One of my favorite passages from C.S. Lewis is this one, which I've quoted before:
"The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred." (Mere Christianity)"
I generally try to act on this: not to draw any bad conclusions about people until I have what seems to me clear evidence that those conclusions are warranted. Sometimes, people take this to mean that I try to be nice to my opponents, and they ask, "Why should we be nice to them?" But to me this isn't primarily about kindness at all, but about justice. When I think ill of someone who does not deserve it I am unjust to her. When I think something really bad about someone, I impugn her honor, which is worse. (Every so often I run into an article or a blog post that announces that "we no longer care about honor", and I growl: "speak for yourself!") It's important that not thinking ill of someone without good reason is primarily a matter of justice, not kindness. While a decent person will be kind in general, she does not have to be kind to everyone; and if she does not go out of her way to be kind to some specific person, that person has no right to complain. But we owe justice to everyone, without exception; and if I am unjust to anyone, I have wronged her.
Moreover, not all my reasons for refraining from thinking ill of people without good reason concern them. I value my self-respect, for example, and one of the things it depends on is my not maligning people without good reason. As regards serious charges, like treason: they matter too much to me for me to throw them around and debase them. But there's also one purely selfish motive: self-protection. Because hatred is a poison, and if you let it, it will destroy you.
By now, the pleasure of hatred is not one I'm particularly susceptible to, and I have never tried cocaine, so for me to compare the two might be a mistake. But I think the effects of hatred are like (what I've seen of) cocaine. At first, it's exhilarating. It's fun to see other people being vile and to set yourself in opposition to them. It's inspiring to go on a crusade. Of course, there is always a crusade at hand and an enemy to be fought, if your tastes run that way: the struggle to be a genuinely decent person, and the fight against your own worst self. But that requires that you actually give up your vices, which can be tiresome. A crusade against other people, like most of the pleasures of fantasy, has none of these drawbacks: it's all exhilaration, and none of that tedious business of recognizing your own faults and trying to correct them.
As with cocaine, if you stop at this point, not much has been lost. And some people do stop here. But if you don't keep hatred in check, you come to rely on it more and more, the fun fades, and it corrodes you from within. The more you nurse your hatred, the larger a part of your identity it becomes. But hatred is a poor substitute for a genuine self, and the more you come to depend on it, the hollower you become, and the harder it is to let it go. It eats away at your values: morality, which we ought to use to make ourselves better people and only secondarily to judge others, turns into a tool we use to excoriate those we hate, and to demonstrate, to ourselves and to others, how very, very different we are from them. Crusades are fought by the righteous, and if you need to believe that you are on a righteous crusade, you will of course need to conscript morality to the cause of maintaining your belief that you are on the side of the angels.
At this point, as Lewis said, your view of your opponents is driven by your hatred, rather than the other way around. You need "to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black", and your needs drive your beliefs. Your intellectual integrity is sacrificed to your psychological needs, your hatred loses any honesty it might once have had, and you surrender to fantasy. This can be hard to undo: once you give up your hold on reality, it's hard to find your way back. And if you can't, then you are surrounded by malevolent enemies of your own creation, enemies that can do you real damage even though they are purely imaginary. You are "fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred" which you created in your own image, and which has trapped you.
This is dangerous. I have watched people get into real moral trouble this way. I have no wish to join them. And the only way I know to prevent it is to be absolutely scrupulous about thinking ill of people. If the facts warrant my dislike, so be it. But the moment I find myself wanting to see grey as black, then I know that I'm going wrong. And as C.S. Lewis said, whenever this impulse "bobs its head up, day after day, year after year, all our lives long, we must hit it on the head." As I said, not just because it's unjust to think ill of others when they don't deserve it, or because it's ignoble, but because it's poison.
Some of you might be wondering what prompted all this. The answer is: some things I've seen recently that are hard for me to explain without thinking: the person who wrote this has gone past the point of just hating people, and into the realm of delusion.
Example 1 is an essay by Nelson Ascher:
"I was wrong to dismiss the pre-1989 leftists as dinosaurs condemned to extinction by evolution. While I was looking the other way, they were regrouping, inventing new slogans, creating new tactics and, above all, keeping the flames of their hatred burning. The history is still to be written about the moment when the left made its collective mind up and decided to strike an alliance with radical Islam. It had been tried before, in Iran/79, but, threatened by the USSR to the north and by its Iraqi client to the West, Khomeini didn’t have much time for the local leftists, nor did he need them. The idea of such an alliance was probably (re)-born in several different minds and in several different places, and it would be as difficult to say exactly where it took place first as it is to say which grain of corn is the first to pop when one’s making pop-corn. All that can be said is that, right now, we have a “fait accompli”.
