Saturday, May 14, 2016

Readings of "Taking a Hard Line"

Mark Tushnet

To review the bidding: I wrote that, having won the culture wars, liberals faced a tactical question of how to treat the losers, with the options being accommodation or taking a hard line. I offered my own tactical judgment, based on four historical examples, that taking a hard line was the better approach. The four examples were presented thus: “Trying to be nice to the losers didn’t work well after the Civil War, nor after Brown. (And taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.)”

This was presented by the egregious Ryan Anderson as, “Harvard Law Professor Says Treat Conservative Christians Like Nazis.”* (For obvious reasons I’m not providing links to this or the next two versions.) Then it migrated, first, I think, to Breitbart, then to, among other places Der Stürmer American Vanguard, as “Jewish Harvard Prof Urges Liberals to Treat Evangelical Christians Like Nazis.” Breibart added that I was a 70 year old professor, a detail the relevance of which eluded me until I read some of the ensuing hate mail: some used the detail to suggest that I was an intellectually enfeebled senile old man unable to construct a coherent argument, while others calculated my birth date and did the “if Hitler had won, your mother…” thing. (By the way, the strike-through was the snark I resisted until now, not snark about the generic “negative reaction” to my comments.)

I know that an author lacks control over the meaning others give to his or her words, and of course it’s semantically consistent with those words to read them as urging war crimes trials for the losers in the culture wars, denazification, and the like (or, as one pained letter to the Dean of Harvard College put it, gunning Christians down) – even though that’s not what I intended. More temperate readings are possible, though, and so those who offer the stronger readings can be queried about why they chose those readings rather than other semantically possible ones (as can I be queried about why I choose a more temperate reading; to say that one reading – the strong one or the temperate one – is a reasonable one isn’t enough). The answer for Anderson and Der Stürmer is  clear to me: The strong reading is useful for rallying the troops (for what in my view is a silly skirmish as the troops fall back in retreat). The answer for most of those who sent me hate mail is also clear – about one-quarter antisemitism, and almost all the remainder that the writers didn’t read what I wrote but only what Anderson, Breitbart, etc., wrote, and so did not have their own independent reading. I have my views about the answer for others, not among the writers of hate mail, who gave the words the stronger reading, but articulating those views would annoy them even more, which I really don’t want to do.

The target of my “take a hard line” was a set of ideas circulating among liberals and sensible conservatives about being accommodating in victory (or, for the latter, being accommodating full stop), in advance of any indication that doing so would actually contribute to healing the wounds of war – about doing the equivalent of pursuing Andrew Johnson’s policies for Reconstruction, or hoping with Felix Frankfurter that gradualism in desegregation would bring about real change in the post-Brown South. I haven’t yet heard anything other than vague hopes that accommodation rather than a hard line will be more effective, or some hand-waving gestures in the direction of the thought (mistaken, I believe) that only accommodation is consistent with a commitment to bringing whatever national unity is possible after victory in the culture wars. (Of course all this rests on the accuracy of my evaluation of the state of the culture wars, which might be mistaken – though equally of course I don’t think it is.)

* By the way, somehow I got on Anderson’s e-mail list for “Public Discourse” and continue to get e-mails from it even after I use Outlook to “add sender to blocked senders list.” Help appreciated.

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