Some years ago, I watched a documentary about Noam Chomsky, and while I agree with much but far from all of his political opinions, and strongly disagree with his structural linguistics, one brief segment of the film particularly stuck with me. The question was why a man of Chomsky's intellect and credentials is never allowed onto the opinion pages of our major print media, and is never interviewed by our major broadcast media. Some Important Person from the traditional media (if I recall, it was Jeff Greenfield, then of ABC News) explained that television only works with people who are adept at making concise and easily framed arguments. Chomsky's response to the filmmakers was that he is very capable of creating TV sound bites, and that the real problem is that his opinions fall so far outside what the TV world considers the mainstream, and when one offers a viewpoint that is systematically excluded from the national media conversation one needs a little more time just to present the paradigm and background. And in that answer Chomsky provided an important lesson to liberals in general, even those who are not as far to the left or as outside the traditional mainstream as is Chomsky. And in that answer Chomsky also provided a lesson to we liberals even in how we should be approaching discussions and conversations among ourselves.
Last week, the rhetoric of Cornel West created a small firestorm in some progressive circles, particularly among the more ardent supporters of President Obama. West is to the left of the left on the American political spectrum, and from an ideological standpoint it is no surprise that he would have plenty of problems with the Obama presidency. But West's rhetoric became personal, questioning the president's values on the basis of aspects of the president's background and upbringing. And West having leveled such criticism, some of the president's more ardent supporters responded in kind, attacking West personally, and even by making personal attacks on those who agree with some of West's criticism of the president. It did not make for a productive dialogue, and while it degenerated as it progressed, it began with West's own words. West has valid and important things to say about the president's approach to policy and politics, but by personalizing it he guaranteed that many wouldn't hear what in that criticism was valid and important. West is not a psychiatrist or psychologist, and he has no great insights into the childhood and upbringing of a man with whom he has no intimate relationship, so his criticism in this case was highly inflammatory and completely lacking in intellectual credibility. Which was unfortunate, because it shut down any legitimate conversation before any such conversation could even begin.
Anyone who has paid attention to West through the years knows that he has a massive intellect, an equally massive ego, and a penchant for using outlandish and at times inflammatory rhetoric. One need not attempt an amateur psychological analysis of West to recognize both the strengths and weaknesses of his arguments and his argumentative style, and one easily can agree with his criticism of President Obama's economic policies without mentioning the president's personal background. In fact, an even more plausible explanation for the president's apparent economic ideology can be made on a more abstract basis. The president is not an economist. He is very intellectually curious. He taught law at the University of Chicago. He undoubtedly met and spent some time talking to other professors at the University of Chicago. Some of them undoubtedly were economists. The University of Chicago is so much the world's center of neoliberal economic theory that the ideology itself often is called "Chicago School." Read Naomi Klein. And when you add the fact that Obama was teaching at Chicago just when President Clinton was leading the Democratic Party's embrace of neoliberalism, it's not hard to conclude that an intellectually curious young man might have absorbed some ideas that were far to the right of West's self-described non-Marxist socialism. And beyond his obvious intellectual curiosity, one need not pretend to understand anything about Barack Obama the man to reach such a conclusion. West's argument is with Obama's policies and what they suggest about his economic ideology, it is not with Barack Obama the man. By making the conversation about Barack Obama the man, West prevented his argument about Obama's policies and economic ideology from even being heard.
In a similar vein, some of the discussion about President Obama's economic policies— in the blogs and elsewhere— has degenerated into rhetorical devices that also shut down conversation before it can begin. It has to do with the view some hold that the president is weak and that he too readily caves in to Republicans. That in itself is a fair argument to make. It is an argument that will provoke heated reactions, and one expounding it had best be prepared to defend it, but there is nothing in the argument itself that should be considered out of bounds. It is controversial but it should not be considered inflammatory. And I write that as one who doesn't agree with the argument; as I have previously elucidated, I do not think the president is at all weak, and as indicated above I think his economic choices are best explained on ideological grounds. But this argument does become highly and legitimately inflammatory when it veers into rhetorical devices that are, likely at times unintentionally, profoundly hurtful. Very specifically, it is the use of the word "balls." It is not uncommon to see the phrase "has no balls" used as synonymous with lacking strength or courage, and for years some given to more heated rhetoric have used the phrase to criticize Senate Democrat Leader Harry Reid or even House Democrat Leader Nancy Pelosi, as well as various other leading Democrats both on the national and local levels. But using that phrase changes the nature of the argument. First because it is sexist. And until any of we men go through childbirth, or endure the social ostracism that women still face when they choose never to have children, we can only speak of strength and courage in relative terms. But when that term is applied to a black man, it also evokes powerfully painful images of the most extreme racism.
