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    McArdle's Crusade

    Megan McArdle finds it funny that Nancy Pelosi is worried about political violence. I'm not sure which element tickles McArdle's funny bone. Maybe it's Pelosi's request that public officials speak responsibly. Maybe it's Pelosi's embarrassing and uncool emotional sincerity. Perhaps it's that Pelosi is soooo amazingly old that she actually remembers the Mayor of San Francisco's thigh-slappingly funny murder. (Can you imagine being that old? Silly grandma!)

    McArdle has titled her comic response "There Will Be Blood," thereby establishing her credentials for highly literate snark. It follows in its entirety:

    I'm not sure what Nancy Pelosi is trying to say in this video. Is she furthering the largely unsubstantiated claim that the American right is planning a reign of terror? Or is she trying to tell us that Owosso was just the beginning? Either way, this doesn't seem like it's adding much to the national conversation.

    McArdle does have a remarkable talent for crowding slippery debating tactics into a limited space, a kind of spin doctor's haiku. In four sentences she's got at least two straw men, some misleading rhetorical questions, an appeal to moral equivalence: a post like this requires one an elaborate and unwholesome genius. There isn't time enough in the world to deal with every one of McArdle's pithy distortions, but I'd note the two biggest ones. First she treats Pelosi's worry about unbalanced people taking political rhetoric too seriously as a conspiracy theory about an organized "reign of terror" by "the right" as a whole. Easy to refute that one, isn't it, Megan? (That McArdle considers her own fantastic straw man only "largely unsubstantiated" is rather chilling.)

    McArdle's second big move is the your-side-does-it-too riposte, familiar from school yards, street corners and protracted civil wars the world over. By bringing up the murder of a pro-life activist in Owosso, McArdle implies that it is really the liberals who are killing the conservatives, or that both sides are equally violent, or some other idea which McArdle seems to think wins her a debating point.

    Of course, Pelosi did not denounce violence by the right. She denounced violence, full stop:

    I wish we would all curb our enthusiasm in some of the statements and understand that some of the ears that it is falling on are not as balanced as the person making the statements might assume.

    Pelosi's appeal to responsible speech, explicitly aimed at a universalized "we" than any specific or partisan "they," warning that overheated rhetoric can be misunderstood by the unbalanced, has immediately been taken by the conservative media as an unjust accusation against conservatives. That response speaks like a thunderclap. When saying things that excitable lunatics might misunderstand feels like a core value of your movement, your movement should disband.

    In McArdle's world, of course, there is no such thing as a non-partisan statement. Pelosi says "we" and McArdle hears "you." McArdle's snark about Owosso presumes that Pelosi would not be bothered by the senseless murder of a protester on the right. But Pelosi said no such thing; it is McArdle who cannot imagine anyone mourning violence against an ideological opposite.

    The question of violence has been on McArdle's mind intermittently over the last few months, including her repeated defense of people bringing guns to Obama speeches, and her thought experiment about the moral coherence of murdering abortion providers:

    Now I can move onto the observation that if you actually think late-term abortion is murder, then the murder of Dr. Tiller makes total sense.

    Of course, McArdle never explicitly advocates murder. She identifies herself as pro-choice. She calls bringing guns to public events "counterproductive." McArdle merely urges us to accept murder as reasonable. Not that she would ever do such a thing, of course. She simply demands that people who would, and people who have, be treated as serious contributors to the public debate. In McArdle's world brandishing a weapon, or even using that weapon to kill another human being, should not discredit one's beliefs.

    This strange fixation on McArdle's part, her crusade make sure the armed and even the violent are not penalized in the public debate, helps explain her hostility to Pelosi. An appeal for responsible speech, for considering the consequences of one's words, is anathema to McArdle; she seems to believe that ideas must always be judged upon their abstract and intrinsic merits, rather than on their material consequences, and still less on the behavior of their adherents. It would offend McArdle heartily if an idea that seemed to her logical and consistent were discredited simply because its advocates were violent or anti-social. She demands that ideas be judged only as ideas, and for McArdle an idea doesn't become any less true, beautiful or good just because someone who believes in it kills someone who didn't.

