Narrative Over Principle: The Perils of Believing Your Own Propaganda
I’ve not got a whole heck of a lot to add to this very good paragraph from Glenn Greenwald on the whole hubbub over the propriety of the Obama Administration’s entirely speculative suggestions (with the backing of Think Progress) that the Chamber of Commerce’s election ads are funded, at least in part, by foreign contributions:
The controversy over Chamber of Commerce election funding raises a very real and important issue: the genuine threat posed to our political system by unknown funders who can pour massive amounts of money into negative ads while hiding who they are. The White House’s arguments about the need for more disclosure are largely correct, although that legitimate issue has been obscured by reckless, sloppy and somewhat McCarthyite behavior in accusing the Chamber of Commerce — with no evidence whatsoever — of using nefarious “foreign money” to pay for these ads, and then demanding that the Chamber reveal its funders in order to prove its innocence. That is lamentable both because guilty-until-proven-innocent attacks are inherently misguided, and more so, because that attack has obscured the genuine issue over the dangers posed by undisclosed sources of campaign money.
While not something that interests me much (we are talking about politicians and their spokespeople, after all), Greenwald goes on to document that claims such as those being made by the Administration through Robert Gibbs are incredibly hypocritical given their own past history.
John Cole vehemently disagrees with Greenwald’s calling the Administration out on this, citing Greenwald’s complaints as yet another example of how Democrats are expected to “just sit there and take” outrageous attacks from the Right without firing a few hard shots of their own.
There are, unfortunately, a whole host of problems with Cole’s assertions (which include various other complaints about Left-of-Center critics of the Administration). Certainly, I’m not at all convinced that the Democratic Party is inherently less willing to play dirty than the Republican Party – they’re both very large political parties that are quite aware that they exist for the sole purpose of winning elections.
But beyond that, I cannot for the life of me understand what is so horrible about a liberal writer with a large liberal following fact-checking claims made by a purportedly liberal administration and holding their feet to the fire over those claims when they turn out to not only be dubious, but also entirely hypocritical. It may well be that reporting on such claims and hypocrisies is harmful to Democrats’ chances in the upcoming election (though, realistically speaking, I can’t see how it would have any effect whatsoever), but in the long-run liberals qua liberals will be vastly better off listening to the complaints of people like Greenwald than to Cole’s defenses.
Why? Because, for all the talk of “epistemic closure” and the insulated bubble-world of the conservative media, it is ignorance of principled dissent and a willingness to condone lies and half-truths in the service of electing one’s adopted team that enable it.
That way lies madness, and not only madness but also an ideologically nihilistic movement that views its aims as nothing more than opposition to the other party. Such movements are, frankly, incapable of governance, believing their own propaganda, deeming the naked pursuit of power as an end unto itself or insisting on an agenda that has no grounding in reality, even as it has plenty of grounding in the information they deem reliable. They’re also, unfortunately, really good at maintaining internal discipline.
The problem with the Bush Administration was never that it was too conservative – indeed, conservative complaints about the Bush Administration are largely accurate. Instead, the problem was that conservatives were unwilling to criticize it or Fox News for its falsehoods, eventually coming to believe them, even as they spent years largely keeping their complaints about the Bush Administration’s habits bottled up (those who did otherwise are basically personae non-grata nowadays).
Now we see the result of those lies and half-truths: a highly-moblized conservative movement in which it is not enough to simply hold a recognizably conservative philosophy, but it is instead increasingly a necessity to fully buy into the conservative media’s deeply inaccurate factual narrative, and in which actual policy proposals are virtually non-existent beyond “hit the liberals where they’ll hurt.” And “hit the liberals where they’ll hurt” sounds like a perfectly legitimate governing strategy if, in your insular world, liberals (and those willing to collaborate with them) are to blame for all of our problems. So you wind up using all this mobility to support candidates based primarily on the strength of their opposition to the other side and on their ignorance of facts that differ from the narrative in the conservative media. In short, you get Christine O’Donnell instead of Mike Castle, Carl Paladino instead of Rick Lazio (wait, Lazio was a pretty crappy candidate to begin with), Sharron Angle instead of Tarkanian or Lowden, and so on.
And sure, the GOP will still likely pick up the House and maybe the Senatem but history shows that the vast majority of that will be due to the still-awful economy and the fact that it’s a mid-term election. True, some of it will nonetheless result from the high levels of conservative mobility resulting from lies and half-truths of the conservative media. And no doubt the GOP as a whole will have more proudly and strongly “conservative” elected officials than ever before.
Will this be enough to offset the loss of a Senate seat in Delaware, and possibly the defeat of Harry Reid in Nevada caused by this insistence on a hyper-partisan narrative? Maybe, maybe not. Certainly, though, it will not be enough to counter the incapacity for serious governance caused by the insistence on narrative over principle.
And that’s why liberals should heed folks like Glenn Greenwald, should be skeptical of groups like Think Progress and Media Matters, and should absolutely encourage rather than discourage those liberals who insist on holding the Obama Administration (and, for that matter, Congressional Dems and the Progressive media)’s feet to the fire on matters of real principle and, most importantly, on matters of factual accuracy.
With only a handful of exceptions, politicians (and their spokespeople) lie and mislead as a matter of course, and not because of the letter after their name but because they are politicians. And the letter after their name doesn’t mean that they’re terribly interested in a particular set of principles over the long run, regardless of whether they say or do some things you may like, and even if they may be interested in those principles in the short run. The worst thing adherents of a political philosophy can do is think otherwise, and trust that a politician (with some small number of exceptions) is actually interested in the long-term health of that philosophy or in speaking the whole truth as a matter of principle.
The short-term loss of a handful of additional seats (and, frankly, I’m skeptical that holding one of your team’s politicians’ feet to the fire has any effects) is, by any metric, well-worth the long-term maintenance of intellectual rigor in your ideological group.