Paul Waldman has a good answer in the Washington Post this week. In "Why conservatives are so mad about the Parkland students," Waldman looks at the complaints of Rich Lowry at the National Review (Lowry is the guy who used to dream about gutting the social safety net over college kegs with Paul Ryan). Lowry complains that "it is practically forbidden in the media to dissent from anything they say," but Waldman calls baloney on that argument-- dissent on matters of policy and gun control has been constant and unrelenting and has not drawn cries of "how dare you disagree with these young men and women." Laura Ingraham is not in trouble because she dared to say that teachers should armed or that background checks are an unreasonable restraint of second amendment rights. Conservatives have not been stymied in their pro-gun arguments.
Here’s the real difficulty the Parkland students present. It’s not that they’re passionate and surprisingly articulate for their age, though they are. It’s not that they’ve widened the conversation on guns by refusing to accept things the adults have taken as given for years, such as the idea that the NRA is simply too powerful to bother opposing, though they have. It’s that they’re too sympathetic. And when a spokesperson is sympathetic, when you attack them personally, you look like a jerk.
Despite what conservatives say, no one is going to criticize them when they disagree with the Parkland students on any substantive matter. If Rich Lowry argues that the students are wrong and goes on to explain why the minimum age to buy a rifle should remain at 18, no one will respond, “How dare you disagree with those lovely teenagers?”
No, what conservatives are really mad about is that the tactic of demonizing those they disagree with — which is so common in contemporary political rhetoric (on both the right and left) — has, in this case, been taken away from them.
We've reached the point where ad hominem is the first tool we reach for.
It's certainly not a new weapon in the political arsenal. Politicians have been saying horrible personal things about each other since the days of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The public has enjoyed personal attacks as a sort of entertainment for almost as long. But things seem worse somehow now. The last Presidential election was fought not over who had the worst policies, but who was the worst person, and the resulting widened rift in our society seems bad because it's not a rift about the best ways to govern the republic, but about the best way to be a decent human being in the world, and about the degree to which those perceived values should be ascendant over facts and truth and reality itself.
And it's not like hominem-based arguments are completely pointless. Trump's Presidential failings are directly related to his personal failings; he's an awful President for all the reasons that he's an awful person.
Likewise, Betsy DeVos is unqualified to serve as Secretary of Education for reasons that have to do with who she is as a person; her lack of relevant experience, both in education and in having any sort of regular job, have predictably led to problems functioning in the job. And as with many reformsters, her values and long-term objectives are worth talking about because they shape her policy choices. So it's not irrelevant to say that she's a wealthy fundamentalist Christian heiress with no experience in the workplace or in public schools.
All of this resonates with one of the big questions of our era-- how do we balance consideration of someone's personal failings with valuation of their work? Can a person who has done horrible things also do great things? Can a terrible human being create wonderful art?
Those are hard questions, but ultimately, I think, there's a difference between ad hominemming the art we consume and ad hominemming the leaders we choose (or don't choose). I'm not going to try to address the former here, but I have my own measure for the latter.
First, ad hominem is never acceptable as the beginning and end of an argument. I think this is why I continue to be uncomfortable with the whole "Betsy DeVos is a big dope" thing that keeps floating around. First, I don't believe it's true, but second, I don't think it's helpful. When we argue about personalities instead of policies, we lose the track. You can see that playing out for alleged Progressives in the reformster movement, who must reject DeVos and Trump because they are Bad People on the Wrong Team, but who must also continue to support DeVos's policies, most of which they absolutely agree with. They are having a really hard time dragging that pretzel through the eye of a needle.
But (second) ad hominemming is useful when we're trying to understand where the policies come from, or what their real aim is. Character does matter, and it does reveal what informs the policies and ideas that people push on us. It's important to know, for instance, that a charter school is being pushed by someone who makes his living running hedge funds or dealing in real estate, because if a school has been created to turn a profit rather than educate students, that goal will inform all the choices made by the school.
But the personal has to inform the discussion of policy. If we simply make the personal argument as if that settles the whole matter, we won't talk about the bad policy that we need to talk about. And at worst, we end up like the conservative wing nuts who have descended to making up ad hominem attacks about teenagers rather than having an actual conversation about gun laws in this country.
It is easy in the heat of any tough debate to decide that the end justifies the means, but at the risk of stating what should be obvious, lying is bad. Attacking people as if they aren't actual human beings is bad. Folks who are at long last discovering that they have (or should have) shame at making personal attacks on teenage shooting victims-- well, it shouldn't take young victims of a savage gun attack to help you realize that you're behaving badly. As conservatives used to believe, wrong is wrong, regardless of the circumstances.
Where was I headed with all this? I suppose this is one of those pieces that I have written primarily for myself, as a reminder to keep my eye the ball and not to get sucked into personal attacks, not to fall into the trap of treating those with whom I disagree as less than human, even as I recognize that some folks have ill intent and mean harm to things I hold dear. It's not an easy tightrope to walk, but that's why some folks would rather just live by following their team-- it's easy to excuse everything your team does and condemn everything that the other team does. It's just not a very principled way to be in the world.