Talk about "criminalizing political differences" is again rife in the wake of the conviction of Scooter Libby. I very much wish it were not so, but the phrase is all too accurate. Prosecutors bring one set of charges and, when they don’t hold up, then actually prosecute non-cooperation with the investigation of the dropped charges. Mr. Libby was found guilty of not telling the truth to a grand jury. As best a non-lawyer like me can understand it, given the narrow terms of the case as presented to the trial jury, it is understandable that they voted to convict.
But it is obvious from the media coverage of the case and the conviction, as well as from the comments of political opponents of the Bush administration, that this has always been about promoting the claim that Bush, Cheney, et al. lied their way into the war in Iraq. Whatever one thinks about the reasons given by the administration for the Iraq war, they have nothing to do with what Mr. Libby has been convicted of doing.
One doesn’t wish to sound naïve. Of course, political opponents will frequently use any stick in order to beat up on the other side. That is as true of the left as of the right, although it does seem to be more true of the left these days. In any event, the criminalizing of political differences gravely exacerbates the difficulty of maintaining anything like a semblance of rational discourse and honest debate. I am not entirely averse to robust combat in the battle of ideas, but everybody engaged has an obligation to see that the ideas involved do not get lost in the heat of conflict.
Here is a related reflection that appears in "The Public Square" of the forthcoming April issue of First Things :
"The argument is over," announced former vice president Al Gore. The subject was global warming. The television interviewer then asked, "You mean there is no argument about global warming?" Gore solemnly nodded and said again, very much like a judge pronouncing the final verdict, "The argument is over." When and where, one might well ask, did the argument take place? Who was invited to take part in the argument? There are many very reputable scientists expressing skepticism or disbelief with respect to global warming. Never mind, they’re too late; the argument is over. As the presumed moderator of public discourse, Mr. Gore declares that the argument is over and his side won.
Writing in the Boston Globe , Ellen Goodman goes further, comparing global warming skeptics with Holocaust deniers . They are not only ignorant, they are culpably ignorant. In fact, they are evil. One detects a growing pattern of refusing to engage in argument by declaring that the argument is over. It is not only global warming. Raise a question about the adequacy of Darwinian theory, whether scientifically or philosophically, and be prepared to be informed that the argument is over. Offer the evidence that many who once coped with same-sex desires have turned out, not without difficulty, to be happily married to persons of the opposite sex and you will be told politely—or, more likely, impolitely—that the argument is over.
It does seem that there is a new spirit of anti-intellectualism abroad. Public discourse is increasingly aimed not at exploring the truth of a matter but at terminating the discussion. Conversation is displaced by propaganda. Self-appointed thought police patrol the conceptual borders against ideas and facts they find inconvenient.
To be sure, this is hardly new, but the border patrol seems to be increasingly aggressive these days. Some arguments are rightly declared to be over. For instance, the argument for the legal segregation of the races. For instance, the argument that real communism hasn’t been tried yet. For instance, the argument that people should divorce for the sake of the children. And there are others that sensible people deem unworthy of debate.
But there are subjects—for example, whether we are facing catastrophic climate change caused by human behavior, whether reason and spirit emerge from mindless matter, whether sexual desire is identity and destiny—that are eminently deserving of intelligent discussion. In We Hold These Truths , John Courtney Murray wrote that democracy is made possible by people who accept the open-ended discipline of being "locked in civil argument." This is possible, and we must work at it. He writes: "And this belief and hope is strengthened when one considers that this dynamic order of reason in man, that clamors for expression with all the imperiousness of law, has its origin and sanction in an eternal order of reason whose fulfillment is the object of God’s majestic will." Now that is a claim worth arguing about. It is a claim to be defended when confronted by anti-intellectuals who are, with a presumptuousness that would be amusing were it not so deadening, increasingly prone to declaring that the argument is over and they won.