For some time now, I have been struggling to think clearly about the extraordinary debasement of the public discourse that has occurred in America over the past several years. I have remarked from time to time on the sheer craziness of what now seem to be accepted modes of speech and quasi-argument emanating from the right. No humorist would dare invent Orly Taitz, or Glen Beck, or indeed Sarah Palin, for that matter. When the Republican Party of Maine officially calls for the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment, so that once again State Legislatures can select United States Senators, and the Republican Party of Iowa calls for the passage, at long last, of the now forgotten original Thirteenth Amendment, so that Barack Obama can be stripped of his citizenship for accepting the Nobel Prize, Jonathan Swift must weep in his crypt for the death of satire.
But with these effusions of wackiness there also appear outbursts so ugly, so mean-spirited, so far beneath the lowest reaches of acceptable speech, that I find myself experiencing not disagreement, or anger, or even outrage, but simply disgust. And yet disgust is an aesthetic, not a moral, reaction. How am I to think about this phenomenon? Are aesthetic responses to political speech simply inappropriate? Are they no more than barely concealed expressions of class bias?
Brooding in this manner, I found myself recurring to a passage in Plato's great middle dialogue, THE GORGIAS -- a passage that puzzled me for many years. It occurs roughly midway through Socrates' colloquy with Polus, the rather immature disciple of the Sophist, Gorgias, after whom the dialogue is named. Socrates is trying to extract from Polus the admission that it is worse to do evil than to suffer it, an admission that Polus is of course loathe to make. Suddenly, the conversation makes an abrupt turn, one that for so long puzzled me that when I taught the dialogue I tended simply to skip over it.
Socrates begins by reiterating his question: "Which, Polus, do you think is worse: to do or to suffer wrong?" As expected, Polus replies, "To suffer it is what I think." Then, to my great surprise, Socrates asks "And what do you say to this? Which is uglier: to do or to suffer wrong?" Polus answers, "To do wrong." and Socrates is off to the races.
What is that about?, I ask myself. How did questions of beauty and ugliness suddenly enter the discussion? [The Greek appears to be kalon and its antonym -- those with a proper classical training may want to correct me.] Never mind the series of logic chopping questions with which Socrates trips Polus up and compels him to acknowledge that it is worse to do evil than to suffer it -- an admission that causes the great antagonist of the dialogue, Callicles, to leap into the debate. What matters is the core idea that Plato is getting at.
As near as I can see, Plato is saying something like this: There are modes of thought and of action that are simply ugly, vile, despicable -- they are modes of thought and action that no honorable or decent man or woman would engage in. There are many forms of thought and action that, while wrong-headed or immoral, nevertheless are not utterly incompatible with our humanity. We debate these, often vigorously, but we can nonetheless honor and respect those with whom we disagree, or whose actions we think wrong. But there are some persons whose thoughts and actions are so beneath contempt that the only possible reaction is an aesthetic revulsion. We avert our eyes because they are simply too ugly to contemplate.
When Glen Beck mocks those who have run out of unemplyment insurance after ninety-nine weeks of looking for a job,I do not want to argue with him. I want to wipe him from the face of the earth. ["Have you heard of the 99ers?" Beck asked on Monday. "Some of these people, I bet you'd be ashamed to call them Americans."]
Well, fulmination relieves the pain, but does nothing to obliterate the infamy. As always, my advice is to organize. to mobilize, to bring to the polls this November every dispirited, disappointed, grumpy progressive. Get them to pull the lever or make the X for the candidate farthest to the left, and then they can return to their bad humor. There is ugliness abroad in the land, and it needs to be stopped.