Matt Walther has a piece over at The Week which I, perhaps predictably, am feeling really torn about. Here’s Walther’s argument:
(The DSA) have succeeded in at least one thing: very publicly ruining the dinner of Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, under whose watch the children of immigrants were being kept from their parents under the terms of the Trump administration’s so-called “zero tolerance” policy.
It has been a long time since those of us who believe that abortion is judicially sponsored murder rather than a harmless medical procedure have made their views known in anything like this fashion.
The argument, then, is that pro-lifers should engage in the same sort of aggressive protest strategies that the DSA has used to draw public attention to the crisis along our southern border.
The reason I’m conflicted is simple: On the one hand, in cases of egregious moral evil I don’t think calling a protest tactic “uncivil” or “extreme” is much of an argument. It seems, to me at least, to be privileging politeness and what is comfortable over what is good. At this point it should be fairly obvious what I think of such an idea. So the argument against such tactics cannot simply terminate on “that is too extreme.” Given that we are talking about the killing of 600,000+ unborn infants every year, I don’t think we can reasonably dismiss something intended to resist such a thing as “too extreme,” unless we’re getting into John Brown territory, which the DSA clearly is not.
On the other, when you move out of the immediate context of the pro-life question or the immigration crisis, the broader problem in America seems to be one of crippling loneliness, deep social and institutional mistrust, and a general tendency to assume the worst about one another. In such a context, normalizing more radical forms of protest seems extremely dangerous. More radical forms of abortion protest might be defensible, but can we have that without more radical forms of protest over, say, an insufficiently high minimum wage, as defined by the DSA? To be sure, we should be able to distinguish between those things.
But my argument is that I’m not sure the average American will—and if I’m right, then legitimizing extreme forms of protest in one arena may well be legitimizing the total destabilizing of the civil public square. In a world where we can distinguish between “egregious moral evil” and “prudential political dispute where reasonable people can disagree,” more extreme forms of protest may be acceptable. But then it is not at all clear to me that we live in a world where most people can make those distinctions.
Of course, even here there is a further point to be made: Political policies have real-world ramifications. Bad policies hurt people as surely as directly malicious action does, if also through much less direct means. So there may well be a sense in which the person counseling politeness and civility is only doing so because they are insulated from the real-world consequences of a bad political decision. For example, I can easily imagine a scenario where I am Mad Online about the GOP once again being stupid about healthcare and someone encouraging me to calm down with roughly the exact argument I just made above.
If that were to happen, my response would be to say that I will not calm down because the ruling party in our country is trying to take away my mom’s health insurance, potentially take away my dad’s as well, and I don’t really feel like being polite toward a bunch of rich white dudes who are doing things that will hurt disabled people, people on fixed incomes, or others of limited means.
A similar calculus would apply, I imagine, to issues of immigration and questions about how best to regulate police and prosecute drug offenses. It’s easy to be serene and detached and civil when you’re basically not affected by the policy in play. But when that bill being pushed so aggressively by the Republican party is going to lead to some pretty disastrous real-world consequence for your people, one loses the desire to be civil. Moreover, when the party in question is led by Donald Trump and many of the people involved in it have lost all ability to criticize their own dear leader, it is very hard to trust the good faith of the people pushing the legislation in the first place.
All of these reflections, then, point to what I take to be perhaps the defining political problem of our moment: For a civil public square to exist, it is essential that we can distinguish between “egregious moral evils” and “complicated political matters where reasonable people can have prudential disagreements.” We need the distinction, otherwise everything becomes a life-or-death fight.
And yet most of the time these days I do not know how to make that distinction. I don’t know how to make it on healthcare given the real-world ramifications of what the GOP bill would have done. I don’t really know how to do it on immigration either, although it is worth pointing out that the Obama administration could also routinely be quite cruel as well.
This is the broader problem then—I can see why protest tactics of the sort used by the DSA are awful for maintaining civil society. But it is not at all clear to me that we have the sort of resources socially that are required to maintain such society in the first place.
There are lots of places you might go from there, of course. But none of them are good.