This newly ever-growing Western left, not only in Europe, but in Latin America and even in the US itself, has a clear goal: the destruction of the country and society that vanquished its dreams fifteen years ago. But it does not have, as in the old days of the Soviet Union, the hard power to accomplish this by itself. Thanks to this, all our leftist friends’ bets are now on radical Islam. What can they do to help it? Answer: tie down America’s superior strength with a million Liliputian ropes: legal ones, political ones, with propaganda and disinformation etc. Anything and everything will do."
Ted Barlow at Crooked Timber has already given this the response it deserves: ridicule. He also says: "it isn’t OK. Not to mince words, this is insanity." And he's right. Ascher apparently believes that the left (whoever that is) is bent on destroying the United States, and to that end has 'struck an alliance' with radical Islam. This is absurd on its face: leaving aside the implicit claims about the moral character of people like Edward, Katherine and I, what sense does it make to think that, say, feminists would align themselves with radical Islam? It is also an extremely serious charge, and no honorable person would make it without serious evidence. What evidence does Ascher present? At the beginning of the essay, he describes "an acquaintance (deceased since then), a hardliner Trotskyite" who was disappointed by the fall of the Berlin Wall. That's the only actual person he mentions in the essay. Hardline Trotskyites aren't typical of much of anything, and certainly not of the left. In any case, this particular hardline Trotskyite is apparently dead, so Ascher doesn't even have enough evidence to conclude that any living person holds the views he attributes to 'the Left'.
After describing his Trotskyite friend, Ascher goes on to say: "But there were probably, no, not probably, but surely, those who felt utterly defeated at the time. They just didn’t think it was advisable to go public with their anger and frustration." The 'probably, no, not probably but surely' makes it clear that he's guessing about the people he's describing. But in a few short paragraphs, he has stopped hedging, and started describing the supposed motivations and machinations of 'the left' in detail. At no point does he provide the slightest support for his extraordinary allegation that 'all our leftist friends' have actually formed an alliance with radical Islam to destroy America. The only anchor to reality is the dead Trotskite; the rest is something Nelson Ascher just made up.
This is fairly clear from the essay. But that didn't stop Instapundit from quoting it and adding: "Sigh. I wish he were wrong." (He has since explained that he meant only the European Left, although why it's supposed to be OK to slander (for example) large numbers of perfectly nice Swedish Social Democrats is not clear to me.) And it didn't stop Wretchard at the Belmont Club from citing it approvingly and adding his own psychoanalysis of Ascher's imaginary enemies:
"Although Ascher describes the hatred of the Left as the sole surviving ember in the ashes, he left out the one other emotion which has still survived: conceit. If the Western Left is convinced of anything it is it can bend the Islamic world to its will once America has been cleared away. Samuel Huntington wrote that Islam was "convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power." But he might have been describing the Left, for whom recent history has been an unaccountable theft of their birthright; a little detail they will put right when America is vanquished. But there is the additional complication of Islam and the idea that they are the Wave of the Future is so ingrained the possibility that Islam will eventually dominate is unthinkable.
But why not? Islam is 1000 years older than the Left; its population burgeoning while the Left is aborting itself into demographic extinction. More fundamentally, any honest Leftist must realize that his movement and its aspirations are rooted in the very West it seeks to destroy. Communist totalitarianism is the doppelganger of secular freedom; and the serpent in the garden must know that the desert, so hospitable to Islam, can only be a place of death for it. The Left may have embarked upon a journey of revenge. They will find suicide."
As I said, this is madness. But at least in this case one can imagine that maybe, just maybe, Ascher and Wretchard and Instapundit are thinking of some very tiny group of people, composed perhaps of Ward Churchill and the ghost of the hardline Trotskyite, whom they have unaccountably decided to refer to as "the left". Alternately, it may be that it's easier to say truly crazy things about a nameless, shapeless group than about an actual human being. But no such explanation is available in the case of my next example:
Example 2: Hindrocket's claim that "Jimmy Carter isn't just misguided or ill-informed. He's on the other side." It's pretty clear who he's talking about. And it's pretty clear what he's saying about him: that Jimmy Carter is a traitor.
Now: Jimmy Carter is not on my list of favorite ever Presidents. But the idea that he is a traitor is insane. And Hindrocket made clear, in a followup post, that he really believes this: "We've been pretty tough on Jimmy Carter, but with hindsight, probably not tough enough." His main piece of evidence is from an article in Front Page: "In the waning days of the 1980 campaign, the Carter White House dispatched businessman Armand Hammer to the Soviet Embassy. ... Hammer pleaded with the Russians for help. He asked if the Kremlin could expand Jewish emigration to bolster Carter's standing in the polls." To which Hindrocket adds: "Conspiring with our chief enemy to try to influence an American Presidential election: We could have called that treason, but we didn't. You can form your own opinion."