    Thus Pelosi's obvious emotion, the tears that unexpectedly started welling when she recalled the bloody deaths of people she had known and worked with, evidently struck McArdle as tasteless or ridiculous. That sort of thing, as Jay Gastby put it, is "only personal." And that Pelosi appealed to her own lived experience must have struck McArdle, for whom politics is a long series of seminar-room hypotheticals, as uncouth. McArdle values being "contrarian," by which she means offering logically valid arguments with surprising conclusions; these conclusions are often surprising because they are at odds with the experience of living in the world. McArdle doesn't view guns at public assemblies as dangerous, because for her guns are primarily ideas. And whether or not guns are dangerous is a question to resolve with a syllogism, before moving on to another observation.

    Movement conservatives have been working hard since 1980 to build their presence on college campuses, and groom a new generation of conservative thinkers and pundits. McArdle is one of the fruits of their success: focused on winning adversarial debates, favoring abstract logic over experience and snark over sobriety, not only thriving on a polarized atmosphere but insisting on one. McArdle still argues in the ad hoc style of dorm rooms and dining halls: facile, punchy, never overly burdened by research. She is bright. But her intelligence is focused on winning games. When someone gestures to something bigger than the partisan game, she can only hear a play for partisan advantage. When Nancy Pelosi talks about avoiding violence, McArdle can only understand that as a ploy. McArdle is so blinkered cannot imagine that avoiding civil bloodshed might be valuable to people on both sides of the aisle. She cannot see what is in it for her. Megan McArdle is still a sophomore, in the most literal meaning of the word: a bright and highly-educated fool.



    I like the cut of your jib, Cleveland.

    McArdle has an unhealthy fixation on Ayn Rand, but she works for the Atlantic.  So, on the one hand, the "Jane Galt" in her has to jump to the defense of the the supermen who want to walk the streets with guns, but she must simultaneously reassure her audience that she doesn't actually support anyone ever using them.  Or I guess if they decide to, we should at least consider the context in which such an act would be reasonable.

    What happened to "Jane's Law"?

    Jane's Law: The devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane.

    So, shouldn't she now be telling us, by virtue of her own "political law" (HA!), about how batshit insane the Republicans are now that they've lost the presidency, something that "clearly unhinges people's minds"?  You would think that she'd be waving this flag high, taking every opportunity to pillory Republican insanity as vindication of her law.  Or perhaps she's such a devoted contrarian that she can't abide this sort of consistency.

    McArdle just oozes disingenuousness.  Nothing she writes means a damn because it's all smoke and mirrors.  One of my favorite schadenfreude reads around the 'net is Fire Megan McArdle, where they make it their business to document the diarrhea that drips from her pen.

    Thanks, DF! I've got a new bookmark!

    Although I share your dislike for McArdle's stances, I take objection to being lumped in with her. Specifically, you write:

    In McArdle's world brandishing a weapon, or even using that weapon to kill another human being, should not discredit one's beliefs.

    It would offend McArdle heartily if an idea that seemed to her logical and consistent were discredited simply because its advocates were violent or anti-social. She demands that ideas be judged only as ideas, and for McArdle an idea doesn't become any less true, beautiful or good just because someone who believes in it kills someone who didn't.

    I share that opinion. My atheism isn't any less sound because there are atheists who kill. (Replace atheism/atheists with Christianity/Christians, etc., if you like.) I hope it's clear that I'm not defending the actual statements she makes, but I will defend the worldview that you're ascribing to her there. (However, from what else you've written, I doubt that actually is her worldview. She most likely only argues it when it supports her position.)

