Freedom of speech is a good thing. It is one of those very rudimentary good things, however, like sewage disposal and ballot voting, that civilized societies impose on uncivilized ones when engaged in the business of nation-building. Civilized societies, taking freedom of speech for granted for themselves, have always delighted in that pearl of great price called controversy for which freedom of speech is its oyster. This probably explains why, in the postcivilized era, the habit of controversy and the controversial arts are nearly extinct.
It is a cliché to say that we live in highly controversial times. The cliché, moreover, happens to be true. True also is that controversy above the level of the internet is nowadays conducted mostly on noncontroversial subjects and in noncontroversial terms. Controversy has been relegated, for the most part, either to matters people fear to dissent from in public or those that, being mainly of secondary and tertiary interest, nobody is mortally concerned with. G.K. Chesterton wrote of himself and his brother Cecil that “we perpetually argued and . . . we never quarrelled. . . . [W]e never quarrelled because we always argued. . . . His lucidity and love of truth kept things so much on the level of logic.” Well, we are speaking of brothers, after all. Yet, though G.B. Shaw and H.G. Wells were Chesterton’s intellectual and philosophical enemies, his disputes with these men were held very much on the level of arguments, almost never of quarrels. On the other side of the Atlantic, H.L. Mencken had much the same relationship with Theodore Dreiser and Clarence Darrow. What makes civilized argument possible is respect for truth and logic, no matter how these are understood by the parties involved in it. It is tempting to conclude that this respect deserves to be considered as one of many hangovers from the Christian and civilized age into the post-Christian and uncivilized one that, until relatively recently, kept modern life barely bearable.
Political correctness is partly responsible for the decline of controversy both as an art form and a type of intellectual and social discourse, but probably it does not have as central a role to play as people think. Political correctness, for all but the most fervent ideologue, is mainly a matter of manners; and manners, while always important, are not the motile force in this instance. What corrupted controversy is identical to what corrupted politics, American presidential politics especially. Too much is perceived to be at stake in both.
In the race for the presidency, the victor claims the most powerful and prestigious job in the world, as well as (potentially) one of the most lucrative; the loser forfeits the universal prize with agonizing devastation, having felt it nearly within his grasp. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” Self-forgiveness, in particular. Compared to winning the presidency, what does winning an argument amount to? The answer is, everything, if there is nothing—no final truth, that is—behind the substance of the argument. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”
In the golden European centuries when religion was Truth, and Truth, the ultimate Good, religion was the single subject fixed beyond the bounds of controversy, which commonly included most topics of importance including politics, save (after the Reformation especially) where secular politics bore a religious aspect. The thinking was that so long as Truth was rigorously protected, subordinate ideas could be allowed free, or freer, play. In the contemporary West, which acknowledges no objective truth, the subordinate interests are left to support an enormous weight—the weight of the Unknown God—that they were never intended to bear. It was thought intolerable, in early modern Europe, that theological Truth should be defeated in argument, because, in losing the argument, all was lost. Today, when absolute Truth is denied, it seems intolerable that economic, social, and political truth should lose—since nothing of ultimate value is perceived to exist beyond economic, social, and political fixes. Here again, there is simply too much at stake for mere argument to be allowed. In argument’s place, there is quarrel; the quarrel is finally a mortal one; and the logical end of a mortal quarrel is not to shake hands and walk away: It is to humiliate your opponent; to silence him; to deny his existence; even, if possible, to have him arrested on a charge of hate crime and thrown into jail.
We are taught about the Bad Old Times in the days before the secular enlightenment of the present era came about—the days before freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion; the days of superstitious denial and of silence. In fact, from the vantage of the present day, it begins to look as if controversy were a Christian thing, like civility and the autonomous intellect. Not exclusively Christian, of course, but substantially, and perhaps even essentially, so.
It is a characteristic of degenerate print argument that the writer with a case to make ends—often, he begins—by disregarding the single individual reader whom an author is commonly expected to engage on a man-to-man basis, addressing himself instead to an apparently limitless audience whose identity is unknown and whose features remain unrecognizable. It is as though he were not writing words in the solitude of his study but speaking them on nationwide hookup from a busy television studio. The sensation this style of writing produces is a peculiar one, difficult to describe. The reader is well aware that he is not being personally addressed and persuaded; quite obviously, the author is speaking over his shoulder to an audience the reader cannot identify and whom the writer seems unable to imagine himself, save as a phantom collectivity possessing a multitude of wholly unphantasmal votes.