I'm guessing that most who use the words "has no balls" in reference to President Obama aren't thinking about this nation's long, vicious history of emasculating and lynching black men, but I'm hoping that anyone now reading this will stop and consider how those words impact people who know or knew people, or who had ancestors who suffered such unthinkable violence. Because they do exist. And it does impact them. Sometimes excruciatingly viscerally. And it is not even remotely necessary to cause them such pain. And their participation in politics and in political dialogue should never be the source of such pain. Particularly when they are among fellow progressives and liberals. One can attempt to make the case that President Obama is weak without using words that are lacerating to others. This is not a plea for censorship, but it is a plea for sensitivity and consideration. It is an attempt to raise consciousness. And it is an attempt to improve the quality of political dialogue such that controversial arguments can be made and challenged without them descending into personal animosities. Words matter. Our choices about words matter. And that is where this point expands to the entire approach we on the left often must take when writing about politics, in general.
One of the reasons I first was drawn to the reality-based community was that it attempts to ground itself in verifiable facts and sound arguments. That doesn't at all mean that there will be but one acceptable view on any given issue, but it does mean that people for the most part do try to make arguments they can defend. Rhetorical fireballs are not uncommon, but they usually have supporting evidence to back them. But in the wider national political conversation, we on the left often are left out. This is where we get back to Chomsky's point. And the obvious veracity of his point is even more absurd when one looks at the polling on many leading issues, because it is common to read or hear that we are a center-right nation— so common that we often read it in comments even in the liberal blogs— but on the issues, the polling shows we liberals actually are the mainstream. From single payer health care and a public option, to raising taxes on the wealthy, to getting out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to ending Don't Ask Don't Tell and legalizing gay marriage, to defending Social Security and Medicare and unions, the public is liberal. We could go on and on. But the traditional media will glide right by those facts and continually reinforce the agendas of their classist corporatist owners, not infrequently at the expense of the truth.
The traditional media exclude or marginalize most liberal voices. They want liberalism to remain foreign to the national political dialogue. And that places an extra burden on we who are attempting to break through their fog of disinformation. Not only do we have to take extra care to be right, but we often have to take care in how we present our views. We have to be extra attentive and careful in considering the words and rhetorical devices we choose to use. We are not attempting merely to reinforce our own beliefs and understandings, and we are not attempting merely to inspire the already generally like-minded. We are attempting to reach people to whom the information and opinions we offer may sound foreign— even if they generally agree with us! We have to be cognizant that even many already inclined to agree with us on many issues don't have easy access to information that is deliberately made more difficult for them to obtain. So if we are going to deliver information to them we have to do it such that it will be received. We have to remind them by the very manner of our approach that we are not different or frightening or shrill or radical, rather we are very much in agreement with them, and we have to make it safe for them to recognize those points of agreement, and safe for them to validate their own views. It sounds easy, but it is not. People too often vote against their own beliefs and their own self-interests because they are being deliberately manipulated by those who have no interest at all in their well-being. From narrowly focused wedge issues to obfuscations and distractions and misdirections to plain old lies, there are too many tools too easily available to those that still control the most powerful forms of mass media.
With the internet, we on the left have a historically unique opportunity to shatter what long has been a calcified norm. A politically and socially debilitating and degrading calcified norm. But the internet is only a tool. How we use it matters. Having access to important information isn't enough. How we use it matters. How we communicate matters. Words matter.