Note two things about Hindrocket's evidence. First, in an update to the post just cited he notes an email comment from a historian who claims his accusation is wrong, since "Hammer was not speaking for Carter when he made the request to the Soviets for increased Jewish emigration in advance of the election". Hindrocket says, among other things: "this is not an area in which I am an expert." To my mind, before you go around implying that someone is a traitor you should become an expert. If you aren't willing to go to the trouble, you should not make accusations of treason. Second, suppose that the historian is wrong, and Hammer was speaking on Carter's behalf. What Carter was trying do was: to get the Russians to release Jews, which (so the allegation goes) would provide him with a foreign policy victory. Now: it would clearly have been wrong for Carter (or any candidate) to make a deal that involved compromising American interests for political gain. But getting the Soviet Union to allow Jews to emigrate does not compromise American interests. On the contrary, it seems to me to be a pretty straightforwardly good thing. And how trying to get them to do that, on whatever grounds, could possibly constitute treason is completely beyond me.
But this is not the strangest thing Hindrocket has ever said. That honor belongs to:
Example 3: A few days ago, via Digby, I found this video clip. It's an outtake from a documentary about blogs. It really has to be seen to be believed, especially so that you can see the calm and reasonable tone in which Hindrocket says things that are, again, just insane. For those of you with a slow connection, I've transcribed it:
"I mean, as far as I can tell, the left doesn't care about terrorism, doesn't care about the Islamofascists, doesn't care about hundreds of thousands of people being murdered. All they care about is their own power. All they care about is regaining the presidency. All they care about is defeating President Bush. And, I think that the left, and by "the left" I'm including now almost the entire Democratic Party, you can count exceptions on your fingers, Zell Miller, Joe Lieberman, you can name the exceptions. The whole mainstream of the Democratic party, I would say, is engaged in an effort that really is a betrayal of America. What they care about is not winning the war on terror. What they care about is defeating President Bush. And I think that the positions that they're taking, the things that they're doing and saying, are significantly impeding the progress of the war, and give great encouragement to our enemies. And I indict them for that. I don't think they care about the danger to us as Americans nor do they care about the danger to people in other countries. They care about power."
OK. Let's take this slowly. Who is the left? "Almost the entire Democratic Party." That would be a large chunk of the adult population of this country, at a guess around fifty million people. And almost all of those roughly fifty million of us -- "you can count exceptions on your fingers" -- are so completely devoid of conscience or empathy that we don't "care about hundreds of thousands of people being murdered". And we don't care about terrorism; oddly enough, this includes even the largely Democratic populations of New York and Washington DC, despite the fact that their cities were hit, and their loved ones killed. But that doesn't matter to us: we are so blinded by our lust for power that we can contemplate the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and remain unmoved.
Moreover, all roughly fifty million of us are "engaged in an effort that really is a betrayal of America". That's right: we don't just disagree with Republicans about policies. We aren't worried that the war in Iraq is distracting us from actual terrorists, or that it will help terrorist recruitment. We aren't alarmed by Bush's actual record on homeland security, horrified by his failure to deal seriously with the task of keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists, or appalled by Abu Ghraib. And we certainly don't oppose Bush because we believe that his other policies -- like, say, the deficits he has created -- are not good for the country. No: we're traitors. Sociopathic traitors to whom the murder of hundreds of thousands pales into insignificance beside our desperate quest for power. That's us. Edward, Katherine, me, and our partners in infamy.
Example 4: This is not an accusation; just a sign that something has gone badly wrong. Someone at a website called Minnestoa Politics wrote this email to Hindrocket:
"Your recent post on the JD Guckert/Jeff Gannon story has to be one of the saddest examples of conservative head-in-sand syndrome I have ever seen. You claim that there are three issues being brought up by liberals: 1) He isn't a "real" journalist, 2) He was a Bush administration plant, and 3) He had something (“God knows what) €“to do with the Valerie Plame story. Of course, you blatantly ignore the most important issue, the one that is easily found on hundreds of blogs covering the story: how did a person using a fake name get access to the White House? If I applied for a pass to the White House using the name "Max Power", I would not get in unless I had some friends high up at the top. A closely-related issue is exactly what the links are between GOPUSA and Talon News. Now, you may think it perfectly acceptable for the President and press secretary to consistently call on a reporter who is working for what is essentially an arm of the Republican Party. If so, it would be nice if you would admit it. That doesn't mean that others aren't allowed to have a problem with that arrangement, however.
