All Commentary
Friday, September 1, 1995

Persuasion or Popularity?

Some Misconceive the Purpose of a Column in a Magazine of Ideas

Mr. Bidinotto is a long-time contributor to Reader’s Digest and The Freeman, and a lecturer at FEE seminars. Criminal Justice? The Legal System Versus Individual Responsibility, edited by Mr. Bidinotto and published by FEE, is available in a new hardcover edition at $24.95.

Someone once said that his purpose was to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” That might not precisely describe my own motives as a columnist, but in one respect I sympathize.

Like most writers, I sometimes get letters from readers offended by my views. This is especially true of columns in which I challenge the views of anyone supposedly sharing “our side” of the ideological spectrum. The gist of these correspondents’ objections is that, in criticizing alleged allies, I am spreading “disunity” in “the movement.”

Such critics misconceive the purpose of a column in a magazine of ideas.

If a writer’s primary aim is to entertain and be liked, he will aim to comfort his readers—embodying, expressing, and ratifying only what they already believe. He will give voice solely to popular values, standards, and ideas, even if these are in error. In doing so, he will change no minds. But for his efforts, he may achieve much popularity.

However, if a writer’s primary aim is persuasion, he must challenge his readers—saying new and different things, not just the old and familiar. Persuasion is predicated upon disagreement: to persuade means to lead someone away from old and familiar ways of thinking, and to a new and different perspective. In trying to persuade, a writer may achieve little popularity; after all, no reader likes to be told, “you’re wrong.” But for his (often thankless) efforts, he may change minds. Perhaps even the world.

The main goal of a magazine of ideas is persuasion—to change minds. It is not the job of any of its writers to comfort readers, but rather to challenge views which he believes to be mistaken, and make his disagreements clear. No, in doing so, he should not be intemperate and nasty; boorishness and bad manners are not badges of independence. But if a writer of ideas leaves all of his readers smiling and nodding all of the time, he has failed. He succeeds only to the extent that he elicits frowns of thoughtful consideration.

Anyone dissatisfied with the status quo therefore faces an inescapable choice. To avoid disagreements, he can keep silent, resigning himself to popular fallacies and follies—or he can seek to challenge and change them by voicing his dissent. But if he dares to challenge popular notions, he will necessarily “afflict the comfortable,” and must accept the likelihood of being unpopular—at least for a time.

This is the psychological difference between the individualist and the conformist.

Conformity is the process of avoiding the possibility of offending anyone, by resembling everyone. Conformists do not change others: they are the ones who do the changing. Rather than educate, they simulate. The result? The morally repugnant status quo remains in place, unchallenged and unchanged.

Years ago, in the January 1984 Notes from FEE, I wrote: “Suppose valid ideas are altered to seem acceptable by irrational standards. Then the audience, unchallenged, would actually continue to believe in its mistaken perspective. And if valid ideas are altered to be compatible with irrational standards, then it is the audience—not the speaker—that has found a new convert.”

Regrettably, to gain public support over the years, many on “our side” have been willing to conform—to water down their arguments, compromise their principles, and betray their ideals.

In his recent book, Dead Right, David Frum provides ample evidence that sadly, many on “our side” have adopted this latter course of appeasement and betrayal. Many traditional critics of big government have come to realize that opposing popular welfare-state programs is . . . well, unpopular. They now grasp that most government “entitlements”—Social Security, Medicare, public education, college loans, farm subsidies, etc.—go to the middle class. So to curry favor and win votes, they have begun to recast their political philosophy to be more appealing to “middle Americans.”

“. . . [T]he conservative movement was born in revolt against the size, cost, and arrogance of the modern state,” Frum writes. “[B]ut . . . as part of the price for its emergence as America’s dominant ideology, conservatism has quietly walked away from that founding principle. Instead, all too many conservatives have developed a startling tolerance for the use of government power to reform society along traditionalist lines.”

In their pursuit of political influence and office, they now reject the very basis of liberty—individualism—and have abandoned any effort to dismantle the welfare state and to limit government. Forsaking the struggle for fundamental change, they instead resign themselves to conformity to the political status quo, on grounds that “if ya can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em.” As one of their number put it, the “Right” should no longer “dwell on limiting the size of government but rather on the issue of who and what controls government.”

But if individual rights is the standard, are such people truly on “our side”? Should the ideas they put forth be immune from our public scrutiny? Should the statist goals they seek be exempt from our public criticism?

The truly great thinkers on “our side” have long understood that a poorly framed and argued case for individual liberty is worse than no case at all. An argument for human freedom that is ungrounded, incoherent, compromised, or riddled with logical inconsistencies is fruitless. Either it will be rejected by intelligent people, or if implemented, will fail in practice.

Certainly, it’s a lot more fun evoking smiles rather than provoking frowns—whether from avowed adversaries or alleged allies. But writing for a magazine devoted to discovering the truth about socio-political ideas, my responsibility is to challenge ideas I believe to be in error, to raise objections whenever I believe that good ideas are being undermined or ill served—and to let the chips fall where they may.

We stand at a crucial crossroads in our nation’s history. We have a rare, and probably fleeting, opportunity to enact a fundamental political change of direction: a change away from governmental encroachments on human freedom, and toward guaranteeing to each person his own inviolate sphere of sovereignty. We have a unique chance to begin to erect a fire wall between collective might and individual rights.

But we won’t do it if we compromise our identity as individualists. If, by our silence, we allow politicians allegedly representing “our side” to sell out our freedoms and our future. If we try to maintain a fraudulent and futile “united front” with open and avowed collectivists.

And if, “to tease a smile from some cold face”—as Cyrano put it—we become meek followers instead of bold leaders of public opinion.