Day By Day

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Conspiracies Everywhere

The current immigration debate has brought out the worst in a lot of conservatives. Jonah Goldberg notes that both opponents of and advocates for the comprehensive reform bill have descended to the level of rants and conspiracy theories -- usually the province of the Left. President Bush has been accused of trying to advance a conspiracy to destroy American sovereignty and to create a North American Union, or alternatively of trying to install in the United States a Latin-style society in which a fair-skinned elite exploits dark-skinned toiling masses. Opponents of the reform are routinely characterized as racists, bigots, and xenophobes.

Jonah, quite sensibly, writes:

[C]hief among the many problems with these sorts of accusations is that they help no one, advance nothing. Only those already convinced cheer the unsubstantiated charges of villainy. Indeed, crying racism to delegitimize an opponent's legitimate arguments is typically a left-wing tactic, and conservatives do not color themselves with glory by mimicking it.

The beauty of a democratic system is that it depends on democratic arguments. Even if every partisan is a villain, he has to make his case in a way that will convince people. And it's those arguments we're supposed to be dealing with. It's very easy for me to say that while my opponent may say X that he secretly believes Y because he is a member of a supersecret Satanic cabal or because his fern is speaking to him through his dental fillings. But unless I have proof, debate should be confined to X.

Read the whole thing here.

He's right. We should be debating ideas, not attacking people or indulging sick conspiracy fantasies, but increasingly we don't, and it is important that rather than simply denouncing this disturbing tendency, we begin to ask why.

Historically speaking such things are characteristic of people and groups who are, or perceive themselves to be, powerless. It is telling that in these times so many people, of all political stripes, should feel that the powers that be are not only out of touch with, but actively hostile to, the best interests of the American people. In part this would seem to reflect the increasingly undemocratic nature of modern political institutions. In part it derives from the common, and to my mind accurate, perception that the major institutions that emerged in the Twentieth Century to organize our society are increasingly corrupt and dysfunctional and that they function to serve the interests of a narrow segment of our society.

These are things I have been thinking about a lot in recent years and to which I intend to return time and again in this forum. For now it is enough to point out, as Jonah Goldberg has, that a mode of discourse that formerly was a marginal element in our political culture has now become so widespread that it is manifested throughout the political spectrum, and that is something to worry about.