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Tagrhetoric

asyntactic

Trump is not inarticulate, though people often say that. Rather, he is hyperarticulate in the mode that used to be called “garrulous.” Words constantly emerge from his mouth, and he clearly likes saying them and believes that his eloquence flows; but his words flow in the way that debris floats down a swollen stream, quickly or slowly spinning, drifting, knocking into one another, getting caught on overhanging branches, submerging and then popping again into view.

Trump is not inarticulate, he is asyntactic. “Syntax” means to arrange together, and Trump’s utterances have no discernible arrangement, and possess no unity. Consider the passage — but of course you could choose almost anything he says — this passage:

One of the problems that a lot of people like myself — we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers. You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including — just many other places — the air is incredibly dirty … if you go back and if you look at articles, they talked about global freezing, they talked about at some point the planets could have freeze to death, then it’s going to die of heat exhaustion. There is movement in the atmosphere. There’s no question. As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it.

He doesn’t see it — he doesn’t see the relations among events: cause and effect, ground and consequent, subject and object. To this asyntactic mind the world itself is asyntactic, just one damned thing after another, and the only means he has to distinguish among those things is to ask whether they please or displease him.

I have so many questions

These are all serious questions — not gotchas – they’re questions I don’t know the answers to and wish I did. And of course knowing the answers from any one person wouldn’t help very much: what I really need is access to the Zeitgeist on these points. But that knowledge isn’t available. Still, I can’t stop wondering. So here goes:

If you’re, let’s say, Alexis Grenell and you believe that women who supported the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh are “gender traitors” who have made a “blood pact with white men,” what do you do if you find yourself sitting at dinner with such a woman? Say six of you are eating out somewhere and one woman you hadn’t previously met says that she would have voted to confirm Kavanaugh. Do you get up and leave? Try to persuade her that she’s wrong? Throw water in her face? Sit and steam?

What if you don’t throw water in her face but another woman at the table does? Are you okay with that?

If you could get her dismissed from her job, would you consider doing that?

What if the person who supports Kavanaugh is an old friend? Does that, for you, end the friendship?

Now, a question for people who support confronting and challenging politicians at restaurants and other public places. What is your goal? Is it simply punitive, or do you believe that by doing that kind of thing you can change a politician’s mind? (NB: If you’re the sort of person who shows up at a pizza parlor with a gun because of something you read online, you need not answer this question.)

How do you think you would respond if you were subject to the same protests? Would you be intimidated into voting the way the protestors want you to vote? Would you become more sympathetic to their cause?

Presumably you know that what one side does the other will soon copy. So if this escalates to the point where very few politicians of either major party are able to eat at restaurants, what precisely will we, as a nation and a society, have gained?

If you believe that, for example, Brendan Eich could not serve as the CEO of Mozilla because he opposed the legalization of gay marriage, do you think it would be okay for him to have some other, lesser job at Mozilla? If not, what sort of job do you think it would be acceptable for Eich to have?

Obviously the intensity of feeling on the left right now stems from the conviction that a Trump presidency + a long-term conservative majority on the Supreme Court = something close to an extinction event for American democracy — just as many on the right two years ago believed that the prospect of a Clinton presidency was so horrifying that America was faced with the “Flight 93 Election.” But most of these questions are addressed to the left because that’s where most of the anger is right now. (And if you think I’m soft on the right, use the search box on the left side of this page and enter the word “Trump.”)

Presumably not all positions held by the party you oppose are equally reprehensible; not all prompt your activist anger. For example, I doubt that very many people would confront a politician at a restaurant because he or she supports President Trump’s new tariffs, even if they think those tariffs are a very bad idea. So what are the issues that, if someone gets them wrong, place that person beyond the pale, mark him or her as someone you can’t have table fellowship with, as someone who can’t be allowed to live unconfronted? Kavanaugh, yes, but what else?

  • Supporting Trump’s immigration policies?
  • Opposing abortion on demand?
  • Opposing abortion before viability?
  • Believing that the killer of Laquan McDonald should have been acquitted?
  • Supporting legislation like the North Carolina bathroom bill?

That is, what are the issues on which you can agree to disagree with someone — or at least to remain on speaking terms with that person, even if you keep arguing — and what issues, by contrast, demand a break of relationship?

Almost all of these questions center on a particular concern of mine. There’s no doubt that we live in a rhetorically heated time — the most heated moment of my lifetime, I believe (though I can’t be sure about that). But what actions does our verbal anger lead to? If we speak about one another in the extreme ways we do today, how will we treat one another?

the sad compatibilist

Sohrab Amari writes in Commentary about two kinds of Christian response to the dominant liberal order, the compatibilists and the non-compatibilists: 

The “compatibilists” (like yours truly) argued that liberalism’s foundational guarantees of freedom of speech, conscience, and association sufficed to protect Christianity from contemporary liberalism’s censorious, repressive streak. The task of the believer, they contended, was to call liberalism back to its roots in Judeo-Christianity, from which the ideology derives its faith in the special dignity of persons, universal equality and much else of the kind. Christianity could evangelize liberal modernity in this way. Publicly engaged believers could restore to liberalism the commitment to ultimate truths and the public moral culture without which rights-based self-government ends up looking like mob rule.

