Saturday, 14 July 2018


My friend Michael Goldfarb has posted an excellent essay on his FRDH (First Rough Draft of History) podcast. It's called Civility and the 'Paradox of Tolerance' and it's worth a 12-minute listen before you proceed here because I will be talking about some of its points (not spoilers, exactly). Anyway you won't find many people weaving together Newt Gingrich, Sarah Sanders' dinners, Karl Popper and the Sidney Lumet movie The Hill in such an entertaining, and chilling, fashion. You can link to the website here.

Back already? Michael's jumping off point was an essay in Politico, the Sporting News of False Equivalence, by Rutgers professor David Greenberg. As Michael says, Greenberg warns about the 'last time' the left got 'uncivil', pointing to a 1970's bomb explosion which killed members of the Weather Underground in New York. You can read the piece here if you must. How this equates to a mother berating former cabinet member and arch-grafter Scott Pruitt at his latest expensed dinner, or the owner asking Sarah Sanders to leave a restaurant, or diners forcing Mitch McConnell, in his mom jeans, to skedaddle from his night out, is only the peak of the piece's fatuousness. In terms of incivility we could point to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, Nixon's October Surprise, the Chicago Eight trial, Nixon's plumbers, Watergate, the intelligence scandals of the 70s, Reagan's October Surprise, Iran-Contra, militia bombing federal facilities or shooting it out with federal marshals, assassinations of abortion-providing doctors, and other acts of political incivility, all of which pre-date Newt Gingrich's arrival in Congress to fight the second civil war.

Michael and I have had this discussion many times: I like to trace the modern Republicans back to the Goldwater fiasco in 1964, but more importantly to the Civil and Voting Rights legislation which brought about a re-balancing of American politics. Formerly, each party had its moderate wing; the Dems also had the racist southern Dixiecrats, loyal to hating the party of Lincoln. The Republicans had the John Birch, Ayn Rand, cowboy money faction who got Goldwater the nomination. When civil rights brought black people the vote, the Dixiecrats moved swiftly to the Republican party: all the right-wingnuts were now in the same canoe. And yes, it took them until Gingrich, and the 1994 shut down of government, for them to begin to understand what they had.

You wouldn't get any of this from David Greenberg, and I knew why. 15 years ago or so I reviewed a book of his, Nixon's Shadow, for the TLS. The book was about the way Nixon was portrayed in media, and I criticised it for the mess of selective assumption, historical blindness, false equivalence, and twisted values that it was. The editor who commissioned the review loved it, but it was spiked by the then-editor of the TLS, who as it turned out was also an unreconstructed Nixon-supporter. They do survive. The review appeared in the estimable political magazine Lobster, but when I started this blog I reprinted it, and you can find it here. It will give a decent idea of why Michael found the Politico essay so irritatingly off-base.

We are living in an age of determinedly minority government. I am used to it in the UK, but in America
gerry-mandering, voting repression, and the onslaught of propaganda disguised as news had led Fintan O'Toole in the Irish Times to make a compelling case about seeing the growth of a fascist state.  You can find that here; it's worth a read.

Michael, through Karl Popper, asks how far we should extend tolerance to the intolerant. In 2016 I screamed in frustration as Obama sat still and allowed Mitch McConnell to sideline his nominee for the Supreme Court. I wanted him to force a Constitutional crisis, bring events to a head, stand up to the intolerant. As I read O'Toole, I was reminded I am reading a book called The Trial Of Adolf Hitler right now; it's about the Beer Hall Putch and the trial that followed, and it is all about the tolerance of those who didn't feel the threat about which O'Toole is writing.

Anyone listening to Michael quote Popper: "for it may turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument. They may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive" and not thinking of Trump, Fake and Fox News, has been living in a cave. The kinds of things like Greenberg's Politico piece are the other side of the coin, seeming rational, but encouraging a 'tolerant' acceptance of the intolerant. This must not be allowed to happen. 

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