Breaking many weeks of silence on this blog, I feel compelled to say that a conversation I had yesterday led to a question I found interesting.
My friend was upset about the attack on the Capitol – as was I. But I was also upset about the mainstream media’s coverage of the event. When this difference became apparent to us both, my friend asked which was worse – an illegal, violent and destructive attack on the capital, or (assuming I was right that it existed) a certain form of media bias in the coverage of the event.
My friend offered several reasons for thinking the attack on the capital was worse. It was planned. Premeditated. Illegal and destructive. It resulted in four deaths. It was a direct attack on the very focal point of American democracy.
I couldn’t disagree with any of that; the attack, I believe, deserves complete condemnation. Yet I have to say that I think the particular sort of media bias I perceive is worse, if measured by the degree of threat I believe it poses to the freedoms our democracy stands for.
Before I explain, allow me to share something another friend recently sent to me. It was a broadsheet, self-published by one M. Carey in 1815, appealing for civility in the aftermath of the war of 1812. “The Olive Branch,” it was titled. “Faults on Both Sides.” “A Serious Appeal on the Necessity of Mutual Forgiveness and Harmony.” It contained a quote from Polybius which I now share:
“If we pay a proper regard to truth, we shall find it necessary not only to condemn our friends upon some occasions, and commend our enemies, but also to commend and condemn the same persons, as different circumstances may require.”
I have rarely encountered a piece of wisdom I value more. Yet I am hard-pressed to find evidence of its survival in the world today.
Polybius went on to explain:
“For just as it is not to be imagined that those who do great things should always be pursing false ideas, so neither is it probable that their conduct can always be exempt from error.”
When was the last time I heard a politician, or a news anchor, or a Facebook poster, condemn any aspect of something they favor, or some person with whom they are allied? When was the last time I heard anyone commend any aspect of an opponent’s behavior? I fear we have lost the wisdom of Polybius.
To forestall any charge that I myself fail to commend the good deeds of my enemies, permit me to depart from past practice and state directly a few of my beliefs about Donald Trump.
- Personally, I approve of his picks for the Supreme Court and his choice of William Barr as his attorney general; I think efforts to discredit those appointees have often been politically motivated and disingenuous.
- Personally, I think Trump may have been right to leave so much of the fight against the COVID virus to the states; not that his approach didn’t cause problems, but because I fear that centralized control out of Washington may have created even worse problems. Ultimately, I think it’s very hard to assess how things might have played out with a more federally-mandated approach.
- Personally, I think Trump was right when he said, about the tragedy in Charlottesville, that there were good and bad people on both sides, a statement for which he has been widely criticized.
- Personally, I think it perfectly acceptable that the U.S. Census would ask respondents to indicate whether they are citizens of the United States, another position for which Trump has been widely criticized.
Having voiced such approvals for some things Trump has done, am I now anathema to Trump-haters? Do I risk being attacked by them as “the enemy”? Sadly, I think I do.
Sadly, therefore, I think I need to add my opinion that Trump has proved to be the worst President the country has ever had. I think I need to add my opinion that while I might not support his impeachment for incitement to riot, I would support his impeachment for divisiveness, and especially for being derelict in his duty to facilitate an efficient transition of power. Personally, I am thankful and relieved that in just a few more days, we will finally have someone else as our President.
But now, of course, I will be attacked by Trump’s supporters because, as one Trump supporter recently told me, to express such views proves that I have been “duped” by the liberal media.
The wisdom of Polybius – that in the search for truth, we have to be able to find both good and bad in the same people – seems unacceptable today, on both sides of the political divide.
In my view, Mr. Trump’s arrogance has facilitated the growth of an arrogance among his opponents, an attitude I’ve taken to think of as “liberal McCarthyism,” the effective blackballing of anyone who questions liberal wisdom. As I see it, many liberals have come to behave like sharks aroused by the presence of blood, with carte blanche to criticize everything about Trump and to dismiss out of hand anyone who agrees with him about anything, because the man is so obviously wicked that agreeing with him about anything proves you’re wicked too. Anyone who might have ever supported or agreed with him about any point, no matter how small, is now responsible for every harm the man has ever caused. In the last several days, there’ve been calls for expelling from Congress those duly elected representatives who dared to object to the votes in the electoral college. There’ve been repeated references in the mainstream media to the “violent mob of 40,000 Trump supporters” who participated in the rally in Washington, because some of them attacked the Capitol. Last night’s local news reported how a man was fired because of his participation in the pro-Trump rally; the explanation being that “participating in the rally” was inimical to the organization’s values.