The latter camp — those who thought today’s aggressive progressivism was the rotten fruit of the original liberal idea — were more pessimistic. They argued that liberal intolerance went back to liberalism’s origins. The liberal idea was always marked by distrust for all non-liberal authority, an obsession with promoting maximal autonomy over the common good, and hostility to mediating institutions (faith, family, nation-state, etc.). Yes, liberalism was willing to live with and even borrow ideas from Christianity for a few centuries, the non-compatibilists granted. But that time is over. Liberalism’s anti-religious inner logic was bound to bring us to today’s repressive model: Bake that cake — or else! Say that men can give birth — or else! Let an active bisexual run your college Christian club — or else!

I have been for most of my career what I call a sad compatibilist: I have tried to describe and promote a model of charity, forbearance, patience, and fairness in disputation to all parties concerned, not because I think my approach will work but because I am trying to do what I think a disciple of Jesus should do regardless of effectiveness. In these matters I continue to be against consequentialism. For reasons I explain in that post I just linked to, I’ll keep on pushing, but it feels more comically pointless than ever in this age of rhetorical Leninism. (And by the way, if you weren’t convinced by the example I give, take a gander at some of the responses to Jordan Peterson that Alastair Roberts collects in this post.) 

Speaking of pushing, Amari concludes his post thus: “It is up to liberals to decide if they want to push further.” But as far as I can tell that decision has been made. There are two kinds of liberals now: the Leninists and the Silent — the latter not happy with the scorched-earth tactics of their confederates but unwilling to question them, lest they themselves become the newest victims of such tactics. The Voltairean [sic] liberal is, I believe, extinct. “Not only will I not defend to the death your right to say something that appalls me, I won’t even defend it to the point of getting snarked at in my Twitter mentions.” 

What I find myself wondering, in the midst of all this, is whether there is a different way to do sad compatibilism than the one I’ve been pursuing. Do I just keep on banging my head against the same wall or do I look for a different wall? I’m thinking about this a lot right now. 

more on “rhetorical Leninism”

When I wrote in a recent post about “rhetorical Leninism,” what did I mean?

I recently read Victor Sebestyen’s biography of Lenin, and one of the most striking elements of it was the consistency with which Lenin adhered to a particular strategy — a strategy which almost everyone around him believed was counterproductive, but which he never abandoned: Abuse, condemn, and denounce every person in every party other than yours, and do the same to the doubters or waverers in your own ranks. “No mercy for these enemies of the people, the enemies of socialism, the enemies of the working people!” — so Lenin famously cried, but for him the Mensheviks were the enemies of the people just as fully as were the social democrats like Kerensky and the most fervent supporters of Tsarist autocracy. For Lenin they were all the same. He who is not with us, and with us 100%, is against us and must be condemned. Again and again, people who considered themselves strong allies of Lenin and faithful adherents to his cause, expressed some minor dissent or critique and found themselves, to their great surprise, denounced and excluded, treated as though they were no different than the Tsarists. And for Lenin they weren’t. 

To some degree Lenin’s policy reflects human nature. We often get more upset when we feel that we’ve been betrayed, or simply not supported, by friends than when we’re attacked by known enemies. What’s distinctive about Lenin is his elevation of this emotional tendency into an absolute political and rhetorical principle. And guess what? It worked. It brought people into line. It kept the Bolsheviks together, and when all the other factions of Russian political life had splintered, Lenin’s party, though it was small and weak, was the only one able to fill the vacuum created by the fall of the Tsar, and so came to power. And stayed in power for seventy years. 

The Leninism of our moment is, as I have said, largely rhetorical, for which I suppose we should be thankful. But the real thing isn’t dead, and absolute itself most obviously in the White House, where anything except perfect loyalty to His Orangeness tends to meet with dismissal or, at best, internal isolation (hello, Jeff Sessions). The rhetorical element of the administration’s Leninism is left largely to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who faithfully imitates the style of her boss’s tweets. Now, the parallels are not perfect: Lenin was smart enough to insist, always, that he only cared about loyalty to the Cause, not to him personally, and this was a shrewd move — but one not available in Trumpworld, which manifestly has no cause or for that matter any principles other than self-aggrandizement. But the Leninist strategy is still doing hard work in the White House.  

