Wondering what’s all the rage for spring?
George Will wrote an excellent column on the subject last weekend, deconstructing the “the politics of disdain.” Howie Kurtz also wrote about rage last week, decrying the ugliness of postings on political blogs. And if you have an inbox, you’ve probably seen the Bloggingheads meltdown starring law professor and blogger Ann Althouse, railing against the bloggers and journalists who attack her.
There’s no doubt that as the ideological divide in this country grows and new technologies expand, we’ll spend more time being furious and bitter and enraged. And, as Will suggested last week, that anger soon takes on a life of its own. It flattens our reality and distorts our understanding of the world.
But look at what else Will had to say about the causes of anger (as opposed to the effects, about which I agree). His piece about the outrages of political outrage points fingers at Paul Krugman, and Bill Clinton, and Howard Dean, and all San Franciscans, with nary a flick to the role played by Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, and the spear-chuckers from the political right who’ve elevated rageful discourse to an art form. (If Will thinks his nod at rage parodist Ann Coulter constitutes “balance,” he’s kidding himself.)
Know what would have made Will’s piece great, as opposed to just smart? He should have co-authored it with Paul Krugman. Their argument could have been the same. The analysis would have been more careful.
Consider the example highlighted by Kurtz, who wrote about hateful comments posted on the blogs Little Green Footballs and the Huffington Post. In both cases posters wished that failed assassination attempts on Jimmy Carter and Dick Cheney, respectively, had succeeded. Both Arianna Huffington and Charles Johnson (founder of Little Green Footballs) disavowed these comments—although one of them did feel the need to insist that posters on the other side were worse. But you know what would have impressed the heck out of me? If they’d issued a joint statement that readers advocating the death of public officials are not welcome in either forum.
Don’t get me wrong. I can appreciate the Hegelian allure of screaming epithets at one another in an effort to get to the bottom of thorny questions. But political discourse in this country stopped being “discourse” when we all stopped speaking or listening to anyone who disagreed with us. George Will cites Peter Wood, anthropologist and author of A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, in noting that this kind of speech does not persuade. It’s not even an attempt to persuade. It’s just “performance art.” And while performance art surely has its place in America, I’m not confident we ought to be relying exclusively upon it to debate the surge in Iraq.
But what if pundits had to collaborate with someone from the other side? Just once a year. Topic of their choosing.
A few weeks ago I co-authored a piece for Slate with Jack Goldsmith, who once worked for the Bush Justice Department (not my most favorite job description these days). The collaboration came about in part because the whole U.S. attorney purge had degenerated into what felt like a choose-your-own-adventure book: Op/Ed A (“scandalous … partisan … corruption”) vs. Op/Ed B (“pleasure of the president … Clinton started it”).
In search of a third way, I called Professor Goldsmith, now at Harvard Law School, for a quote. We’d met briefly last fall, and despite my inclination to dislike him based solely on his former employers, we managed to sit on a panel for an hour without scratching or pulling hair. On the phone last month, he mentioned some interesting stuff about congressional history. I said no way. He said indeed. And so we wrote a piece together explaining why the Justice Department can’t be apolitical.
It was, at it turns out, not exactly punditry. Nobody was trying to score points, and it took many more redrafts than I am accustomed to. We had to negotiate almost every sentence. We’ve both been told by readers that we must have reined one another in, but the truth is that when you’re working with someone who has different views, you tend to rein yourself in. Whether out of fear or respect, I am not quite sure.
As a process this illuminated for me the difference between the Supreme Court justices who write carefully and narrowly to garner that fifth vote and those who favor the clever swish of the quotable, blistering dissent. And maybe because I have written an awful lot of similar “dissents” in my life, I can attest to some of their weaknesses: They’re easy. You just take aim and fire. They subvert what’s really important to what sounds important. Dissents make the spaces between the two sides larger than they need to be and paper over the fundamental agreements. And while some of my favorite writing happens in dissent, it sure is exhausting when it’s all you read.
Interesting as that was, though, the most important lessons about collaboration came with the fallout. The bad news: People come up to you at cocktail parties and holler, “You co-authored with WHO??? That guy should be indicted!” But the good news—in fact, the great news—is that feedback came from people across the political spectrum (and from points on that spectrum where Slate is less daily fare than daily fire). People who either loved the piece or were blown away by the mere fact of the collaboration came back with the warmest of responses.
That’s how the folks who would never have read a piece authored by Goldsmith were reading Goldsmith, and the people who hate Lithwick actually managed to choke down one of her articles. Either one of us could have written this piece alone. It was a fairly factual review of history, after all. But what became important was that we didn’t.
Cass Sunstein warned in his 2001 book, Republic.com, that the Internet would create polarized intellectual communities in which people could isolate themselves from what he calls “unplanned, unanticipated encounters” with opposing viewpoints. I fear we’re there. Everything I need to know about you I already learned from your bumper sticker. It seems to me that a more useful way to encounter opposing viewpoints isn’t through anonymous posts in the blogosphere or disembodied heads on a talk show. (The encounters on Hannity & Colmes are hardly “unplanned.”) It may be the old-fashioned way, the way the Framers imagined it: face to face and ferried along by the benefit of the doubt.
Althouse herself strongly advocates that women in public life develop a thicker skin about Internet bile. Maybe. I just don’t know if anyone’s skin, male or female, can ever get thick enough to withstand being told that you should be set on fire and rolled down a hill (my own favorite hate mail ever). And I don’t know that it should. All this skin-toughening forces us to launch more and more scorching attacks. More anger. More isolated communities. Pointier spear tips necessary to pierce the opponents’ increasingly thick skin.
Before you call me a hypocrite, I’ll concede that I’ve doled out my share of chip shots, although I have tried to avoid personal attacks. I’ve answered back to some of my attackers and, frankly, none of it felt very satisfying, and I’d wager that none of it has changed any minds. You know what felt better? Collaborating with someone with whom I disagreed about fundamental things. Working that piece over and over until it was good enough for both of us. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can say the experience helped me rethink some of my default settings.
So, I think we should have one day a year on which the Paul Krugmans collaborate with the George Wills, and the Ariannas co-author with the Johnsons. I think if Jonah Goldberg and E.J. Dionne had something to say as a team, I’d want to read it. And even if the only thing they could ultimately bring themselves to agree upon for that one day a year was a decent recipe for crème brulee, I’d probably still read it, because an annual effort to beat our typewriters into ploughshares might remind us that we don’t live in two Americas. Or even in millions of teensy personal Americas with capital cities called “keyboard” and “mouse.” I’d read it because it would be a tonic for so much of the political conversation we’re having in this country: the spiraling cycle of screaming, punching back, and then toughening up enough to do it all again tomorrow.