Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Dishonorable Combat in the War of Ideas

In a democracy, a healthy debate is a sine qua non for effective policymakers. But for some in Washington, an absolutist belief in the rightness of one's cause has led to the old motto of the Roman Curia: "Error has no rights." (The corollary is that anything done in the service of Right is acceptable.)

I am well aware that given my past and current publication record, I may never be confirmed by the U.S. Senate for a government appointment. (On a side note: whether one agrees with John Bolton or not, he always spoke his mind--including in the pages of The National Interest. He deserved an up-or-down vote in the Senate. The depressing trend in Washington, not only for Supreme Court nominees but in many fields--is to find someone with no published views at all. I don't think you get decisive, insightful policy from a person who spent most of his or her career not engaging in the policy discourse. But I digress.)

In accepting that realization, I feel that I am liberated to speak my mind and present my views openly and honestly. Others may disagree with those views--they may challenge my facts, my analysis, my conclusions--and that is a legitimate part of debate.

But it annoys me to no end when, instead of taking my views and engaging them, people decide to play one of two games.

The first is the "last name game." You look at a person's last name and try to identify their ethnic background as a basis for disqualifying their opinions. Another version of that is the spouse game. This is a fun one especially among the ethnic lobbies, of trying to determine whether the Congressman or Senator with the WASP last name is married to a (fill in the blank: Turk, Greek, Armenian, Albanian, etc.) in order to explain away a policy position.

This has no place in the war of ideas. The good people over at Source Watch, a project of the Center for Media and Democracy--this is a group that monitors think-tanks, publications, etc. but seems at times to be a bit too much focused on the right-wing conspiracy theories, in my opinion--deleted a post in the discussion forum connected to TNI where a poster attempted to identify the ethno-religious backgrounds of board members in an effort to determine their positions on Middle East issues (with the implication that their ethnicity predisposed them to particular points of view).

Not only is this sort of ethnic stereotyping crude, it is also counterproductive. One of the strengths of the United States has been to draw upon the country's immigrant heritage in helping to form bridges to other parts of the world and to provide useful analysis. To argue that foreign policy discussion is really only the province of WASPs and of the descendants of the first African slaves brought to the New World (on the grounds that only these two groups are "real Americans" with no bias or agenda) is ludicrous. By this logic, Phil Habib should never have been a presidential mediator in the Middle East!

This sort of crude racism isn't always acceptable in polite society anymore, but the second one remains alive and well: the threat of foreign (or even domestic) paymasters corrupting the purity of reporting and analysis. Yes, this canard goes back to the first days of the American Republic when Federalists and Democrat-Republicans hurled accusations back and forth about accepting foreign gold from the Court of St. James or the Jacobins. And Washington is an open city today where you can hire opinion-makers to spin for you--hired media guns are a booming business.

And it is true there is a growing cynicism in the air, that everyone is on the take. The ongoing revelations about intimate ties between media figures and government officials, government contracts to pay media figures to undertake projects, a culture of media "stardom" where the allure of prestige and TV contracts and speaking engagements may overshadow an allegiance to "journalistic principles, questions about what influence over scholarship donations bring--each additional revelation lowers everyone's credibility. This is why throwing this charge--that someone whose views you dislike must have been "bought off"--is extremely reckless (or, just as we saw in the 2004 primary races, "reporting the rumor"--when John Kerry was supposedly involved with a former intern and the media waited for Drudge to break the story so they could report on what Drudge was saying.

I don't assume or accuse a person whose views I disagree with of being blinded by ethnicity or bought off by paymasters. It would be nice and decent to have the same courtesy extended to me and to others too.

A point of pride for me as editor of TNI has been to have members of the advisory council tell me how much they've disagreed with pieces that have appeared in the magazine but how they appreciate the importance of fostering debate. And the only letter I can recall of someone cancelling a TNI subscription was because the particular reader disliked the article by Dennis Ross.

I believe in debate--and I have strong opinions. I don't think that I should have to sacrifice one in order to have the other.

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