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Changing the Tone

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Changing the Tone"

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By request from Joseph Benaiah Cox:

As someone who frequently points out that Jonah Goldberg is a moron unsuited for any work in the public, let along public intellectual debate, how do you feel about calls to tone down the rhetoric? While obviously yours is not violent rhetoric, it probably doesn’t make anyone feel too charitable. I enjoy your candor, but as someone who has a blog award for bravery named after him I wonder if you could chew on your own role in the public discourse. Do you regret things you have said? Do you think that you contribute to the devil shift?

I have definitely said some things over the years which I regret. But I draw a distinction here. I don’t think people should pretend to like people they dislike or avoid saying what they mean. But I do think people should be careful to avoid a certain kind of tendentious rhetoric. Some of the participants in our political debate are quite stupid, some are corrupt, some are dishonest, and some combine multiple unattractive qualities.

What should be avoided is the tendency to dramatically overstate the ideological stakes in our political debates. The choice between Democratic candidates and Republicans ones is important and has important consequences. But in the grand scheme of things, you’re seeing what’s basically a friendly debate between two different varieties of the liberal tradition. I think efforts to elide the difference between the religiously inflected populist nationalism of George W Bush and the religiously inflected populist nationalism of Mullah Omar are really absurd, as are the efforts by Glenn Beck to elide the difference between the progressive income tax and Joseph Stalin. This stuff is mostly unserious, but I also think it’s potentially dangerous. If you really thought prominent American politicians were plotting to fundamentally subvert the American constitutional order tand supplant it with a totalitarian dictatorship, you’d be prepared to countenance some pretty extreme countermeasures.

The problem here isn’t really about “civility” or being nice, it’s about accuracy and not treating your audience like you respect them. Beck thinks of his audience as marks, which is just plain wrong, and some day I’m afraid the con may lead someone to do something equal in craziness to the yarn Beck is spinning.

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