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And Then They Came for the Loudmouths

There is a war being waged on a minority in America. The fact that this is a vocal·really vocal·and often unlikeable·even straight-up unbearable·minority should not excuse indifference to the persecution.

It is, in fact, our Constitutional obligation to defend and offer equal protection to them. We Americans must not turn a blind eye to the War on Cranks, er, the Critics.

When did it begin? Perhaps it·s been there from the very first. Pamphleteer Thomas Paine, for all his contributions to the cause of American independence, died impoverished, shunned and maligned.

Critics are always in a precarious position: They tend to have only an ·enemy of my enemy is my friend· sort of bond with their audiences·and can often be surprised to find themselves suddenly, unintentionally, nibbling the fingers that feed. Paine, for example, was on firm footing in criticizing England, but when he took on Christianity . . . well, it·s not like he was a Dutch cartoonist, but, really, you·ve got to be tactful with most of the earthly incarnations of the monotheistic deities.

So, the danger of critical blowback is a longstanding one. But there·s been a curious twist in the post-9/11 era. Though reports of the Death of Irony proved to be greatly exaggerated, reports of the rude health of earnestness were not.

One of the first critical casualties was comedian Bill Maher, who lost his HBO show Politically Incorrect, of all titles, for making comments that some took to be complimentary to the terrorists who took down the towers. The tone was set.

Since then, the criticism of criticism·if you will·has come from curious corners: Anarchic Internet trolls and half-mad Tea Partiers, alike, are regarded and spoken of as threats to domestic safety and political stability. Granted, when a teenager harms herself in seeming response to cruel comments online, it·s a problem; and it·s always troubling when a politician you dislike gains electoral traction.

But, are we being, well . . . kinda strident, kinda sissy, about the whole thing? Are we so frustrated with the din of contending voices that we·re longing for polite silence? ·Cause that·d be, to paraphrase the Founding Fathers, ·boooooorrring.·

I mean, I like Jon Stewart as much as the next guy. And I loved his confrontation with Tucker Carlson on Crossfire. But the cancellation of Crossfire was disappointing. The real solution wasn·t to kill the show but to stock it with more guests like Stewart. More, not less, fundamental and sincere disagreement. (It was the insincerity of the show that Stewart was complaining about in the first place.)

We should be careful, I think, not to throw the baby out with the Beck. Braying entertainers cynically posing as outraged populists annoy the living daylights out of me, too. But, c·mon, these guys and gals aren·t subtle enough to be sneaky. They·re blatant as hell; and should be called on it.

But the desire for, what, polite society?, has infected not only political but artistic discourse. In recent months, there have been fragments of an e-mail interview with author Dave Eggers bouncing all around the Internet. Eggers offers up a well-written and, I·m sure, heartfelt mea culpa for having worked as a critic. He begs people not to be critics, an activity which came from ·a smelly and ignorant place in [him], and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy.·

These excerpts are being posted to blogs in the fashion of daily affirmations, calling artists, makers, thinkers, etc., to say ·yes· more than ·no.· Eggers drops some hip names·like the Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne·as examples of those for whom creativity is an embrace, rather than a rejection. But, uh, an embrace of this is also a refusal to embrace that, isn·t it?

And, hair-splitting aside, fine, so that·s how Wayne works, Dave. (We·ll take your word for it.) But, honestly, I get as much pleasure out of Chris Hitchens· half-mad renunciations as I do of Coyne·s half-mad assemblages. If Eggers· critical work was motivated by pettiness, spite, insecurity what have you, he·s well out of it·and, praise where it·s due, we·re probably a better society for Eggers· embrace of embracing.

But there are some hands you refuse, some works you reject, some opinions you reduce to rubble.

Sometimes you disagree, productively, creatively.

And, just ask the ghost of Tom Paine, there are some things you can only own in their defense.

·John Rodat

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