April 15, 2009

Two Points About Effective Political Speech

When you speak publicly, you're representing the people who agree with you. The responsible thing to do is to take care that you fulfill this function well.

For instance, it is certainly the case that one person's right to speak freely does not obviate your right to a) disagree with what they advocate, b) protest the policies they have come to advocate, c) call that person names because of what they espouse, or even d) interrupt and get your own message out in place. But note that as you move from point "a" to point "d" on that spectrum, you become progressively more rude and therefore progressively represent your side of the issue less and less creditably. Which brings me to my first point.

Censors and bullies do not appear to be advocating good policies, because they rely on something other than the strength of their arguments to get their way.

Case in point -- Congressman Tom Tancredo speaking at the University of North Carolina today:
Hundreds of protesters converged on Bingham Hall, shouting profanities and accusations of racism while Tancredo and the student who introduced him tried to speak. Minutes into the speech, a protester pounded a window of the classroom until the glass shattered, prompting Tancredo to flee and campus police to shut down the event.
Now, I'm not a big fan of Tom Tancredo's message on immigration -- as loyal Readers know, I favor a guest worker program with relatively open and simple pathways to naturalization, and fairly liberal granting of visas for a large number of purposes, which are pretty much the opposite of what Tom Tancredo, King of the Moatdiggers, is talking about.

But at the same time, I think it is also possible to have an intelligent discussion about immigration reform and for someone to suggest a more restrictive immigration policy, and a more aggressive border control strategy, than what we currently have. And while I think Tancredo comes close to the line sometimes, just because one suggests a tighter immigration policy does not necessarily mean that one is a racist. To be sure, many people who advocate tighter immigration policies do so because they just don't like them damn Mexican people and are somehow morally offended when they hear people speaking Spanish.

But it is well within the realm of possibility that one might believe that the negative economic and social effects of illegal immigration are best combatted with a tighter immigration policy rather than a loosened one. Tom Tancredo and those who agree with him are good candidates for the principle of charity -- we reform advocates ought to presume that the Moatdiggers* are acting out of good motives and simply disagree with us, until and unless they present evidence within their arguments to the contrary. So the name-calling Tancredo was subjected to is a violation of the principle of charity.

More to the point, though, the immigration reformers who caused such a ruckus that the event was cancelled and drove Tancredo from campus deprived him of the ability to articulate his point of view. It's only natural to want to not hear someone who disagrees with you, particularly when you have strong feelings about a subject. But mature political debate requires it. Cries of "Racist! Racist!" have a silencing effect, and the apparent threat of violence is worse.

An illustration, as if any were needed, that the impulse to censor, the impulse to use violence to advance one's viewpoint at the expense of opposing ones, and the impulse to treat one's political adversaries as sub-humans is alive, well, and thriving among the "progressives" who make up the far end of America's left wing. Immigration reform advocates come away from this incident looking much worse than Congressman Tancredo -- they look like bullies, censors, and thugs. Tancredo looks like the victim here, because he came to speak in a civilized manner about, well, something that I presume was immigration policy but we'll never really know since he had to flee for his own safety.

Shame on you, North Carolina immigration reform activists. The right way to combat speech you don't like is to offer your own speech in response. Protest in front of the forum, hand out your own literature, suggest a debate with Tancredo. But let the man speak himself, too. Show the true strength of your own ideas by not being afraid of what the other side has to say.

Now, this brings me to my second point -- If you've got a good argument to make, make that argument. Don't make some other argument. Stay on message.

One of the things that always amazed me to hear about from liberal-to-progressive friends in recent years would be attempts to gather like-minded individuals together to act or at least raise funds for a particular cause. I've been given to imagine such a gathering, perhaps at someone's house, going something like this:
Speaker (concluding presentation): ...So that's why we need volunteers and donors to urge adoption of the carbon emission standards. Are there any questions?
Progressive #1: Yes, will any of the funding be used to pay for legal enforcement of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act?
Speaker: No, we're hoping to get these new standards adopted to supplement to Clean Air Act, so we're focusing on lobbying here.
Progressive #2: Well, I like the Clean Air Act too and I think it should be enforced.
Speaker: I'm not saying that it won't be, I'm just --
Progressive #3: Oh, yeah, not only that, but the Endangered Species Act is important too, because all of those rainforest plants are going extinct from the global warming. One of them could be what we need to cure AIDS!
Progressive #1: See, that's why we should get some money to the Baykeepers along with this!
Progressive #4 (to Speaker): Will the volunteers also be handing out leaflets for the Green Party or Candidate X?
Speaker: Look, folks, these are all good causes, but we're here to get carbon emission standards adopted. I like Candidate X, too, but--
Progressive #4: Well, the standards don't have a chance of making it through the legislature unless Candidate X is elected.
Progressive #1: Hah. Even if she is, she'll get voted down because the corporations own all the other politicians. If we're going to get meaningful carbon emission standards implemented, we need campaign finance reform first.
Progressive #2: Yeah! And public funding to replant clear-cut forests, so we can replenish --
Speaker: Argh!
Herding cats like this is a problem any time you get people together. It takes strong leadership to keep people focused on a common goal, and strong leadership is usually where grassroots political movements come up weakest.

This problem is going on with the Tea Party movement right now. When social conservatives got on board with this thing, they brought all their "movement" baggage with them. The result is something of a muddled mess. Some of the original organizers have been trying hard to keep the message on low taxes, cutting government spending, and reducing the deficit. That would be the movement I, for one, could get behind. However, as has been aptly described by Mark Thompson at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen:
...this is exactly what happened in the case of the Tea Parties. The concept started out as a relatively small idea organized by a handful of libertarian activists. Movement conservatives saw an opportunity to co-opt it - and they did.

