Democracy and Populism

Elevating the Debate

Marcus is going to make an attempt to "elevate online political debate".  A noble endeavor, and I hope he gets some interesting and worthwhile contributions.  I'm not hugely optimistic, however.  He suggests that the "success" of The New Republic is an indication that "people really do appreciate thoughtful political writing."  But in reality, for most of its 90 years, TNR has hung by a thread, and its miniscule circulation is evidence that those appreciative people are rather few in number.

On the other hand, this is not a new phenomenon.  Everytime I hear somebody fretting about the coarsening of political discourse, I want to ask them when exactly it is that they think it was polite and genteel.   The cartoons of Thomas Nast or H. Daumier are far rougher than anything that appears in today's papers.  One of my favorite books of all time is American Aurora, which tells the story of the first great political newspaper in this country.  The battles between the partisans of Jefferson and those of Adams make the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" look like pikers.  And while senators may from time to time make intemperate comments, they haven't gone wailing on each other with walking sticks in a while. 

Having spent some ten months now trolling about the blogosphere, my observation is that many of the people taking the time to maintain blogs, regardless of their partisan passions, actually do try to be thoughtful and reasonable -- even when they're unwilling to give any ground to the enemy.  It's in the comments that the ignorant ranting and name-calling tends to take place.  Blog technology invites that kind of shoot from the hip response, and takes what used to be restricted to the coffeehouses and taverns onto the internet.  That might make it more visible, but I don't think it necessarily makes it more prevalent.

My favorite part of Marcus's proposal is the 1,000 word minimum.  True, he'll get some flabby writing, but it does increase the chances that he'll get some pieces that try for sustained discourse.  My biggest frustration with internet communication has been that it encourages people to make short, passionate statements of belief, rather than taking the time to build a persuasive argument.  (This has been very much the case, for example, with most of the online chatter about open access.)

I've been reading Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy over the last few months.  Last night I read the chapter on Descartes, the first great modern philosopher.  Among his many other interests, Descartes was concerned with knowledge -- how do we know things?  What does it mean to say that I know something?  The distinction between knowledge and belief is one that very few people pay attention to.  Just look at the debate between those who support the theory of evolution and those who want it banned from the classrooms.  There was a story on NPR last week commemorating the Scopes trial.  A young woman from a high school in Maryland came on, passionately explaining that she knew that evolution was wrong.  First of all, it's just a theory, right?  So it's not a fact.  And, more importantly, she holds the truth of Jesus Christ in her heart.  There's no reason to think the young woman is unintelligent.  She was very articulate, and clearly very frustrated with the interviewer at having to explain something that was so obvious to her.  She can't quite understand why it isn't obvious to everybody.  She has absolutely no understanding of the difference between knowledge and belief.

AE Housman said it best:  "A moment's thought would have shown him.  But a moment is a long time, and thought is a painful process."  I hope that Marcus's call encourages some people to take the time, and do the hard work.



Thanks very much for promoting this idea, Scott. I also doubt the long-term viability of the journal, but figure that even the generation of a handful of thoughtful articles would be worthwhile.

Clearly I've lapsed into a "those were the good day days" view of partisan debate. I obviously have an idealistic position, not a historically realistic one.

And the more prosaic reason for failure is that there is not enough incentive for people to take the time to do this.

With all that said, it is still worth a try--Nothing ventured, nothing gained. We shall see what happens.

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