Is it wrong to discuss people’s motivations?

I received from Red Phillips an article he had written at the Ether Zone criticizing my recent article at FrontPage Magazine on the antiwar right. I wrote back to him.

Mr. Phillips,

Thanks for sending your article criticizing my piece on the antiwar right.

Your entire argument is that it is wrong to discuss psychological motivations. That is true when dealing with people who are making rational arguments themselves and are more or less staying within the rules of debate. But if the people you’re dealing with are evidently acting out of emotion and not staying within the rules of debate, or if they show contempt for any common ground of civility, or for any common ground as Americans, that rule no longer applies. For example, many Democrats in the last election not only acted as if they hated Bush, they even admitted that they were consumed by hatred of Bush. Is this phenomenon of Bush-hatred off limits for anyone to comment on? By your logic it would be.

For the last three years, I and others have been amazed and appalled at what has happened to much of the paleocon right, how hatred of the neoconservatives has become their consuming passion, with everything else centered around that. It reached the point where for the paleocons, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” meaning that they would support anything or anyone that the neocons opposed, or that our “Neocon Occupied Government” opposed. I first saw this at 9/11, when people I had known on the right began to say things in defense of Arab terrorists and bin Laden. When they did this, I stopped speaking to them. According to you, this big and important subject, paleocon hatred of neocons, sometimes of Israel, and sometimes of America itself, is off-limits. We can’t talk about it, because that would mean looking at a person’s motivations. We can’t talk about the motivations of people who regularly publish, in a magazine they call The American Conservative, the rantings of anti-American British leftists.

As I said, in normal debate, in which the participants are rational and following the rules of debate, they should not refer to each other’s personalities or motivations or psychology. But when the common ground breaks down, when, for example, one side shows that they simply regard certain parties as their enemy, and will say anything against them (an example I gave was’s ludicrous attack on the Clinton administration as “racist” against Chinese), then debate has ended, and one is free to examine the people in question as to their motives and character.

In your article, entitled “Reasoned Debate, Please,” you refer in passing to “the tyrant Lincoln.” The fact that you don’t supply any evidence for your name-calling against Lincoln, but just feel that you can call him a “tyrant” without more ado, suggests that you assume that all your readers simply have the same view of him. You don’t seem to realize that most Americans admire Lincoln as the man who saved the Union and would regard your conclusory statement about him as offensive, so offensive, indeed, that many of them wouldn’t want to read you or engage with you any more. You thus relegate yourself to the little community that shares your anti-Lincoln animus, and cut yourself off from the larger American community. I wonder if that simple fact has occurred to you.

Thus your use of the cheap insult against Lincoln accomplishes two things: it ends people’s wish to engage in debate with you (it certainly ends mine), and it gives them a reason to discuss the psychology of a person who would write an entire article insisting on “reasoned debate” while offhandedly calling one of America’s greatest and most respected presidents a “tyrant.”

Lawrence Auster

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 22, 2004 09:02 AM | Send

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