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Opening Arguments

Beyond anger

George Will wrote an interesting column recently about how angry we get these days and how the rage takes on a life of its own and "derails politics by defining opponents as beyond the reach of reason." Wait a minute, says Dahlia Lithwick, who agrees with Will about the effects of anger but takes him to task for his take on the causes:

His piece about the outrages of political outrage points fingers at Paul Krugman, and Bill Clinton, and Howard Dean, and all San Franciscans, with nary a flick to the role played by Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, and the spear-chuckers from the political right who've elevated rageful discourse to an art form. (If Will thinks his nod at rage parodist Ann Coulter constitutes "balance," he's kidding himself.)

Know what would have made Will's piece great, as opposed to just smart? He should have co-authored it with Paul Krugman. Their argument could have been the same. The analysis would have been more careful.

She recounts her experience as a liberal collaborating on a piece with Jack Goldsmith, who once worked for the Bush Justice Department, about why that department can't be apolitical.

As a process this illuminated for me the difference between the Supreme Court justices who write carefully and narrowly to garner that fifth vote and those who favor the clever swish of the quotable, blistering dissent. And maybe because I have written an awful lot of similar "dissents" in my life, I can attest to some of their weaknesses: They're easy. You just take aim and fire. They subvert what's really important to what sounds important. Dissents make the spaces between the two sides larger than they need to be and paper over the fundamental agreements. And while some of my favorite writing happens in dissent, it sure is exhausting when it's all you read.

The experience causes her to reflect on the current state of public discourse, about which she is not optimistic:

Cass Sunstein warned in his 2001 book, Republic,com, that the Internet would create polarized intellectual communities in which people could isolate themselves from what he calls "unplanned, unanticipated encounters" with opposing viewpoints. I fear we're there. Everything I need to know about you I already learned from your bumper sticker. It seems to me that a more useful way to encounter opposing viewpoints isn't through anonymous posts in the blogosphere or disembodied heads on a talk show. (The encounters on Hannity & Colmes are hardly "unplanned.") It may be the old-fashioned way, the way the Framers imagined it: face to face and ferried along by the benefit of the doubt.

As an editorial writer, I've written a lot of what she would call "nuanced arguments," designed to win support from those in the middle or unsure of their own positions, and a lot of thundering, preaching-to-the-choir pieces the only purpose of which was to crush opposing dunderheads. It has all depended on the topic and the convictions of the editorial board (greater consensus, stronger writing). The blogosphere favors the short post and riposte over the developed arguments of extrended debate and the blistering over the reasonable, and it seems to bring out the meanness in all of us. Sometimes when I read over old entries here, it strikes me that I was snarkier than I needed to be and more shallow than I would like to be.