how quickly a mob-majority can shift on freedoms.
See you silly bloggers, he’s not drawing a comparison to the Nazis, he’s using them as a metaphor. Comparison, metaphor, totally different things, right?

Well if you are on board with that, the same goes here. When I say “Godwin’s Law” I’m not accusing him of actually invoking Nazis, I use it as a metaphor for overclaiming an emotionally charged historical incident to make a mundane political point. So Brian doesn’t actually lose the argument, he just metaphorically loses the argument.

II. Help Help! I’m Being Oppressed!

What I like about his intro is his expressed discomfort with a “mob-majority” and “what extremism can do to a free society.” In fact concern about mob rule and extremism on either side of the political spectrum informs much of my blogging.

As the post proceeds, Brian lumps me in with Matt Naugle because I disagree with people on the left and say so. He accuses me of this vague proto-Nazism because I won’t defend things I don’t believe in whether they come from the left or the right.

Underlying his argument is a liberal version of Reagan’s 11th Commandment: Never criticize a fellow Republican. Conservatives have mastered many political tactics that we should try to learn. This isn’t one of them.

At the same time, it reminds me of a story I heard about the late radical attorney William Kuntsler. When asked to sign a petition against human rights abuses in postwar Vietnam Kuntsler declined, saying he wouldn’t sign any thing against a socialist government.

Much as I’d like to turn the tables and say that Brian is really the one on the road to Belsen Belsen, I won’t. He overstates his argument and I won’t overstate it back. Yes, rigid ideology was a paving stone on that road, but there were many others. More importantly, the road is long and has many undesirable stops along the way. We need not obsess about the worst possible destination to be concerned.

Instead, consider more immediate problems with group-enforced political dogmas – they lead to bad policies and bad politics. The Reagan Commandment proximately caused the Bush Administration. On the other side of the aisle, the Democrats’ reversal of fortunes beginning in the Eighties was hastened by the political damage done by rigid party-line politics in New Left leaders like Kuntsler.

My tag, the Militant Pragmatist, is in part about moving beyond policy based on ideology. Too often, people on either side of the political fence seem to determine their view of a particular issue based on what either their side or the other side says about it.

I want to start with a set of goals about what kind of society I want to pass on to my children and find the best way to achieve those goals. I want policies that work, not policies that exist only to vindicate or denigrate one worldview or another. Brian’s argument is emblematic of what I fight against – the tail of ideology wagging the dog of policy.

So much more to cover, but this will do for now.

4 comments:

Daniel Jack Williamson said...

Pho, I'm surprised you have to set the record straight against Progress Ohio, since you had the record straight to begin with. I've sampled nearly all of Ohio's political blogs, left and right, but I gravitate toward the more thoughtfully written blogs. Yours is a thoughtfully written blog. Progress Ohio, Plunderbund, Chief Source, Buckeye State Blog, and As Ohio Goes, among others on the lefty side, can be a little shallow for my tastes. Hopefully, Progress Ohio's rant against you will divert some more web traffic in your direction, and readers will be able to see for themselves that yours is the superior blog.

Pho said...

Thanks as always, DJW. You help make it happen, BTW. I know I have to work hard because if I try to gloss over something you'll call me on it. I like having people around who keep me sharp and honest.

eric said...

and that is the point afterall, right? having the superior blog.

Pho said...

I'd say the point is to say what I think is true and right. Where people put me in the pantheon is up to them. I'm happy to have the respect of people I respect is all.