To them, the Tea Parties aren’t just an outlet for expressing frustration over the recent orgy of government spending, they are an opportunity to complain about gay marriage, affirmative action programs in government hiring policies, and just about everything else that movement conservatives oppose even more vehemently now that they’ve been beaten - badly - in consecutive national elections. Never mind that the original point of the Tea Parties, so far as I can tell, was completely libertarian in nature and was to be as much a protest of the Republicans as it was of the Democrats.

Indeed, the first "Tea Party," which took place on April 15, 2003, was in protest to a tax hike proposed by the Alabama Legislature, which was in the hands of Republicans. Earlier this week, though, I was one of many people who noted that the Tea Party movement was in serious risk of being co-opted by a bunch of Kool-Aid drinkers who believed that their participation in the protests would advance at least the standard constellation of conservative policy items, if not some stuff dating back to the John Birch Society.

Even as Fox News breathlessly reports on the protests:
Texas Gov. Rick Perry fired up a tea party at Austin City Hall with his stance against the federal government, as some in his U.S. flag-waving audience shouted, "Secede!"† [¶] ... Other protesters also took direct aim at Obama. One sign in the crowd in Madison, Wis., compared him to the anti-Christ. At a rally in Montgomery, Ala., where Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It" blared from loudspeakers, Jim Adams of Selma carried a sign that showed the president with Hitler-style hair and mustache and said, "Sieg Heil Herr Obama."
Jim Adams of Selma, please see my point above about crossing the line from respectful disagreement to name-calling. Texas protestors, please note that Texas seceded once already and that didn't work out very well -- one could, not unreasonably, interpret a call for secession to be an incitement to violence.

Some have criticized the Tea Party movement because while they can discern what the Tea Partiers are against, they can't determine what the Tea Partiers are for. Like I said a few days ago, this could a clarion call to fiscal responsibility and limited government. The protests don't necessarily have to be for anything -- I think it's enough that they express outrage at huge government handouts to big corporations and banks, elevated taxes, and increased deficits. That, on its own, is advocacy of the idea of fiscal responsibility in the government.

My problem with the Tea Parties is that they are suffering from the "herded cats" problem, in that once social conservatives got involved, they wanted to include things like tightening immigration policy, venting against activist judges, gun rights, and all that other social conservative stuff. Stuff I disagree with. Stuff that has nothing to do with advocating fiscal responsibility. Stuff associated with the policy agendas of a "movement" which, back when its partisans were in power from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other (as recently as 2006, natch), proved themselves every bit as unworthy of trust with public money as Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid have more recently.

* Yes, I know that the label "Moatdiggers" is somewhat loaded and not exactly complimentary. I didn't say I agreed with them and frankly, I think the phrase is a very efficient label to describe the group by virtue of the policies it espouses.

† Governor Perry was legally incorrect to suggest that Texas has the "legal" right to secede from the Union and any attempt to actually have Texas secede would be, literally, treason. Applying the principle of charity, I'll assume that Gov. Perry simply made a thoughtless comment.


David Schraub said...

I definitely think the actions of the UNC students was thuggish and worthy of condemnation. But I do have to take issue with at least an element of your analysis here. Whether Tancredo's cluster of immigration policies (or indeed, any cluster of immigration policies) is racist is a legitimate topic of discussion. But the implication of your argument is that raising this specter is automatically opposed to rational discussion.

This is an extremely pernicious standard. It would mean we could never have a serious, deliberative examination as to whether policy X is racist, because the question itself gets derailed as per se silencing. This is a bad thing: I think it is really important to have serious conversations as to the meaning and effect of racism, and discursive conventions which block those efforts are to my mind extremely harmful.

Certainly, this is a two way street: if I'm saying that we need to rationally discuss racism, then we have to agree to discuss it in a rational, fair-minded way. But the flip side holds true too: a lot of people do try and deflect the charge of racism even when it is brought up in a way that facially meets normal standards of political discourse by invoking the rule that mentioning racism is always an illegitimate discursive power play. That's really abusive and really bad behavior, and needs to be challenged.

Burt Likko said...

I understand your point. But it seems to me that the issue here was immigration policy, not racism. To simply say "Tancredo is a racist" shuts down further discusion on any issue other than racism and more specifically Tancredo's racism.

So I'd agree with you that the racism card is not and should not be off-limits, forever, on everything. But that card needs to be played with discretion and only when there is truly good cause -- which sounds a lot like your call to discuss racism in a rational-fair minded way.

And in this case, I think the racism card was played clumsily, poorly, and to the long-term disadvantage of those who played it.

David Schraub said...

There are two types of questions in here, which I think it is important to distinguish between but which are often conflated: "Tancredo is a racist" vs. "Tancredo's policy proposals are racist". They aren't the same thing, and they are in fact independent of each other (though a racist is more likely to propose racist things, one can propose racist things without being racist).

"Tancredo is a racist", I agree, doesn't do that much, but that's because most left-wing commentators on racial issues don't care all that much about an individual commentator's mindset. The important question and argument would be "Tancredo's policies are racist", which can be true regardless of whether he intends them to be or not. And that question (or more broadly, what immigration policies comport with a proper conception of racial egalitarianism) is a really important one in the immigration debate.

Yet we both know that even in more formal debate concepts, a speaker who opens with "I think Tom's proposal is racist" will still be accused of having a silencing effect. In general, my experience has been that it is more common that legitimately raised questions of racism (in policy or in person) are silenced as "card playing" than illegitimately raised questions are given too much credence -- primarily because there is a developing norm in American political discourse that it is virtually never proper to talk about racism in any context whatsoever.