I try to keep my e-mail as spam-free as possible by generally declining to sign up for on-line petitions, and other such rubbish. At some point, however, I must have agreed to something or other, because for the last few years, I’ve been the recipient of occasional e-mail action alerts from the American Family Association.
AFA, and groups like it, are entitled to generate as much support for their advocacy programs as they can muster. By nature, I am strongly disinclined toward activism in any stripe — I’m just as aghast at the tactics and deceptive, shrill vitriol of those whose positions I favor as those whose positions I oppose — preferring instead to change what I can and stop worrying about the rest. But I don’t mind people trying to drum up support (or opposition) to various questions regarding the sociopolitical order. The free marketplace of ideas is one of mankind’s highest achievements, after all.
That said, it’s interesting to see the outrage that comes through in some of the AFA missives. Today’s message recommended a boycott of Ford Motor Company for its advertisements in the pro-gay magazine Out. AFA suggests that the collection of beliefs and practices that they lump under the rubric “pro-gay lifestyle” are, by definition, opposed to the interests of America and are poisonous to the health of America’s families. Whether AFA’s criticism has merit is beyond the scope of this rumination; what is significant is that the central question of contention — the way homosexuality and homosexuals integrate into the body politic — is substituted with an asserted answer that cuts off rational debate.
I don’t read that particular magazine, nor do I drive a Ford product. So I really don’t have a dog in that fight. Yet ….
The singular weakness of democracy as a system of government is that political power can be wielded by those whose opinions are poorly informed by fact or reasoned debate, and from which, there can be no further appeal from the rule of the mob. Don’t like the result of a democratic process? Tough.
I am not so naive that I believe there was a golden age of democracy, when politicians were of pure heart and the people were genuinely interested in effecting the sagest policies. But politics informed by rational, honest, respectful debate has a much better track record of leading to prudent outcomes than, say, leaving the matter to whichever faction of the people can shout with the loudest voice.
Too many commentators have wasted too many words lamenting the sorry state of civil society across the Western world, for me to bother hitching a ride on that bandwagon. Yet the solution offered by many — stronger activism, “more” democracy — is hardly a viable response to cultural and intellectual malaise.
Today’s activism, regardless of its origin on the ideological spectrum, is too comfortable with assertion and fallacious argumentation to provide an effective input to the political decision-making process. In the 2004 election cycle, for example, the half-truths and insinuations of groups as diverse as “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” and MoveOn.org twisted the public discourse over which candidate would lead the federal executive with the greatest diligence and prudence. We had lots of debate, but the national conversation was led by activists who had no interest in the debate itself but in achieving a foregone conclusion. Lost in the middle were those who wanted better information to form their own conclusions.
The more cynical-minded might question whether advocacy-driven public debate is (a) an inevitable consequence of free speech, or (b) an inevitable consequence of having a critical mass of citizens tune out of the political process. And perhaps the cynics may have a point.
But all I can state for certain is this: When groups like AFA and others ad nauseum deluge the public square with assertions that cut off debate and then expect me to agree with their conclusions, a critical ingredient of informed, democratic decision-making has been removed from the mix.
I might be old fashioned, but I can’t say I’m too happy about that.