February 25, 2009

The paranoid style of American politics

In today’s New York Times, Yale law professor Stephen Carter analyzes recent shallow analysis of public statements.  He begins with these remarks:

Just weeks before taking the oath of office in 1861, Abraham Lincoln spoke to a crowd in Pittsburgh. The times were fraught. Since Lincoln’s election, several slave-holding states had left the Union. More were threatening to go. But Lincoln told the worried assemblage, “There is really no crisis except an artificial one!”  Actually, Lincoln said much more than that — hundreds upon hundreds of words, calculated to soothe the public’s fear of war. But had his speech been covered the way the news media cover political remarks today, it is likely that most people would have heard only that one line, and Lincoln, the nation’s greatest president, would have been pilloried as an out-of-touch bumpkin.

In fact, I don’t think Stephen Carter correctly characterizes Lincoln’s speech, which you can read for yourself.  Most of the address concerns tariff policies, and the key paragraph reads as follows:

Notwithstanding the troubles across the river, [the speaker pointing southwardly, and smiling] there is really no crisis, springing from anything in the government itself. In plain words, there is really no crisis except an artificial one! What is there now to warrant the condition of affairs presented by our friends “over the river?” Take even their own view of the questions involved, and there is nothing to justify the course which they are pursuing. I repeat it, then – there is no crisis, excepting such a one as may be gotten up at any time by designing politicians. My advice, then, under such circumstances, is to keep cool. If the great American people will only keep their temper, on both sides of the line, the troubles will come to an end, and the question which now distracts the country will be settled just as surely as all other difficulties of like character which have originated in this government have been adjusted. Let the people on both sides keep their self-possession, and just as other clouds have cleared away in due time, so will this, and this great nation shall continue to prosper as heretofore. But, fellow citizens, I have spoken longer on this subject than I had intended in the outset – and I shall say no more at present.

However, even if Carter’s opening example is flawed, one of his larger points is certainly correct – reading complex ideas requires reading full material in context, without hysterical reactions.  In particular Carter is to be praised for reminding of us a classic of American political philosophy:  Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”  I am in not in a position to characterize whether over-reaction and sound biting has increased or decreased over time (I can imagine a strong argument, and Hofstadter provides evidence that this style of rhetoric is nothing new.)  But there is something particular about posting short notes on the web that can at times it lends itself to shallow analysis.  And it certainly is the case that readers, teachers, and thinkers we should encourage contextual, full, subtle reading.

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