We live in a world of echo chambers and political silos, in which more and more Americans are reading, watching, and listening only to “facts” and “news” that fit into their preexisting world view. Truth is no longer the end result of a complex process of learning differing perspectives, arguing about them, keeping an open mind, changing one’s mind, and finally arriving at tentative conclusions subject to revision based on changing information. Truth, with a capital T, has become a rigid, fixed dogma, not subject to challenge by untruth. This is especially the case with regard to political truth.
For too many Americans, the political marketplace of ideas should sell only one product, so consumers do not become confused by conflicting ideas. It is almost as if people are swallowing truth pills that deliver the absolute truth into their minds without the need for a learning or truthing process. This is the beginning of a dangerous road to totalitarianism, if not in governance then in thinking.
Both sides of the political spectrum are increasingly guilty of substituting dogma for discussion. President Trump, with his bully pulpit, surely bears the most responsibility. But the hard left, with its tactic of harassing and demonizing its political opponents, shares the blame. Neither extreme wants to talk with, or learn from, each other. We are a poorer nation as a result of the death, or at least dearth, of dialogue.
As a liberal academic, my focus is on a new breed of left-wing professors who are criticizing the need for a fully open marketplace of ideas both on and off the campus. They do not see the virtue of wrong-headed views being expressed, especially if they are offensive to those with whom these professors identify. Some academics prefer a world in which each American receives only news that supports his or her preexisting world views. If this sounds a bit like Fox and MSNBC, that is because this is the direction in which we are going.
Some academics believe that in the near future, we will be able to swallow a pill before we go to sleep and wake up in the morning speaking foreign languages fluently, without going through the difficult process of learning. I imagine that the next step would be a physics pill, then a history pill, then a politics pill, and finally a truth pill. There will be no alternative pills or antidotes. We would all know everything from pills prescribed by a Dr. Strangelove. Or will it be Dr. Trump who is prescribing the pill?
I have experienced this desire for a singular truth in my defense of Trump’s civil liberties and constitutional rights. Although I am a liberal Democrat and a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton, I have made the case against Trump’s impeachment and prosecution. I would have made the same case had Clinton been elected, and had Republicans been trying to impeach and prosecute her.
I have controversial views regarding these matters, which I have expressed in numerous articles, media appearances and books — the most recent of which is “The Case Against Impeaching Trump.” I’m the first to admit I may be wrong about some of what I’m arguing. That’s why I want to hear differing points of view. I have been persuaded by dialogue to change and refine some of my positions. I welcome more dialogue.
I end my latest book with the following challenge:
“I hope this short book will provoke debate, not name-calling. The issues I raise are serious and their discussion is essential to democratic discourse. So please respond to my positions. Disagree with me, propose better arguments, and defeat me, if you can, in the marketplace of ideas. So let the debate continue. I am ready to respond to my critics in print, in the media, and in the courts of public opinion. But let’s keep the debate civil and on the merits.”
Some radical Trump opponents prefer to cut off dialogue. They see no other side to the issue. Indeed they accuse me — by defending the civil liberties of all Americans, including Trump — of becoming complicit with tyranny, in the same way “well-known 20th century dictators enjoyed the support of public intellectuals.” They have urged others to refuse to interact with me intellectually, politically, and personally. Most have refused, including some of my most zealous critics, who persist in arguing with me. We continue to learn from each other.
I have likened these efforts to ostracize me to what lawyers who represented accused Communists during the McCarthy era went through. These lawyers, too, were ostracized, and their defense of the civil liberties of accused Communists was equated with support of communism.
I will continue to defend the civil liberties of all Americans, regardless of party or position. Persuade me why this is wrong by rational argument! I will never subscribe to any media that presents only one world view — even if it is mine. Nor would I take a truth pill if one ever became available. In a democracy, the process of learning is at least as important as the end result.
Alan M. Dershowitz is professor emeritus of law at Harvard Law School and author of “The Case Against Impeaching Trump.”