Opinion Despotism

Permit me some observations on a very strange but revealing piece by Tunku Vardarajan in the Wall Street Journal. The hook for his commentary is the claim of Pat Robertson that Islam "is not a peaceful religion that wants to coexist… They want to coexist until they can control, dominate, and then if need be destroy."

Vardarajan says that this is a "defensible message" but it is "vitiated" by its messenger who "has a history of intemperance and bigotry." As proof, Vardarajan cites the fact that Robertson went on to decry Muslim immigration, comments which amount to "hackneyed claptrap."

Oh, how sad, says this oracle of good taste at the Wall Street Journal, that

"Mr. Robertson, in his clumsy, ugly way, has done a disservice to us all: He has now made it doubly difficult to have a frank, unembarrassed discussion about the threat posed by fundamentalist Islam, both by Islamists abroad and by those Islamists (note: I didn’t say Muslims) who reside in our midst. He helped lay the ground for a politically correct backlash, in which candor about Islam is prohibited, and a meaningful censure of the triumphalist practitioners of that faith is likely to be mistaken for racism, or xenophobia, or intolerance. Couldn’t he have just kept silent for once?"

Now, if I’m reading this right, the writer is saying that Robertson is mostly right but because Robertson has said it, instead of the WSJ or some other approved organ, it makes it impossible for him to say the same thing without being tarred as a Robertsonian. Saying what is true is a "disservice." Better that a truth not be uttered than that it be uttered by the wrong person, Vardarajan says.

Notice that there is something missing here. Just who is making life so difficult that one cannot state a truth merely because someone on the outs with the elites stated the same truth? Who would be leading this "politically correct backlash" against anti-Muslim voices? Who is prohibiting candor in this society of free and open exchange? Where is Vardarajan’s outrage that this unnamed force in society is using such unfair tactics? Why passively accept this censorious tactic?

What this piece reveals is the presence of a subtle totalitarianism, such that every person who offers an opinion on public affairs must have some stamp of approval from the powers that be, else he risks discrediting the very ideas that he is advancing. Not only that: he risks being gagged by people who agree with him! Another question: how is it that a man so easily embarrassed, so easily intimidated into not saying what he believes is true, postures as a writer that anyone would want to read on any subject?

You can imagine such an editorial appearing in Pravda in the 1970s: "Solzhenitsyn is a well-known spokesman for the capitalist ruling class and the cause of reaction, and a violent opponent of socialism itself. Thus it is truly tragic that he has spoken out against the Gulag system and the uses of terror by Stalin. He only discredits responsible critics of past abuses that occurred under Stalinism. Better that he remain silent than to make it so difficult on the rest of us."

Now, this isn’t to equate Robertson and Solzhenitsyn. But it is hardly surprising to find that the most insightful opponents of a certain religion, political system, or otherwise are themselves going to be dedicated to a vision that stands in radical contrast to the thing they criticize. People who are out front in making fundamental criticisms, of driving forward the public debate, tend to be radicals themselves. Tolerance toward them is the very essence of free and open debate.

In fact, it is the job of real intellectuals to defend the message of such "extremists" whether the ruling class likes the spokesman or not. A social and political system that is capable of discrediting an otherwise tolerable view solely on grounds that the person giving it voice is not politically favored is nothing short of despotic. A commentator who implicitly complies with such a despotic system is not courageous but toadying and pathetic.

If Vardarajan really likes what Robertson had to say, he might have said: "I don’t agree with Robertson usually, but he is right this time, even if he could have made some more careful distinctions." The commentary would have been just as effective. Instead, he agrees with the censors that Robertson should be muzzled so as to make room for responsible voices to say the same thing with more attention to political niceties. In short, he is buying into the entire racket and, even worse, joining it, even revealing that he is part of it.

This is but one illustration of a widespread phenomenon in American political society, one that has gotten much worse since the war on terror. In the month after the war on terror began, a series of articles, emanating from such places as the WSJ, began to chronicle the opinions of various communists and nazis to the effect that the war on terror is a bad idea. The objective here was to discredit all skeptics and intimidate them into silence, based on the supposition that all critics of the war would be as fearful and crawling as Vardarajan shows himself to be toward the issue of Islam.

Even before the war on terror, if someone made a telling point against race quotas, the supporters knew exactly what they must do: discredit the speaker and find some way in which he could be "linked" with racist causes. If they succeed in doing so, they have delivered the decisive blow. Addressing the actual content of the commentary becomes irrelevant; it is one’s position in the complex constellation of what constitutes respectability that matters most.

This is precisely the tactic that the left used to decry during the so-called McCarthy Era, when the political opinions of a handful of communists were denounced as coming from, well, communists. The left denounced the core theory behind the right’s attacks. Guilt by association!, the left cried. Deal with the message instead of trying to discredit the messenger! What the left was doing here was fighting the fundamental supposition that you can bury a point of view by attempting to destroy the person who holds it. The left fought the standard of judgment itself, not just the accusation.

But what does the political right do when faced with the same tactics, whether in the media or the university? It submits to the terms as dictated by the left. Not only that, it is pleased to agree that the terms are perfectly fair and wonderful, and that, for example, Pat Robertson’s views should be rejected on grounds that he is alleged to be a bigot. This is why, in Vardarajan’s view, he should just shut up; Robertson is discrediting the anti-Islamic cause that he, Vardarajan, would otherwise take up.

Now, it so happens that both Robertson and Vardarajan are wrong. Islam may be inherently violent theologically but so long as free trade is alive and working well, Christendom can get along just fine with the Muslim world, even its most extreme elements. In their hearts, they might want to slit our throats, but it makes much more sense to sell us rugs and oil. Free enterprise makes it possible for people of radically different worldviews to get along just fine. At the same time, the breakdown of commercial relations is often followed by bloodshed.

But whether you agree with Vardarajan or not, the point of his column was to say that Pat Robertson, with whom he apparently agrees in large measure, should not have said what he said, solely because Pat is a bad man, a bigot, a fundamentalist himself. In arguing this way, Vardarajan is only contributing to the problem. Better that he remain silent.