Against nicety in the popular cause

According to the front page of the New York Times, Republicans have said the word “Kerry” in the first three days of their convention more than twice as many times as Democrats said the word “Bush” in the first three days of theirs. In his speech accepting the nomination, Kerry called for restraint from ad hominem attack, but Cheney’s speech last night crescendoed into and spent itself in Kerry-bashing.

It’s asymmetric warfare, and it isn’t new. William Hazlitt explained the nature of it in his 1820 essay, “On the Spirit of Partisanship.”

Conservatives and liberals play the game of politics differently, Hazlitt wrote, because they have different motivations. Liberals are motivated by principles and tend to believe that personal honor can be spared in political combat. They may, in fact, become vain about their highmindedness. Hazlitt condemns the mildness as a mistake, both in moral reasoning and in political strategy. “They betray the cause by not defending it as it is attacked, tooth and nail, might and main, without exception and without remorse.”

The conservatives, on the other hand, start with a personal interest in the conflict. Not wishing to lose their hold on power, they are fiercer. “We”—i.e., the liberals, or the “popular cause,” in Hazlitt’s terminology—“stand in awe of their threats, because in the absence of passion we are tender of our persons.

They beat us in courage and in intellect, because we have nothing but the common good to sharpen our faculties or goad our will; they have no less an alternative in view than to be uncontrolled masters of mankind or to be hurled from high—

“To grinning scorn a sacrifice,
And endless infamy!”

They do not celebrate the triumphs of their enemies as their own: it is with them a more feeling disputation. They never give an inch of ground that they can keep; they keep all that they can get; they make no concessions that can redound to their own discredit; they assume all that makes for them; if they pause it is to gain time; if they offer terms it is to break them: they keep no faith with enemies: if you relax in your exertions, they persevere the more: if you make new efforts, they redouble theirs. While they give no quarter, you stand upon mere ceremony. While they are cutting your throat, or putting the gag in your mouth, you talk of nothing but liberality, freedom of inquiry, and douce humanité. Their object is to destroy you, your object is to spare them—to treat them according to your own fancied dignity. They have sense and spirit enough to take all advantages that will further their cause: you have pedantry and pusillanimity enough to undertake the defence of yours, in order to defeat it. It is the difference between the efficient and the inefficient; and this again resolves itself into the difference between a speculative proposition and a practical interest.

It is not fair play, and Hazlitt thinks that liberals who decline to fight fire with fire are fools. “It might as well be said that a man has a right to knock me on the head on the highway, and that I am only to use mildness and persuasion in return, as best suited to the justice of my cause; as that I am not to retaliate and make reprisal on the common enemies of mankind in their own style and mode of execution.”

Innocence vs. experience

Pedro the Lion’s song “Penetration” begins

Have you ever seen an idealist with gray hairs on his head?

which reminds me of the passage in Emerson’s lecture “The Transcendentalist” where he says

Talk with a seaman of the hazards to life in his profession, and he will ask you, “Where are the old sailors? do you not see that all are young men?” And we, on this sea of human thought, in like manner inquire, Where are the old idealists?

which reminds me, in turn, of late Melville. Yesterday, on the electronic discussion group ISHMAIL, the scholar Peter Norberg traced the origin of the motto that Melville is said to have kept pasted to his desk at the end of his life,

Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.

It comes from a discussion of Schiller’s play Don Carlos in Madame de Stael’s Germany. Stael reports a favor that one character asks of another, and then adds an observation of her own:

“Remind him,” he says, “when he shall be of riper years,—remind him that he ought to have respect for the dreams of his youth.” In fact, as we advance in life, prudence gains too much upon all our other virtues; it seems as if all warmth of soul were merely folly . . .

After work today, I walked down to the library at 42nd Street, digital camera in pocket, to watch the anarchists rally. On Fifth Avenue, I happened to fall in with them, and I eavesdropped. A young woman asked the young man with a crewcut carrying their furled banner to slow down, because someone in back couldn’t keep up. “You’re six foot one,” she said, “and for every step you take, she has to take, like, four.” He wanted to arrive on time; she accused him of insensitivity. “We’re all adults here,” he defended himself.

I went partly out of curiosity, partly out of remorse at having been out of town during the proper protest on Sunday. Even in my youth—especially in my youth—I wasn’t much of an anarchist. (For the record, that’s understatement.) And I am more or less constitutionally incapable of joining in chants.

Still, it was a spectacle, which I feel conflicted about having fed. Over at n+1, Marco Roth has written, perceptively, that “When you find democracy entertaining, you know you’re a little off the right track—because it suggests you’ve become a spectator of yourself as a participant—similar to watching yourself have sex.” And the photograph that I wanted to take, but which the stutteriness of digital technology more or less defeated, was of the cameras nearly outnumbering the anarchists, surrounding their little bubble of human messiness like the black, lunar probe-shaped viruses that circled a cell and then punctured its membrane in the diagram in my high school biology textbook.

A line of police kept the protesters from returning to the front steps of the library, and the protesters seemed unable to decide whether to turn their backs to the police or to address them. Where was the fourth wall? It didn’t matter; the cameras were everywhere. The protesters shouted, “The whole world is watching,” but the warning wasn’t necessary. The police themselves were videotaping.

Will it hurt the Kerry campaign? The anarchists looked very much like middle America expects them to: tattoos, head scarves, sleeveless T-shirts. After the leader announced a march to Seventh Avenue, there was confusion, and I overheard a credential-wearing photojournalist mutter, “So fucking stupid.” The professionals, in other words, were not impressed.

And there wasn’t a lot of forethought on display. The protesters chose an extremely narrow gate for their exit. The police allowed them and the audience to file out. Then the police unrolled a ribbon of orange mesh and began to charge down the 42nd street sidewalk to clear it. If you haven’t experienced this, it’s sort of civil disobedience meets musical chairs. If the police finish “wrapping” a section of the sidewalk and you’re on the inside of the wrapper when they’re done, you’re arrested. In the one round of the game that I stayed to watch, it was not that hard to escape; maybe it isn’t meant to be. The police seemed mostly to catch photojournalists—players who were disadvantaged, no doubt, by not having looked up from their viewfinders.

I slipped forward along the walkway hidden by hedges that skirts the library’s north side and debouches at the Bryant Street Cafe. There a middle-aged woman rose, drink in hand, to accost a parks employee. “I hear the anarchists have organized a protest on the internet, but how can they do that?” she asked. “If they’re anarchists, how can they organize anything?” She seemed to feel she’d hit on a real stumper.

“They didn’t,” the parks employee answered.

That’s about as much as I witnessed. I think I’m supposed to be more chagrined by the silliness than I am. I see the Times is already calling the incident at the library a “brawl.” The word implies an evenhanded situation, as if the protesters resisted or fought back. They didn’t, from what I observed. They were trying their best to look angry and nonconformist, and their enemies will be happy to see them that way. But it was difficult, in person, not to notice that they were also well-intentioned and hapless—young and imprudent. They seemed full of life.