    Is it useful here to make a distiniction between someone who holds a particular belief then commits a heinous act and someone who commits a heinous act in the name of their beliefs?  I ask this because when you say "atheists who kill", I was forced to try and think of what this phrase means.  Surely, there are atheists who have killed, but where are the atheists who kill in the name of atheism?  I ask this because there are many, many examples of those kill in the name of their religious beliefs, despite this sort of thing being contraindicated by their religious doctrines.  The point here is that McArdle seems to being saying that logical consistency is enough and there can be no link between belief and act if we understand the belief to be internally consistent.

    I don't think that's true.  I think that certain kinds of thinking, particularly religious thinking, can lead people to this sort of act despite the obvious logical contradictions with their espoused beliefs.  I believe that this occurs precisely because religious belief requires the suspension of critical thought.  Once suspended, it becomes much easier to justify this sort of act as righteous.  This can be done in the same dogmatic way that the religious belief system was adopted in the first place.

    Atheism, on the other hand, requires critical thought.  Are there examples not just of atheists who happened to kill, but atheists who justify killing on the basis of their beliefs?

    Are there examples not just of atheists who happened to kill, but atheists who justify killing on the basis of their beliefs?

    Well, obvious choices are people like Stalin or Mao. Now, you might argue that they were killing on the basis of their political beliefs and not their religious (or non-religious) beliefs, but I'd retort back that it's hard to separate those two. For example, consider the crusades: how much of that killing was truly due to religous beliefs vs. how much was due to political beliefs?

    If you want to be a stickler about it, however, I can't give any examples of atheists who have killed on the basis of their atheistic beliefs alone, but I would be surprised if there weren't a few solitary nutters out there who have done so. (All groups have their nutters.)

    I think the real question is to what degree do a certain set (or subset) of beliefs tend to increase (or decrease) the likelihood of such actions. Of course, I'm returning again to cold, statistical, impersonal analysis.

    After writing that last paragraph, I want to add one more clarification. Not having done rigorous statistical analysis to determine whether or not their is a correlative connection between one set of beliefs and another set of actions, should not preclude one (such as Pelosi) from issuing warning statements that such a correlative connection might exist. Hypotheses need to be formed before they can be tested.

    In fact, Pelosi made no claim about correlation.

    She made a blanket claim that inflammatory rhetoric is dangerous, and has led to trouble before. She did not specify whose beliefs were correlated with anything.

    No, I understood that. I merely meant that it would be fine if she (or anyone else) had, even if they hadn't yet done a full statistical analysis.

    You know, right after a posted my comment and took off I thought of communists.  I also thought of the retort that their motivations were political, not religious, and quickly realized that it would be as difficult to separate the two in the case of communist leaders like Stalin or Mao as it would be for the crusades or even for modern Islamic terrorists.

    Well, Nebton, let me make a distinction I didn't make and which deserves another post.

    While the validity of ideas are, in fact, distinct from the actions of their supporters, I'm more concerned with the question of civil process.

    Our democratic republic is founded upon a shared civil debate, which uses reason rather than violence. It doesn't work unless there's a commitment from everybody to use persuasion rather than force.

    When someone goes outside that process (which indicates a distrust in the persuasive merits of their ideas), the whole process is in danger. So they need to bear a stigma. And it is in the long run better for the pursuit of truth that the use of force be penalized, and its users discredited. Everyone needs to know that blowing something up will set their beliefs back for at least a generation.

    A true idea remains true even if its advocates are monsters. *But* advocates for an idea must establish its truth, not impose it by threats or mayhem. When followers of a position use force, their ideas should rightly be considered suspect. After all, they themselves went to guns and bombs because didn't expect anyone else would buy what they were selling.

    That is such an excellent point that I'm totally stealing it to use in discussions with my conservative co-workers.

    You make good points, but I'm interested in adding some nuance that you might have missed (or might have been missing) from my previous discussion. There are very few ideas (if any) where all of its advocates, or even a majoirty of its advocates, are monsters. However, there are ideas that tend to attract more monsters than others, and there are ideas that tend to repel monsters more than others. Finally, there are ideas that actually create monsters.* I think it's revealing to consider why an idea attracts monsters, if it does so, but attracting monsters does not necessarily invalidate an idea. For example, Darwin's theories were abused by Hitler. (I threw that one in there just for A-man.) It doesn't make his theories any less valid, of course.

