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Controversialization: A Key to the Right’s Continuing Domination of Public Debates

Yesterday, our local NPR station hosted a debate about what themes should and should not be included in school-sponsored drama productions. The discussion followed a pattern that has become quite familiar on our airwaves within the last three decades. In this oft-repeated dance, an earnest moderator conducts a series of interviews guided by what he or she portrays as a desire to find the appropriate “balance” between our constitutionally guaranteed rights to free expression and the possibility imposing “offensive” messages upon an unwitting public. 

At first glance, this line of inquiry would appear to have few, if any, real drawbacks. After all, those of us of a certain age know that life is often about balancing what we have a formal right to do or say against that same action’s potential for generating negative or disagreeable side effects.

But when we look at this practice of automatically seeking balance in a different light--one that takes into account the widespread use of what the investigative journalist Robert Parry calls the practice of “controversializing"--we can see how it has greatly lowered quality of our civic discourse. 

At the core of the practice of controversializing is an age old political problem: how to get your way--or at least seriously blunt the prerogatives of your opponent--when you enjoy neither strong popular support nor a clear-cut legal basis for instituting your ideological project.

This is exactly where the American Right found itself in 1971. At that moment, long-standing American business and military elites were reeling. Disaffection with the Vietnam War, and the entire establishment that was seen as having created it and having sustained it, was enormous, especially among the huge and ever more politically crucial Baby-boomer demographic.  Moreover, for the first time in the Post World War II era, large parts of the mainstream media were actively and openly questioning the wisdom of top-level players in Washington and in the highest levels of corporate America.

It was precisely at this juncture that Lewis Powell, a corporate lawyer still two months removed from his elevation to the Supreme Court, laid a out a blueprint for an Establishment counterattack on what he saw as the fast-rising hegemony of the Left in this country. He did so in a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, the head of the powerful US Chamber of Commerce.

The Powell Memo includes a number of important strategic suggestions, almost all of which were adopted by the emergent Right in the 80s and 90s and which remain as core elements of the Conservative tool box today.

None of these were to prove more important in the long run than his suggestion that Conservatives actively press for the enforcement of “ideological balance” in both university life and the mainstream press. 

The stealth power of the suggestion lies in its apparent innocuousness. Since we all like to think of ourselves as fair, why should we object, when pressed, to a request to strive for greater balance in these key institutions?

Very simple.  Because no important social institution is, nor can ever be, made up of a perfect mix of the society’s dominant ideological tendencies.

Why? Because each social institution has a history and a daily practice which tend to privilege one way of looking at the world over another. 

The training needed to become a university professor or a journalist places a great deal of emphasis on the empirical gathering and analysis of information. This outlook meshes quite naturally and organically with what we in this country call “liberal”  thought, that is, the set of political doctrines and cultural practices which grew out of the rationalist revolution known as the Enlightenment which, though it has many forms, tends to privilege individual freedom over the achievement of group identity and group projects. Perhaps more importantly, people in both professions operate with a high degree of autonomy, something that allows much more space than most have to develop points of view which may differ from those of the great mass of society who do not enjoy this same privilege.

Similarly, it is highly likely that in a given sample of corporate businessmen or soldiers there will be sharp prevalence in the group toward conservative positions. The reasons are clear.  Because while individual soldiers or businessmen may in fact be both highly analytical people and lovers of individual freedom, both work in institutions that regularly ask their members to sublimate their desire to express their individual critical insights to the organization’s overarching pursuit of “stability” and/or hierarchical “discipline”. 

Am I saying that journalists and academics are totally free of similar demands to tame their own personal “take”  on social and political matters? Not at all. 

Rather I am suggesting that the demands that they do so are--thanks in no small part to the existence of tenure in the case of academics and the First Amendment in the case of journalists—generally much less effective than the similar attempts to intimidate or bully or silence people in military or corporate environments. This is no doubt the reason that that this core academic institution and people like Julian Assange irritate many Conservatives so much.

The second great fallacy in the Lewis-inspired call for the achievement of balance in the press and academia resides in its highly selective nature.

The argument is made by Conservatives that the special role of these institutions in molding public discourse, makes them subject to special ideological scrutiny and, hence, demands for balance.

Leaving aside the telling fact that when serving as Supreme Court Justice, Powell voted against the continuation of the Fairness Doctrine, which had been established in 1949 precisely as a means to insuring ideological diversity in the US media environment, there is the larger question of whether, according to the Conservative credo, these areas of life are alone in molding the shape of public discourse. 

Corporate board-rooms and the Pentagon, to name just two other institutions, have an enormous ability to affect the public’s perception of ideas. This is what the whole public relations and advertising industries, to which they both massively subscribe, are all about. 

It is often said that this is different because such entities run these campaigns largely with private funds. But, of course, this is flatly untrue in the case of the Pentagon. And if there is anything that has been laid bare by the financial crises of the last decade it is the extent to which the supposedly hard division between public and private initiative can, and does, exist.

But just for the sake of argument, let's assume that post-Powell conservatives are sincere in their passionate pursuit of ideological balance. Wouldn’t that require them to make sure it exists in every crucial decision-making sector of the society including corporate board rooms, the military high commend and each and every law firm, hospital or small business?

I don’t know about you, but I won’t be holding my breath waiting for these things to happen.

So, if it isn’t really about the pursuit of ideological diversity what is the vaunted Conservative insistence on ideological balance really all about?

It is, as they in boxing, about finding a way to  “punch above their weight” in public debates.

Let’s go back to our friendly moderator on NPR.  In his structuring of the discussion on the “proper” limits on themes to presented in school plays he establishes an implicit equivalence between constitutionally right to engage in free speech and other people’s “right” not to be offended or disturbed by what they see on stage.

But guess what? No such equivalency exists. While we all wish to lead our private lives in a way that minimizes incidents of gratuitous offense to those around us, the founders could not have been clearer about the fact that in the public square this concern about fellow citizens suffering “moral offense” was definitively subordinate to the goal of guaranteeing the vigorous and unfettered flow of provocative and challenging thought.

So why did this reporter, like so many of his colleagues in the business, build the discussion around this implied equivalence?

My guess is that it is because he came of professional age during the last three decades, a time when the ideological operatives of the Right made crystal clear that they will work overtime to controversialize any and all points of view they see as affirming the core principles of the Left, even when, or perhaps especially when, as in the case above, no serious intellectual case could ever be made about the two postures  having equivalent claims on the public mind within our Republic of Laws.

Knowing that to come right out and say this, that is, that  there is no real debate to be had for a believer in the constitution, would leave him open to attacks from the right wing watchdog apparatus about his “liberal bias” and his “lack of balance”, he decides discretion is the better part of valor and accepts as real the patently false equivalence “demanded” by the enforcers of the Right.

As a result, we now have a population that is largely unable to discern the difference between a core constitutional right and the allegedly “competing” (but in fact intrinsically subordinate) claims of the Right, and sadly, of an ever-increasing sector of the Obamite left. 

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington

Thomas S. Harrington is professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of Public Intellectuals and Nation Building in the Iberian Peninsula, 1900–1925: The Alchemy of Identity (Bucknell University Press, 2014).

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