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Anti-Speech Situations

John Stuart Mill would say that the best cure for bad speech--for misinformation generated by ignorance or malevolence--is more speech. With a thick enough market for ideas, John Stuart Mill would think, we would be able to weigh and assess ideas much as we weigh and assess pieces of fruit in the marketplace, and pick the ones that offer the best value. An agora of opinions and information would work as well as a market for commodities. Indeed, the week before last, Bruce Bartlett praised the internet and weblogs for providing the potential for a quantum leap in the power of the public sphere of discourse--the arenas in which people who disagree but respect each other's intelligence and goodwill can exchange and consider each other's arguments.

But Kevin Drum fears for the sanity of those of us who try to put Mill's advice to the test:

The Washington Monthly: THE LORD'S WORK?....You know, I sort of admire the way Matt Yglesias continues to take on Charles Krauthammer and Brad DeLong continues to take on Donald Luskin--though I think Brad may have cried uncle on the Luskin thing a while back--but at some point you have to wonder if we're endangering our national resources by allowing this to go on. Surely every moment spent reacting to the increasingly feverish drivel from people like this reduces your IQ by some fraction of a point? And fractions add up. How long before Matt and Brad, Flowers for Algernon-like, end up behind the business end of a mop in an industrial bakery?...

I find myself much more depressed than John Stuart Mill. I look at how the Clinton and Bush administrations have been covered over the past fifteen years. And it leads to the conclusion that more speech--by professional journalists and opinionists, at least--is not the cure for but rather an amplification of bad speech. Many of my friends see this as a right-wing bias: that corrupt liars who pollute the stream of discourse receive financial rewards from the rich and powerful. But I think the problems are deeper and more destructive than that--the examples below should be at least as upsetting to reality-based conservatives as to reality-based liberals, and are focused on Republican misdeeds because Republicans are in power.

(1) We have Duncan Black noting how the corrupt and ignorant National Review receives an undeserved and dangerous legitimacy from having its propaganda acts treated as genuine arguments:

Eschaton: Matt Yglesias notes that Jonah Goldberg is complaining of "Goldberg Derangement Syndrome." This is a similar complaint to that of his fellow NROer [i.e., National Review contributor] Cliff May, who recently wrote:

I enjoy a good debate as much as the next guy but, increasingly, the next guy doesn’t want to argue — he wants to demonize me. He doesn’t want to win the debate; he wants to shut it down. Whether the topic is global warming or Saddam Hussein’s links to terrorists, daring to contradict the “consensus” brings hoots and hollers and worse.

If the question is, "how come the left blogosphere is so reflexively derisive whenever they encounter an argument from people like Goldberg and May," I think that May actually puts his finger on exactly why this is so: It's because so many conservatives want to argue things like global warming is fake and that there were significant ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. These aren't arguments: they're conspiracy theories (as is another foundational conservative myth, that the media has a partisan liberal bias). They have the same basis in fact as the notion that "9/11 was an inside job." And so, consequently, such "arguments" are treated as conspiracy theories deserve to be treated: with derision and scorn. Taking them seriously only gives them and those who make them an undeserved and in fact dangerous legitimacy...

(2) The Wall Street Journal editorial page says that Paul Wolfowitz's corrupt direction that his girlfriend get a $50,000 a year raise demonstrates that Paul Wolfowitz is the right person to fight corruption:

He's a Corrupt Bastard, But He's OUR Corrupt Bastard (Shakesville): The Wall Street Journal said in an editorial that "the forces of the World Bank’s status quo," angered by Wolfowitz's efforts to fight "corruption-as-usual" and institute more accountability in the institution's lending practices, had seized on a trivial issue to bring him down. One former bank staffer said that "some of the countries who failed to block his election are trying to set him up, and he walked into that trap really well"...

(3) Charles Krauthammer. Here is the Carpetbagger Report:

The Carpetbagger Report: but Krauthammer’s latest was so entertaining, I can’t myself.

[D]ebate at home about Iraq becomes increasingly disconnected from the realities.... The Democrats in Congress are so consumed with negotiating... [how] to legislatively ensure [America's] failure [in Iraq]... that they speak almost not at all about the first visible results of [Bush's] strategy. And preliminary results are visible. The landscape is shifting in the two fronts of the current troop surge: Anbar province and Baghdad...

As it turns out, “preliminary results are visible,” but Krauthammer apparently can’t see them....[A] suicide bomber destroying Baghdad’s Sarafiya bridge and another suicide bomber detonating a device inside Iraq’s parliament... [as] Krauthammer bragged about progress towards peace in the city.... [M]ore “visible results” this morning: bombings in Karbala and the Baghdad area killed at least 56 people.... [Y]et, Krauthammer believes Democrats are “increasingly disconnected from the realities of the war on the ground.”...

[B]efore his column went to print, Krauthammer managed to sneak in a “to be sure” line: “The situation in Baghdad is more mixed. Yesterday’s bridge and Green Zone attacks show the insurgents’ ability to bomb sensitive sites. On the other hand, pacification is proceeding.” If multiple bombings are indicative of “pacification,” I’d hate to see what he considers escalating violence...

I think what I miss the most is the absence of reality-based conservatives. Real conservatives should recognize that they lose their honor by going all the way with the global-warming-isn't-real crowd, the Saddam-Hussein-and-Al-Qaeda-are-friends crowd, the we-are-making-rapid-progress-in-Iraq crowd, the Mussolini-and-Hillary-Rodham-Clinton-are-friends crowd, the Paul-Wolfowitz-is-THE-MAN-for-fighting-corruption crowd, and the George-W-Bush-is-our-fearless-leader crowd. And they should be smart enough to realize that they weaken their cause in the long run as well. But--with a few honorable exceptions, of whom Bruce Bartlett and (gulp) Andrew Sullivan come first to mind--the public voices of the reality-based conservatives are few and weak (although their private loathing for their corporate and political masters is in many cases loud and shrill).

And I find nothing in my volumes of Juergen Habermas to tell me how to deal with this problem.