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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Peggy Noonan's poetic love of dissent, civility and grace

(Updated below - Update II - Update III)

Peggy Noonan has a new column in the Wall St. Journal solemnly lamenting the "fact" that, unlike the right, "the left" in America has no tolerance for dissenting views and does not understand the values of free speech or civility in political discourse. She cites four examples to "document" her thesis -- the recent protests by some Columbia University college students at an appearance by one of the Minutemen; criticisms allegedly voiced by unnamed "blog critics" and unnamed CBS employees over the airing by CBS News of a Columbine parent who blamed legalized abortion for the Columbine shootings; Barbra Streisand's use of a bad word when responding to a heckler at her concert; and an argument over gun control which Rosie O'Donnell had with Elizabeth Hasselback on The View.

From these examples, Noonan rhetorically asks: "There's a pattern here, isn't there?" She then proceeds to answer her own question this way:

Free speech means hearing things you like and agree with, and it means allowing others to speak whose views you do not like or agree with. This--listening to the other person with respect and forbearance, and with an acceptance of human diversity--is the price we pay for living in a great democracy. And it is a really low price for such a great thing.

We all know this, at least in the abstract. Why are so many forgetting it in the particular? Let us be more pointed. Students, stars, media movers, academics: They are always saying they want debate, but they don't. They want their vision imposed. They want to win. And if the win doesn't come quickly, they'll rush the stage, curse you out, attempt to intimidate.

And they don't always recognize themselves to be bullying. So full of their righteousness are they that they have lost the ability to judge themselves and their manner.

And all this continues to come more from the left than the right in America.

The examples of "the right" engaging in the type of dissent-quashing campaigns -- not in isolated examples from frivolous celebrities or college kids, but en masse, as a movement, from some of their leading pundits and activists -- are literally too numerous to chronicle. It was "the Right" which lobbied furiously, and successfully, to block Juan Cole's appointment to the Yale faculty because they dislike his views on the Middle East and Iraq. They previously demanded the firing of Ward Churchill for his views on 9/11, and are currently demanding the termination of Kevin Barrett from the University of Wisconsin because of his hostility towards George Bush and his view that 9/11 was caused by the Bush administration. The Right wants to amend the Constitution to criminalize flag burning.

It is "the right" which constantly harasses television networks not to broadcast television programs which offend them. David Horowitz has built his career over the last several years on his campaign to limit academic freedom through legislation. Peggy Noonan herself vocally complained about CBS' decision to air The Reagans.

Even more absurdly, Noonan is sad -- so very, very sad -- that "the left" not only lacks tolerance for dissent, but worse, they don't appreciate the virtues of "grace" and civility in political discourse:

What is most missing from the left in America is an element of grace--of civic grace, democratic grace, the kind that assumes disagreements are part of the fabric, but we can make the fabric hold together. The Democratic Party hasn't had enough of this kind of thing since Bobby Kennedy died.

What also seems missing is the courage to ask a question. Conservatives these days are asking themselves very many questions, but I wonder if the left could tolerate asking itself even a few. Such as: Why are we producing so many adherents who defy the old liberal virtues of free and open inquiry, free and open speech? Why are we producing so many bullies? And dim dullard ones, at that.

Remember that all of these sweeping, melodramatic sermons are based on the examples of some Columbia college kids, unnamed CBS employees, Barbra Streisand and Rosie O'Donnell.

Peggy Noonan is part of a political movement whose most influential leaders routinely accuse their political opponents of being allies of The Terrorist. Ask Michael Reagan what should be done with Howard Dean (he "should be hung for treason or put in a hole until the end of the Iraq war!"). Or ask the graceful, dissent-loving John Hinderaker what he thinks of Jimmy Carter (he "isn't just misguided or ill-informed. He's on the other side"). Ask the civil, graceful Mark Levin about Bill Clinton's mental health ("Bill Clinton is nuttier than a pecan pie"). Or listen to Byron York reference anti-anxiety medications and wonder about the "emotionally volatile" Howard "Dean's emotional intensity and whether such intensity should be a disqualifying characteristic for a potential president."

In fact, virtually every leading Democratic political figure at one point or another has been accused of not just merely being a terrorist sympathizer, but mentally ill. Ask Charles Krauthammer about what psychological medications Al Gore needs to be taking, repeated by graceful, dissent-loving John Podhoretz (“It is now clear that Al Gore is insane . . . There is every reason to believe that Albert Gore Jr., desperately needs help. I think he needs medication, and I think that if he is already on medication, his doctors need to adjust it or change it entirely"), or Oliver North ("Somebody needs to check this guy's medication. This guy has got a problem"), or David Frum ("a National Psychological Council would be a good idea after all -- and maybe it could start by advising [Al Gore] ought to seek out for his own good a cool and quiet darkened room"), or the graceful, civil Sean Hannity ("He's [Al Gore's] really nuts").