The purely rhetorical Leninism of our moment is largely, it seems to me, a strategy of the political and cultural left and is deployed most forcefully, it seems to me, against the nearer rather than the further enemy. Michael Sean Winters is going to be far more viciously mocking of Ross Douthat than of a fire-breathing integralist trad, because Douthat’s epistemic modesty and willingness to treat his opponents as decent people arguing in good faith, who might even have a good point or two to make, just might incline some people otherwise sympathetic to Winters’s own liberalism to have second thoughts. This cannot be allowed, and therefore Douthat cannot be allowed to make a good point or two either. He has no legitimate concerns, no legitimate viewpoints, no legitimate arguments. Please move along, nothing to see here. 

Similarly, while there are plenty of real fascists out there, people might not think that Jordan Peterson, who holds plenty of recognizable liberal views, is dangerous, so: Fascist Mysticism! And since Charles Murray is pretty evidently no Richard Spencer: White supremacist! And the very idea that one should distinguish between what Murray wrote (or is thought to have written) in The Bell Curve and what he comes to campuses to talk about these days — I mean, come on. 

As I wrote in How to Think, we live in an age of lumping, and the general goal seems to be to create just two big lumps, the goats and the sheep, the Wrong and the Right. Which is great, I suppose, if you want to run a dictatorship. There is precedent. But sometimes I don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong. There’s got to be some better way for people to live

15 hours

Russell Berman tweets: “15 hours later, not one of the top 4 House Republican leaders have issued a statement on the president’s firing of the FBI director.” This expresses a commonly-held view — just as I write these words I see a post by Pete Wehner asking “Where is the Republican Leadership?” — but I wonder: When did we get on this schedule? That is, when did an overnight wait before commenting on a political decision become an unconscionable delay? I’m old enough to remember when people used to counsel their agitated friends to “sleep on it,” and maybe even seek the opinions of others, before making public statements or highly consequential decisions. Now anything but instantaneous response is morally suspect — at best. 

For the record: I harbor not the tiniest suspicion that the President is acting in good faith and with the best interests of the nation in mind. I am as sure as I can be that he made this decision the way he makes all of his decisions: on the basis of what he perceives to be his own self-interest. And I seriously doubt that anyone in Washington differs from me in this regard, whatever they might end up saying to the public. But I’m not making a point here about how we judge the President’s motives; I’m making a point about what seems to have become the standard expectation, at least among journalists and other people who are on Twitter all the time, for how quickly judgment should be expressed. And I’m not confident that it’s good for the body politic for politicians to be under pressure to make instantaneous statements. I’d rather that they take some time, seek counsel, sleep on it, and think it over

On Margaret Sanger

I may have said enough on Twitter about Rachel Marie Stone’s post on contraception and Margaret Sanger, but it’s hard to be perfectly clear on Twitter, so let me spell out my thoughts here.

First: the post’s title suggests that it’s a defense of contraception, but Stone described it on Twitter as a defense of Margaret Sanger. It would have been a better post if it had tried to do one of those things rather than both. Sanger is an immensely controversial figure — especially among evangelical and Catholic Christians, thanks to the leading role the organization Sanger created, Planned Parenthood, plays in providing abortions — so it is rhetorically disastrous, in a blog post written for a Christian magazine, to link advocacy of contraception to a defense of Sanger. As Stone’s post shows, we have in the lives of poor families around the world more immediate and convincing evidence for the value of contraception. Why bring Sanger into it? Her presence won’t reassure those already sympathetic, and will surely alienate those who doubt.

Unless defending Sanger, as Stone’s tweet suggests, is the main point. If so, then there’s another problem. Stone writes, “Sanger, like many medical professionals in her day, did hold eugenicist ideas. Eugenics were enshrined into compulsory sterilization laws in many U.S. states and supported by organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. I do not mean to excuse Sanger for holding these views, but I do want to give the charge of ‘eugenicist’ a more complete background.” I’m not sure what Stone means by “a more complete background,” but this statement seems rather evasive — and that leads me (or will, eventually) to what I think is an especially important point.

Sanger wasn’t “charged” with being a eugenicist — she warmly claimed the title and devoted much of her long and highly energetic life to advocating for the elimination of the “unfit.” Indeed, a thorough reading of Sanger’s works suggests that her devotion to contraception was merely instrumental to the greater cause of cleansing American society of people she thought unworthy of life. When New York University released its Margaret Sanger Papers Project, David Tell summarized what those papers teach us about Sanger’s eugenicist and racist views:

Sanger did, in fact, endorse the federal government’s post-World War I immigration restrictions, during a Vassar College speech on “racial betterment” in February 1924, and she was “glad” the laws were “drastic” enough to help control “the quality of our population.” She worried, though, about the “increasing race of morons” already on our shores, and expressed disgust that the American people should be taxed to fund welfare spending for the “maintenance and perpetuation of these undesirables.” When we consider that “a moron’s vote is as good as an intelligent, educated, [thinking] citizen,” Sanger advised, “we well pause and ask ourselves: ‘Is America really safe for Democracy?’”