    * Actually, maybe there aren't. But it's a useful catetory to distinguish from ideas that merely attract monsters.

    Right, but here's the thing. Once the bullets start flying, I don't care how right your thinking is, or what a swell guy you are. I'm simply angry that your principles matter more to you than someone else's life. As soon as that happens, you're a bad guy, and everyone on your side is guilty until proven innocent. Killing someone in the name of your atheist beliefs wouldn't make an anthropomorphic God burst into existence, but it would discredit atheism as a social and political movement. I mean, I think that should be obvious. If some atheist knocks off a few Orthodox priests tomorrow, and a rabbi, then atheism will become unpopular.

    Politics, everyday politics, is about winning hearts and minds. Winning the intellectual argument but causing mayhem and death will turn hearts against even the most lucid cause, and with damned good reason.

    As soon as that happens, you're a bad guy, and everyone on your side is guilty until proven innocent.

    I detest the guilty-by-association logic. I didn't like it when it was applied to Obama, and I don't like it now. I'm not entirely sure if you're being serious, but if this is some sort of a joke, it's eluding me.

    If some atheist knocks off a few Orthodox priests tomorrow, and a rabbi, then atheism will become unpopular.

    No doubt it would. After all, people blamed anti-war protesters for the Weather Underground bombings, Marxist sympathizers for Stalin's gulags, civil rights activists for the Black Panthers' militancy, and Jews for Baruch Goldstein's massacre of Palestinians.

    But those people were wrong.

    It may be true that "causing mayhem and death will turn hearts against even the most lucid cause," but I see no damned good reason for it.

    Two reasons: first, most people judge political ideas by results. If the results of a specific program involve being shot or killed, they're against it. And how on earth can you blame them? When violence is used as a political tool, it's not just a tool, it becomes an element of the user's program, and people very naturally turn against it.

    Second, once any political party makes the decision that it's the judge of life and death, it earns distrust. And trust can only be earned back by disavowing that. I am not arguing for smearing political enemies by association. I am arguing for disassociating oneself, loudly and clearly, from any "allies" who are currently using violence as a tool.

    Yes, the extremist violence in all of the cases you cite was used to discredit non-violent people who held similar ideological positions, and some of that was fearmongering hysteria. But some of it, to be fair, was also a failure to disavow violence by some of the non-violent left.

    Stalin's purges had apologists on the American Left: far too many. We forget about it, because it's embarrassing, and we'd rather remember our virtuous Leftist martyrs, but the defenses of Stalin could be quite mealy-mouthed. The Panthers and Weathermen had "liberal" apologists even in their most incoherent and violent phases. (The phrase "radical chic" comes from an article about Leonard Bernstein throwing a society party for a bunch of Panthers.) And surely, there were some self-consciously "good Jews" who maintained what they imagined as their credibility by backing anything Baruch Goldstein did, on the "our homeland, right or wrong" principle. A speaker who doesn't commit violence but excuses it loses trust. And frankly, I think that is as it should be. If someone's willing to suspend his or her moral code for violence by "our side," I don't feel that s/he is on my side anymore.

    Show me an anti-war protest where cars get set on fire, and I'll show you a protest that ain't stopping any wars. Show me a People's Revolution that kills some ideologically-incorrect workers and I'll show you a revolution that a lot of workers hate.

    If you want to make social progress, you have to refrain from violence. If people who share some of your general aims resort to violence, you need to earn some credibility back, and that starts by making your separation from those bastards as clear as possible.

    Hitler always hates a late invitation to the party.

    Yeah. He really got into a snit when the League of Nations called him Friday for a Saturday event. Never stopped holding the grudge, really.

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