It used to be that ideological struggle was pretty straightforward. One lot of people had a theory about how the world works, and how it ought to work, which it sought to impose upon the world or some part of it, either by democratic persuasion or by revolutionary force, while another lot of people, wishing to preserve the status quo, more or less, tried either to debunk the first lot’s theory or to substitute for it a theory of its own. However much they hated each other, both sides found it natural to assume good faith on the part of the other in proposing what it actually wished to accomplish.
It doesn’t work like that anymore. Now the ideologues hardly mention their own theory, apart from specific measures they wish to see enacted. Rather, they try to establish as indisputable fact that the ideology of the other side, even if it makes no claim to any ideology, isn’t really what it believes at all. Through the use of what they regard as a decoding, they are able to attribute to those who oppose them such pre-discredited ideologies as Nazism, fascism, or “white supremacism,” in the teeth of their vehement denials that they believe any such thing.
The assumption of the good faith of one’s opponents in debate was taken for granted as a precondition of there being any debate.
Now, when someone calls you a Nazi or a fascist or a white supremacist, it is not an invitation to debate. It signals the end of debate, just as it does when someone calls you a liar. To deny that you are a liar is in a way to confirm that you are one, since this is just what a liar would do; and it is the same with Nazism, fascism, or white supremacism, now that these ideologies have been definitively discredited. Back in the days when such an accusation—whether or not it was itself truthful—dishonored a man, there was only one recognized way to answer it and so wipe away the stain of dishonor: to challenge the accuser to mortal combat.
When a man—these rules didn’t apply to women—issued such a challenge, he was said to have “called out” his accuser, who would be obliged to accept the challenge or acknowledge himself dishonored instead, since cowardice was the only other accusation, besides untruthfulness, that by itself could stain a man’s honor irreparably. It is grimly amusing to me, as a historian of honor, to see the media referring to any vile and unproven accusation hurled at another as “calling out” the victim, since the latter no longer has any such redress available to him. It is as if the bravos of the media were taunting the victim not only with the accusation itself but also with his powerlessness to deny it. You are said now to “call out” someone with what, once, you would yourself have been called out for.
For about a century, between the dying-out of the fashion for dueling among gentlemen and the rise of the all-powerful media in the 1960s and 1970s, there was a residual sense of honor in our public discourse that would have made all but the most unscrupulous ashamed to make malicious and unproven assertions against one another, including against another’s hidden motivations, even if one privately believed the worst about him. In other words, the assumption of the good faith of one’s opponents in debate was taken for granted as a precondition of there being any debate. That has long since ceased to be the case, although we continue erroneously to refer to occasional instances of the shouting and slandering and moral preening that are the media’s daily fare as “debates.”
This lack of good faith is what I think of when I read something like “The Nihilist in Chief,” Ross Douthat’s shameful attempt in The New York Times to blame the shootings in Dayton and El Paso on Donald Trump—with the help of Marianne Williamson’s “dark forces,” which are supposed to be at work in Mr. Trump (and, therefore, his supporters) for the accomplishment of his evil purposes. Alleging “white supremacism” against him, as is now routine in the media, is bad enough, but at least you can argue against such an allegation, even though it would be a fool’s errand to do so. But how do you respond to the charge that you are an agent of the Evil One, or an assertion, like that of the columnist against Mr. Trump, of “the obvious moral vacuum, the profound spiritual black hole, that lies beneath his persona and career”?
I actually agree with Mr. Douthat that the President “participates in the general cultural miasma that generates mass shooters”—but then so does he. So do we all. It is only invincible self-righteousness that allows the media moralist to pretend to stand outside the corruption of his times and point the finger of unreproved and unreproveable blame for it at those with whom he disagrees. And that same self-righteousness, no longer subject to any restraint, is to a large extent what is responsible for the “general cultural miasma” that turns other, less-privileged true believers and utter strangers to self-doubt or self-awareness into deranged killers.