As wind sweeps through your hair, just behold the civil grace and the love of political disagreement that is so tragically missing on "the left" but that is in such abundant, ample, graceful display over there on "the right." It's so moving. And none of that even digs as low as one could to the graceful, dissent-worshipping likes of Michelle "Liberals-are-Unhinged" Malkin, Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, and Ann "Liberals-are-Treasonous-and-Godless" Coulter.

Whenever these sorts of "points" are made -- comparing the extremism and hatred of dissent on the left and the right -- one thing you will notice is that the examples used for "the left" are virtually always totally obscure and inconsequential figures dragged into the public eye (Deb Frisch, Ward Churchill, tens of random Columbia college kids), anonymous and unnamed individuals ("blog critics" or buried Kos or Democratic Underground commenters), or frivolous entertainers who have nothing to do with the Democratic Party (Harry Belafonte, Rosie O'Donnell, Barbra Streisand).

By contrast, one never needs to dig and search that way to find examples of such dissent-hating behavior on the Right. Instead, the examples are found easily and abundantly among the leading and most influential pundits and political figures of the Right (see above). That's because the type of dissent intolerance which Noonan is so poetically and profoundly lamenting is found in isolated, inconsequential clusters on "the left," but it is one of the core strategies, a defining tactic, of the Bush-led Right.

Really, what could be more laughable and hypocritical than for someone who is a follower of the Bush movement, like Noonan, to write a column sermonizing about the need to tolerate dissent and to conduct ourselves with grace and civility in political debates while preening around as though they are on the side of dissent, grace and civility? I think the answer to that question is "nothing."

UPDATE: I neglected to mention the multiple instances of dissent-loving behavior on the part of the Bush administration itself, whereby those with t-shirts expressing anti-Bush views were removed from events or rallies, or even arrested. As I am reminded in comments, I also neglected to mention the recent incident where a Colorado man (accompanied by his 7-year-old son) was arrested by the Secret Service for "assaulting" Dick Cheney because he told Cheney the Iraq War was "reprehensible."

But, as Noonan's column makes clear, none of this compares in significance or meaning to the leftist tyranny reflected by Rosie O'Donnell's raising her voice to Elizabeth Hasselback during their gun control argument or the omnipotent world political leader Barbra Streisand's outburst towards a heckler at her concert.

UPDATE II: Pardon me for failing to mention one of the most inspiring defenses of dissent and civility from the Right -- this demand from graceful Ben Shapiro on Townhall that Al Gore, John Kerry and Howard Dean all be prosecuted for sedition:

At some point, opposition must be considered disloyal. At some point, the American people must say "enough." At some point, Republicans in Congress must stop delicately tiptoeing with regard to sedition and must pass legislation to prosecute such sedition.

Indeed. Why does "the left" so hate dissent and civility?

And then we have this person, who holds herself out as a psychologist and abuses her license by spending every day purporting to diagnose those who disagree with her political views as suffering from various mental illnesses. But she wants you to know that she agrees wholeheartedly with Peggy Noonan's column today, and to underscore her agreement with Noonan, she says -- all in one post -- that the left has suffered a "rapid and unprecedented decline into wholesale intellectual and moral bankruptcy," that "it has transformed itself into a vehicle enabling for the implementation of evil throughout the world," that "the left has degenerated into a movement that has not only abandoned reality, they have jettisoned reason and critical thinking," that "the left" is composed of "bleeding narcissists," and, finally, "the mind of the left has turned to mush."

That is someone who claims, with no irony, to agree with Peggy Noonan's plea for civility and grace in our political discourse (the virtues of "listening to the other person with respect and forbearance, and with an acceptance of human diversity"). How can someone say they agree with Noonan's column and then, in the same post, proceed to spew out one venomous insult after the next without being cognizant of the contradiction? How does that observation escape someone? Then again, Peggy Noonan wrote a column today purporting to be so upset by the lack of dissent tolerance and civility, and pointed to the left in order to make her case, so anything is possible.

UPDATE III: Needless to say, Glenn Reynolds is very impressed with Peggy's argument and dramatically describes it this way:

THE SOUNDS OF SILENCING: Peggy Noonan looks at recent efforts to crush dissent.

Just compare that description to the examples Noonan cites and see if you can avoid boisterous laughter. This need among Bush followers to depict themselves as persecuted is truly endless. Barbra Streisand. Rosie O'Donnell. "Crushing dissent."

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