Thursday, March 8, 2007

On the irrelevance of "tone"

Reading through this week's New York Times Book Review, I came across Jacob Heilbrunn's review of (among other things) Joe Conason's new book It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush.

Conason's basic point, as quoted by Heilbrunn, is that
It is possible that the future of democratic governance in America will be determined in the final two years of the Bush presidency, when the Republicans may yet secure a court majority that reinterprets the Constitution as a mandate for theocratic dominion and untrammeled presidential power. That would raise the real prospect of an authoritarian regime acting under color of the Constitution and the law while eviscerating both.
While he shares Conason's political sympathies in large part, Heilbrunn finds the book lacking in various respects. This is all well and good; I haven't read the book and don't particularly intend to do so--since I don't really feel that my rage against Bush needs any more fuel at this point--so I obviously can't try to argue that Heilbrunn's negative response isn't warranted. I am troubled, however, by the form the criticism takes.

Heilbrunn seems distressed most not by any particular disagreements on matters of substance, but by Conason's tone:
Conason appears to view the administration's machinations with something approaching lascivious horror. His language is seldom less than apocalyptic.


In his zeal to indict the Republicans, Conason sounds as strident as Karl Rove depicting the Democrats as gutless appeasers.
Now, I can understand distaste for "apocalyptic" language on aesthetic grounds, but I don't think that's really the substance of the criticism here. Heilbrunn seems distressed by the fact that Conason is strident at all, not by the particular way in which he expresses his stridency.

I find this attitude confusing, though it is surprisingly common, particularly among mainstream pundits. Why should stridency itself be objectionable? Aren't there at least some situations that warrant stridency? (Surely the stridency of, say, Martin Luther King, Jr., was warranted, yes?) There are two possibilities here. One could, I suppose, insist that all stridency is equally objectionable--even stridency against Hitler or Stalin--which I think no-one really believes. Alternately, one could admit that stridency itself isn't really the issue: the issue is whether the circumstances warrant stridency.

I'm inclined to think that all criticisms of "tone" amount to a kind of dodge: by criticizing someone for their stridency, what you are in fact saying is that the circumstances don't warrant their reaction--a claim about the content of what they are saying--without actually having to come out and make a case for your position. Derisively attaching the label "strident" to someone like Conason, who I suspect wishes to convince us all to be more strident in opposing Bush, is particularly disingenuous.

(It should be noted that Heilbrunn does have some substantive criticisms of Conason. He says, e.g., that Conason doesn't appreciate that the real problem with Bush is his incompetence, not his fascistic tendencies. I find this criticism problematic--though certainly not because I think Bush is competent!--since it can lead too easily into a dangerously comforting complacency.)

In any event, I think there's a very general principle here: tone in itself is always and everywhere irrelevant. What matters is the justification for the use of a particular tone, which is a matter of substance, not of tone itself.

Heilbrunn's own example, Karl Rove, is a perfect test case. Does anyone--really, anyone at all on the planet--object to Rove because he's too strident, in and of itself? I find this hard to believe. Rove is objectionable because he's a deceitful and manipulative son of a bitch, not because he's strident in his rhetoric. His stridency is objectionable because it's manipulative and disingenuous--and, more importantly, because the claims he makes are always wildly false--not simply because it's strident.

As another test case, consider the radical anti-abortion movement, an objectionably "strident" group if there ever was one. Are they really objectionable because they are strident? I don't think so. If abortion really were a modern-day holocaust, their stridency would make perfect sense--it would even be morally mandated, perhaps. Their strident rhetoric and tactics are objectionable because their views are insane, not because they lack proper decorum.

Rejecting an argument because it is expressed with a degree of force you find repellent is like rejecting an argument because it is expressed in Chinese.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The NYT Book Review has relentlessly centrist instincts, not unlike most of the mainstream media. What's surprising is how strongly their editorial page has (belatedly) criticized the Bush administration over the last couple years, especially (but certainly not exclusively) on Iraq. It's easy to be courageous when 67% of the population agrees with what you're saying.