When Everyone Is Right That Everyone Is Wrong
Or, yet another reason why a third party might save American politics.
Last week my friend Bari Weiss reached out to me and asked me to write a guest post on her indispensable Substack, Common Sense. The subject was an extension of a debate I had with Chris Rufo on her podcast months before and something I’ve written about at length at the French Press—the threat to free speech from the anti-CRT laws that are sweeping America.
When I first debated Chris, the threat was theoretical. I was anticipating what these laws would do. Now we know what they are doing, and it’s not pretty. I’d urge you to read the entire post for the details, but we’re witnessing in real time increasing efforts to ban books, including books that no person could possibly label as critical race theory, efforts to identify key “trigger words” to identify grounds for making complaints under CRT law, and even efforts to ban photographs and other images from our nation’s history.
For example, in my home county a group called “Moms for Liberty” has filed a complaint under the state’s new anti-CRT law that takes aim in part at Norman Rockwell’s famous depiction of Ruby Bridges desegregating Little Rock public schools. It’s a tough painting to look at—it contains the n-word—but it portrays an American hero, standing tall, in a moment of incredible distress.
But that’s not the focus of this newsletter. I want to expand on a bit on the paragraph below. After describing the very real threat of left-wing illiberalism, I wrote this:
But something is going wrong on the right. An increasing number of politicians, lawyers, and activists are responding to fears of left-wing intolerance with their own efforts to censor, suppress, and cancel. They’re doing so in different places and different jurisdictions—the very places and jurisdictions where the right is dominant and where, all too often, the echoes of America’s most painful past can still be heard.
Here’s where we are—while it is absolutely the case that our nation is awash in conspiracy theories and paranoia, there is enough absolutely real intolerance and illiberalism on both sides of the political spectrum to cause rational people to be tempted to retreat toward tribalism as a means of perceived self-defense and self-preservation.
In other words, each side looks at the other’s abuse and takes extreme measures in the jurisdictions it controls, all to declare we can’t let that happen here.
Beginning back in 2016, just as I was beginning to be shocked and angry at Trump’s relentless rise, I made a very conscious change in my social media and reading habits. I intentionally tried to follow and read roughly equal numbers of thoughtful people on the left and the right.
Note I said “thoughtful.” I try to follow the best of both sides. And it was a transformative experience. Time and again, I’d see different people write compellingly about different outrages, and the stories and takes were all true. The injustices they described were all real.
Let’s take these two truths, for example. My good friends (and former colleagues) at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have compiled a sobering list of 471 scholars who’ve faced threats of termination since 2015.
Here’s one partisan truth: “The left is responsible for 65 percent of attempted cancelations!”
Here’s another partisan truth: “The right is responsible for 60 percent of the physical threats!”
Then, here’s the partisan argument: “Your problem is worse than my problem!”
Online, this observation is called “both sides-ism,” and people hate it. They demand that you declare which side is worse, and then dedicate the lion’s share of your efforts to defeating the true threat.
And those critics have a point. There are greater and lesser threats, and one of the hardest parts of my job is discerning the difference. Cancel culture is a long-term threat to America’s culture of free speech, but if Mike Pence had made a different choice on January 6, the entire republic could have faced an immediate, mortal threat.
My friend Jonathan Rauch calls this distinction the difference between a heart attack and cancer. When a person is facing a heart attack, you focus your efforts on making it through the next hours and days. But that doesn’t mean you don’t also keep treating the cancer.