You also take Americablog to task for "finding nude photos of Gannon and posting them online." He didn't "find" photos taken by some paparazzi at a secret party; he found websites where Guckert (let's use his real name, not his pretend name) posted his own photos. If you posted photos of your family on your web page and I posted a link to these photos, would that make me a low-life "outing" you? Come on. Guckert is not ashamed of these photos, otherwise he would not have put them on the web in the first place. If somebody else finds them and points them out to the world, they are doing nothing wrong.
Just one, just once, it would be nice to see a conservative with the ability to find fault with other conservatives. I won't hold my breath, though."
In my opinion, this email is a bit on the snarky side, but not abusive or over the line. Hindrocket wrote him this reply*:
"You dumb shit, he didn't get access using a fake name, he used his real name. You lefties' concern for White House security is really touching, but you know what, you stupid asshole, I think the Secret Service has it covered. Go crawl back into your hole, you stupid left-wing shithead. And don't bother us anymore. You have to have an IQ over 50 to correspond with us. You don't qualify, you stupid shit."
Hindrocket has acknowledged that he wrote the email, and that it was "a mistake". But there's no law that says you have to reply to every email you get. Having emailed Hindrocket to let him know when I have written about him in the past, I can attest that he does not reply to every email that anyone sends him. That being the case, if Hindrocket found himself angry enough to consider writing this kind of response, wouldn't both the decent and the sane thing to do be to get up from the computer, go out for a nice long run or something to get it out of his system, and either reply when he was in a better mood or just delete the email? Would you ever write something like this "by mistake"? Would you ever write it at all?
My conclusions about this: First, if Ascher, Hindrocket, and Wretchard don't believe the things they wrote, then I think it goes without saying that they are not, by any stretch of the imagination, decent and honorable people, since decent and honorable people don't accuse others of treason when they don't believe those accusations are true. But if they do believe what they wrote, then in my view they have allowed their judgment to be completely corrupted by hatred. Because the things they wrote are delusional.
Second, they are also irresponsible. Neither life nor politics is a game. The objective is not to score points against your opponents by any means necessary. When you have a public platform, you should use it responsibly. You should try to write things that you think will enlighten or at least (harmlessly) amuse, not things that inflame hatred for its own sake. This is just a matter of basic decency, and no basically decent person would consistently ignore this responsibility, especially if she suspected that her readers might include people who are already poisoned by hatred, like, say, this LGF reader commenting on Ascher's piece:
"shouldn't these assholes be hung/imprisoned as traitors? damn man, when are we gonna wake up and label a spade a spade. the more this goes on the more young minds will be poisoned in high school and college. but isn't this what the left wants? most are gay/lesbian/transgendered or so abortion happy they have no children. the only way they can ensure their survival is by brainwashing us and our children."
Third, I read PowerLine and its ilk to see what they are up to. But I do not take them seriously as sources of information. I believe that anyone who does take seriously people who use their public platforms irresponsibly, and whose judgment has been corrupted by hatred, is running serious moral risks. As I said earlier, hatred is a poison that corrodes your soul. It is dangerous to invite it in and make it feel at home. And it harms our country, which is surely not suffering from a shortage of hatred, or an overabundance of people who believe that most of their political opponents are decent people who disagree with them on matters of policy.
Fourth, all my examples are from right-wing bloggers. I'm sure there are hateful left-wing bloggers out there. But I think the right has a special problem with this sort of stuff. If you look at the TTLB Ecosystem traffic rankings, three of the top ten blogs are conservative, and all three (Instapundit, PowerLine, and LGF) traffic in accusations of treason. Three of the top ten blogs are liberal (Kos, Atrios, and Kevin Drum), and none of them, as far as I've seen, accuses their opponents of treason, or flings around very serious charges without very serious evidence. If we move to the 'respectable' blogs, on the right we have Andrew Sullivan, who has just continued a long tradition of hateful charges and comparisons by comparing the Harvard faculty to Stalinists, and on the left we have Josh Marshall, who does no such thing. Likewise, on the radio the right has Rush Limbaugh and his many imitators, while the left has -- well, nobody anywhere near that level of popularity. If I were on the right myself, I would be trying to think of something to do about this situation: some way to try to replace vitriol and paranoia with reason. Being on the left, and thus (in their eyes) a traitor to my country, for some reason I don't think I'd be listened to.
I'm sorry about the length of this post. But I think this is quite serious, and quite alarming. PowerLine gets over 70,000 visits a day. LGF gets just under 95,000. It scares me that there are so many people out there who take these people seriously. It also scares me that people get inured to this: that it's common enough to hear people accusing the likes of Edward, Katherine and me of treason that it doesn't register any more. But now I'll just sign off.
* Question for other ObWiFolk: do the posting rules cover quotes in which obscenity is essential to one's reasons for quoting? If so, I'm sorry; just let me know and it won't happen again.