Right Wing Watch Responds; I Call It (Some) Progress

By Tom Gilson Published on August 7, 2019

Right Wing Watch’s Peter Montgomery answered my open letter to him last week. I appreciate his more respectful tone in that reply. I think it’s fair to mention he also sent me a gracious personal note of sympathy for the pain and loss we’ve experienced this week here in Dayton. He’s setting a better example now for how to disagree decently.

Of course we still disagree. A lot of it has to do with motives versus methods.

Motives vs. Methods

In his original article, Peter had said conservatives want “judges [we] hope will gut the federal government’s constitutional authority to act on behalf of the common good.” That’s imputing evil motives. He’s suggesting we want the government out of the business of doing good for the people — which would be wrong, evil, even crazy, if it were true.

So I asked him about that. He answered by pointing toward efforts on the right to reduce or eliminate Federal involvement in various social programs. But he misses a crucial point here: This is a difference in strategy, not of motive. We want the government to “promote the general Welfare,” just as he does. We just think that the programs he names have the opposite effect.

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Take the New Deal and Great Society programs he mentions, for example. There’s a strong case to be made that the New Deal was a major reason the Great Depression was so “Great.” The “Great Society” has yielded us a flood of fatherlessness, which correlates strongly with poverty, unemployment, crime, even mass murders. We don’t see that as promoting the common good!

Conservatives believe in citizens helping one another. We don’t believe these programs actually amount to that. And we offer fact-based arguments for why. Progressives would do well to answer them, if they can.

This Has Been Said Before

And there’s something strange here. I had told Peter most of the above already. But he missed it. Or ignored it. For example:

It’s one thing … to say you don’t think our policies will serve the common good. It’s quite another to suggest we’re pushing those policies because we think it will defeat the common good.

You’re suggesting our intentions are nothing but evil. Do you realize how dehumanizing that is? It’s dishonest, too, … you’re putting words in our mouths that we’ve never spoken.

Peter still wants to assign false motives to us. That’s wrong, and it’s troubling.

Other-izing and Dehumanizing

He agreed with me that politics is about seeking power. His real problem, he said, is what Trump and his supporters “want to do with that power, and which principles they’re willing to sacrifice.” Now, if he means Trump is quick to “sacrifice” left-wing principles, then of course he’s right. Obviously that by itself doesn’t mean Trump is “unprincipled,” any more than Montgomery would be “unprincipled” himself simply for rejecting conservative principles.

We could discuss the relative merits of our principles, and I hope we do at some point. To suggest that Trump simply sacrifices his own, though, is to mix up whose principles are whose.

Montgomery disagrees with me that his website’s very name, “Right Wing Watch,” is a blatant instance of “other-izing.” (A practice he renounces.) He says Right Wing Watch has a mission to “understand, expose and challenge threats” to values they “believe represent the best of American ideals.” Stated that way, I’m all for that.

Sharp criticism is fine with me — if it’s delivered in a human manner.

But even he agreed his July 19 article was “harsh.” That’s one way to put it. It’s one thing to understand, expose, and challenge. It’s another thing to dehumanize, as he did in that piece.

I stand by that assessment. He disagrees. See his August 2 reply: “It’s not dehumanizing,” he says, “to note that Religious Right leaders spent decades telling Americans that the moral character of their leaders matters, but that those same leaders … have largely abandoned that principle,” for the sake of mutual benefit with Trump.

Ignoring, Deflecting

Sounds good, right? Sure. Nothing dehumanizing there at all. Except what he did there (consciously or not) was to use a rhetorical strategy called “ignore and deflect.” I called him out for doing one thing; he said I was wrong because he didn’t do something else.

But let me be more specific. I’d said he’d dehumanized us when he said we were willing to “create” a “brutal humanitarian catastrophe.” I still call that suggestion — that we would actually be okay with such a thing!? — dehumanizing. And he completely ignored that. The closest he came was to acknowledge he’d been harsh, but then also, he said, “some sharp criticism is well deserved.”

But Making Progress Anyway

Sharp criticism is fine with me — if it’s delivered in a humane manner. It’s perfectly legitimate, for example, to ask whether conservatives have abandoned our principles in our support for Donald Trump. I get that he thinks we have, and I could speak to that, but that’s for another day.

My point for today is that there are better ways and worse ways to have that conversation. Montgomery’s July 19 article was definitely the worse way. It was inflammatory speech, even as it denounced … inflammatory speech. It was poison dumped in our political culture, under the guise of denouncing conservatives for wielding that very same thing.

His August 2 reply to me still gets the motive/strategy distinction wrong; he still misses the dehumanizing he engaged in. But at least he’s showing a better example of how to have a conversation. I choose to be hopeful; I call it progress. It’s a lot more like the way we ought to be doing things.


Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream, and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth in Jesus Christ and Critical Conversations: A Christian Parent’s Guide to Discussing Homosexuality with Teens, and the lead editor of True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism.

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