Sanger did, indeed, call the “morons” who so disgusted her “human weeds”; it’s there on page 386, and the book’s editors tell us she “often” employed the analogy. And she did, too, believe that “ethnic community” was something the race-betterment gardener should want to consider when he was trying to decide which “weeds” to attack with his hoe. “The Jewish people and Italian families,” she complained to the New York State legislature in 1923, “are filling the insane asylums” and “hospitals” and “feeble-minded institutions,” and it was wrong that taxpayers should have to subsidize the “multiplication of the unfit” this way. Better that the state should save its money “to spend on geniuses.”

At one point, Sanger classified eighty-five million Americans as “mediocre to imbecile.” At another, she proposed a total, five-year, nationwide moratorium on childbirth.

What I want to note about this summary — chilling enough in itself — is what it tells is about Sanger’s place in American culture, especially in the heyday of her influence (especially the 1920s). Sanger did not just “hold eugenicist ideas”; she was one of our nation’s most passionate and widely-respected advocates for those ideas. She’s speaking at Vassar, addressing the New York State Legislature, giving speeches around the country, writing popular books — including one in which she wrote, “The most merciful thing that the large family does to one of its infant members is to kill it.” Indeed, Sanger may have done more than any other single person to keep “scientific racism,” eugenicism, and persecution of the disabled in the main stream of America thought.

It was this ceaseless, tireless, and very successful advocacy for some very nasty beliefs and practices that sets Sanger apart from others who happened to “hold eugenicist ideas.”

In this respect we might compare Sanger to someone like George Wallace: racism was horribly widespread in the South in Wallace’s time, but unlike the people who simply breathed it in through the cultural air, he celebrated it, exacerbated it, and relentlessly incited and fanned the flames of race hatred. Few today would attempt to renew and defend populist politics by looking to the example of George Wallace. Maybe Wallace did have some good policies; maybe he wrenched some power away from the 1% of Alabama and empowered the (white) working class. Maybe; but who cares? Nor should anyone care: he hitched his wagon to the cause of a malicious and absolutist racism, and deserves all the opprobrium he gets.

The same should be true of Margaret Sanger. Did she do some good? Indeed she did. But those who want to further the good things she achieved should treat her leading ideas, the ideas she devoted her greatest energies to spreading, with the utter contempt they deserve, not dismiss them as mere peccadilloes characteristic of her time and place. Nor should people who simply note what Sanger actually and repeatedly thought and said be accused of “demonizing” her — something that I’ve heard more than a few times in the last 24 hours. That’s a smokescreen and an evasion.

The cause of contraception would be far better served by simply ignoring Sanger; that would have the further merit of being merciful towards her.

BUT

“I condemn those heinous killings, but…”

“First i condemn the brutal killing. But…”

“No, journalists are not legitimate targets for killing. But…”

“Liberty was indeed under attack — as a writer, I cherish the right to offend, and I support that right in other writers — but…”

“The victims of this crime did not ‘have it coming’. They did not deserve their fate. But…”

“Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated. But…”

It’s an interesting rhetorical quirk, I think, and one I could have illustrated by a hundred other quotations. How should it be read?

The first thing I note, at any rate, is a tone of exasperation: I can’t believe I have to say this. But why do you have to say it? Obviously: because if you didn’t, people would think, from the rest of your post or essay, that you don’t have a big problem with the murder of the people who worked at Charlie Hebdo.

And why would people get that impression? Because you’re not interested in saying anything that would indicate compassion for the murder victims. Now, you may well have compassion for the murder victims — I have no way of knowing — but it’s not a topic you want to indulge in.

And it’s not a topic you want to indulge in because such compassion would not further your preferred political narrative. In fact, the deaths of these particular people impede the success of your narrative: the people who worked for Charlie Hebdo are definitely not on your side, and once they become victims the risk increases of their becoming personally sympathetic, which could in turn lead to sympathy for their views and actions. The heightened emotions that inevitably follow a massacre threaten to send the narrative spiraling out of control — and that can’t be allowed. You’ve got to get the conversation back on point, you’ve got to make sure that you restore the status quo ante bellum. Sympathy must be pointed in the proper direction, as must judgment, blame, commendation … and right now human responses are weaving all over the place. This is a freakin’ rhetorical emergency, is what this is.

But you can’t seem callous; you can’t seem to be tolerating, much less enjoying, murder. That wouldn’t help the cause. So you say the right thing. You say it briefly, you say it exasperatedly, you say it impatiently. Nevertheless, you say it. Then: “BUT….”

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