Where would we be if every outbreak of illegal acts by Vietnam war protestors caused the mainstream media, and the country, to dismiss the views of the thousands who protested peacefully? Where would we be if the riots of 1967 had caused the country to turn its back on the civil rights movement?
Thankfully, the media have gone to great lengths to point out that the destruction and looting that has happened during otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter protests should not be attributed to the many who had nothing to do with such behavior. But in the past several days, I’ve heard anchors, field reporters and the so-called experts they’ve interviewed decry and condemn the “mob of pro-Trump protestors” who gathered in Washington. What has happened to the distinction between the peaceful majority and the destructive few? The mainstream media and many anti-Trumpers seem, from my perspective, to be caught up in a frenzy of condemning all pro-Trumpers, painting them all now with the broad brush of riot, destruction, treason and death.
“No,” they will say to me. “You’re wrong. Don’t you understand that to have anything to do with the protest in D.C. was to lend support to the violence?”
“No,” I will answer. “I don’t understand that at all – and there was a day that you didn’t either.”
So, back to the question I find interesting: Which is worse, the abhorrent, intentional, destructive attacks by those who broke into the Capitol, or the condemnation of everyone who is of a particular opinion, or who participates in a rally in support of that opinion, because of the abhorrent acts of a few?
My own opinion on the question flows from my assessment of the degree of threat posed by the two wrongs for the future of democracy.
Whatever the number of people who broke into the Capitol Building, their vile and despicable behavior actually worked to their disadvantage. As a direct result of their conduct, Republicans who’d planned to object to electoral votes decided not to do so. My sense is that as an indirect result of their actions, they did more to unify the country against them and their cause than anything Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi have ever done. Some of them have been arrested and charged. One can hope that all will be punished. But as I see it, their actions never posed a threat to the future of the country as a whole, and in hindsight, actually helped to unify the country against them and their criminal manner of protest.
Meanwhile, however, it seems to me that the mainstream media and much of the country is now condemning “the mob of Pro-Trump protestors who gathered in Washington” for engaging in the worst sort of conduct. At least one specifically put the blame on “all 40,000” of them. Expel a congressman for objecting to a ballot? Label participation in a peaceful protest “treasonous”? Say that all those who went to Washington to participate in the rally were responsible for the tragic deaths that occurred? Fire people because their attendance at the rally is not consistent with your organization’s values? I’ve heard every one of these assertions made, some repeatedly. And not by deranged fanatics, but by the so-called “experts” and respected news media types who guide much of American public opinion.
If even a million people feel that way – much less fifty or a hundred million as I fear – then in my view, because of the prevalence of their attitude and their allies’ acceptance of it , they constitute a greater risk to the country’s future than several hundred widely-condemned law breakers. That many people, painting with that broad a brush, broadcasting country-wide and enjoying each other’s approbation, potentially empower and nourish each other. I already hesitate to express some of my opinions publicly, because I fear I will be attacked and demonized for entertaining them. For the past twenty years or more, I’ve been becoming ever more left-leaning in my views; I’ve been what Democratic candidates consider a key swing voter, who might well be persuaded to vote for them, and indeed, I increasingly have. But at times like these, I fear a new McCarthyism of the left, one that doesn’t welcome me for all the many issues on which I agree with them, but one that condemns me because of the few respects in which I don’t conform to their agenda. As a result, I feel pressured to take refuge on the right.
Whether Mr. Trump attempts some sort of ongoing role in public life, he is all but gone as our president. His departure marks the time to search for ways to heal the divisiveness he helped to create. Painting with a broad brush, condemning the many for the conduct of the few, is the fodder by which divisiveness can only continue to grow.
Polybius understood that if we really want truth, we have to recognize that our friends are capable of wrong, and our enemies capable of good. We have to stop thinking “you’re either for us or against us.” We have to put away the broad brush of condemnation for the abhorrent conduct of the few. Or at least, if we feel forced to paint with that broad brush, we need to recognize how much we contribute to divisiveness, how many in the middle we may drive into the opposing camp, and how much we, too, may share blame for the next death that occurs.