20 April 2004

On the Meaning of Treason

(I offer no apologies to Dame Rebecca West, although the context should give one pause.) In the last year or so, a trip to a chain bookstore—especially in a mall, and even including Zondervan (the "Christian" chain controlled by HarperCollins)—has resulted in an assault on the eyes with badly designed book covers trumpeting the personal opinions, and indeed hegemony, of some really disturbing right-wing ideologues. Perhaps foremost among them in intellectual dishonesty—and that's some pretty stiff competition—has been Ann C0u1t3r. The title of one of her books accuses all liberals of being traitors.

Leaving aside the hyperbole inherent in setting a book's title—over 80% of the trade books published each year are not published under the author's title at the time of submission—what does this really mean? My immediate reaction is to recall Richard Nixon ("…opposition in this country is the single greatest barrier" to "winning" in Vietnam) and McCarthyism in general. Without denying the validity of that impression, though, there are three much deeper issues.

  1. Opposition does not equal treason. The strict definition of treason is far more complex than mere opposition, or even political and other efforts that happen to support violent opposition to a nation. Instead, a traitor is someone who not only intends a specific regime change through non-legitimate means, but acts upon it to the detriment of both particular policies and the integrity of the system. That does not necessarily mean success; but it extends far beyond public discourse and civil disobedience. Without dissent, there is no room for art. Professor Cass Sunstein (University of Chicago) discussed the necessity of defense last year in the Oliver Wendell Holmes lectures at Harvard Law School, which were recently published as Why Societies Need Dissent. Orwell conceptualized this a half century ago, even if the vocabulary of "thoughtcrime" and "doublespeak" has been so thoroughly corrupted by those seeking rhetorical advantage that he wouldn't recognize it.

    At a more fundamental level, isn't some level of opposition inherent in a democratic society? How, then, does one determine that opposition has "gone too far" when it has not seized power? As Oliver Cromwell once asked the Prebyterian leadership of Scotland, have they considered the possibility that they might be wrong? It should surprise no one that none of these books appear to have considered what "treason" means; the rhetorical advantage of painting one's opposition as disloyal was too tempting.

  2. The most obvious corollary of the opposition to dissent inherent in these views—even dissent from what appears to be a minority viewpoint, regardless of claims to be the "Moral Majority"—is bivalued logic. "If you're not with me, you're against me." That these disputes over proper values and policies can exist at all tends to prove that there are, in fact, shades of grey inherent in the argument itself. This is the same approach used by proponents of "creationism"/Inscrutable Design to attack evolution: If evolutionary theory, which on its own terms admits that it is incomplete both in method and in evidence, cannot perfectly explain every aspect of life on Earth, it must therefore be discarded in its entirety, and may be replaced only by a theory of divine creation of life (in varying levels of rhetorical shrillness and deception). Yeah, right.
  3. The form of argument is itself a slippery bit of hypocrisy. Consider, for example, their usual target: The so-called "liberal media." Leaving aside whether such a thing exists—it doesn't, except in the fevered imaginations of ideologues; see, e.g., Fox News—apply the logical methods used by C0u1t3er et al. to their own writings and context. If they are so much in the right (pun intended), then why do they need to write these books? A self-evidently true dogma would need no such exegesis, even in the face of deception from opponents. Such deception can't be maintained for the century or more that forms the necessary predicate for such an argument—particularly not in a society with even lip service toward "freedom of the press." The dogma is therefore something less than self-evidently true (note that I did not say "false"). If it is less than self-evidently true, it must be tested by comparison to other dogmas and theories. That comparison, though, must be based upon evidence, and not upon supposition—or we end up again with Copernicus v. Galileo. Eventually, somebody will realize that "it does move;" the question is how many must be sacrificed to maintain orthodoxy.

The subtitle (although not, surprisingly, the content) of Nat Henthoff's book Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee hints at the real objective: How the American Left & Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other. The objective is more to drown out opposition than vanquish it. The irony that the "target" of this criticism both provides the platform for their own rhetoric and simultaneously makes that rhetoric inadequate to the task seems to have escaped this set of ideologues—as it has escaped every other advocate of totalitarianism in history. This implies a great deal about the problems with consolidation in the media and publishing industries; but then, Malthus has never been taught to MBAs.