A striking example of this sort of argumentation occurs in David Frum’s and Richard Perle’s An End to Evil: How to Win the War On Terror, described by the authors as “a manual for victory.” Immediately after quoting Thomas Paine, they begin:
We too live in trying times—and thus far our fellow Americans have passed every test. They have shown themselves, as President Bush said in his speech in the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, “generous and kind, resourceful and brave.” They have fought and won two campaigns on the opposite side of the globe, saving millions of Afghans from famine and the nation of Iraq from tyranny. They have hunted down terrorists and killers, while respecting the rights of the innocent. And they have uncomplainingly accepted inconvenience and danger through tiresome years of lineups at airports, searches at public buildings, and exposure to further acts of terror.
Now comes the hardest test of all. The War on Terror is not over. In many ways, has barely begun. . . . Yet at this dangerous moment many in the American political and media elite are losing their nerve for the fight. . . . We can feel the will ebbing in Washington; we sense the reversion to the bad old habits of complacency and denial.
The passage is remarkable for the undeniable impression it creates that the authors are writing not to be read but to be overheard. But overheard by whom? The answer may be discerned from the fact that the text conveys a flattery wrapped in another flattery. Frum and Perle cite George W. Bush’s praise for “Americans,” delivered in a political address, in a disingenuous bit of propaganda of their own. In addition to passing on the President’s compliment, they add a populist one, by favorably comparing the fortitude of the public with the absence of backbone Perle and Frum perceive in “many in the American political and media elite.” The authors’ intent seems to be to win the support of “Americans” for their imperialist foreign policy by slapping them on the back and telling them how noble and how brave they are. But “Americans” take all their opinions from television news; they do not read books like this one. And so it appears that the audience to whom An End to Evil is addressed is in fact an absentee audience, located away in the distance somewhere and engaged in activities other than reading this book.
An End to Evil is not primarily an expositional exercise; it is an exhortational act, of the sort that very easily becomes a habit of thought to which people who have fallen into the even worse habit of dodging direct confrontation with their opponents in debate are particularly susceptible. The incivility of addressing the arguer instead of the argument is an old chestnut of the etiquette books. The incivility of attacking the argument while treating the arguer as a nonperson may be greater still. One way or another, the strategy of ignoring one’s intellectual opponent (and sometimes his argument as well) has become a favorite gambit in modern discourse, and nowhere more so than within those circles where Mr. Frum and Mr. Perle keep company.
The controversial tradition is among Western civilization’s greatest glories, from ancient times until quite recently. Cultivated to the highest degree in the Anglo-American tradition, it has for centuries played a role in our culture equivalent to that which the opera once played in Italy. Having all of life in it, at the visceral as well as the intellectual level, the habit of frank and manly controversy is the source of one of the richest streams in our literature, which includes the writings of Swift and Dryden, Milton and Johnson, Paine and Burke, Hamilton and Calhoun, Chesterton and Belloc, Waugh and Wyndham Lewis, Edmund Wilson and Edward Abbey. For all of these men, debate was mano a mano, a joyous combat in which hard blows but fair ones were traded. Adrenaline flowed along with ink, and the fight was delightful for its own sake. While defeat was at times acknowledged, the outcome was recognized for what it was: the loss of a single battle in a perpetual war that could never be wholly lost nor ever completely won. The spirit of controversy owed much to the fact that the controversialists were as likely as not to be friends, and usually social equals; and they were friends and equals because they shared in its broadest terms the tradition within which they fought. (This, of course, is one of the many advantages of the homogeneous society that has now given way before the multicultural model.) The custom of civility, developed from the chivalric tradition, was important to it; so was the code of the Anglo-American gentleman, rooted in a concept of honor that took for granted the notion of objective truth to which Gilbert and Cecil Chesterton deferred.
All that is now changed in our country and also (though to a lesser extent) in Great Britain. The love of controversy for its own sake has departed from the American scene, with the result that the rules of controversial engagement are today ignored. Everyone has always wanted and hoped to win an argument, of course; everyone has wished, after the argument is won, to see his will prevail in action. Nowadays, however, that is all he wants, because winning is all that matters. And winning is all that matters because we are aware of living in another moral universe from that of our opponent: a universe, moreover, that is determined solely by Will—and that Will not God’s Will but man’s. And so the fear, naturally enough, is limited strictly to the fear of losing. It has nothing to do with the abysmal, cosmic, and terrifying fear of being metaphysically Wrong.
Because—once again—there is simply too much at stake in a world in which the compelling moral as well as the practical ideal is one of total control exercised by a Will wielding arbitrary absolute power over the whole of existence. Failure to persuade Congress or Parliament to pass or defeat a bill is almost infinitely a more consequential thing today than in, say, 1704; so, of course, is success in doing so. Expectation rises too high to go ungratified; disappointment sounds too deep a depth to be suffered.
In these times, we argue only to quarrel; quarrel only to win; and win only to win overwhelmingly—and for keeps. This is not a formula to keep argument between brothers on the fraternal level. But then, we are none of us brothers now.