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Be Like Bernie: Give Them An Argument

In my forthcoming book Give Them An Argument: Logic for the Left, I make the case that we leftists should spend more time formulating explicit arguments for our positions. Too many people on my side only know how to respond to right-wing ideas with mockery or moral condemnation. One danger of this approach is that if we never get around to showing what’s wrong with the other side’s arguments, we’ll end up losing a lot of people who could have been won over.

Moreover, what happens when tactical, strategic and policy disagreements arise among leftists? Should we try to close the racial wealth gap with universal social programs that will disproportionately benefit minorities or should we support reparations? Should we advocate a Universal Basic Income or a Universal Job Guarantee? Faced with election year choices between right-wing Republicans and neoliberal corporate Democrats, should we vote third party or hold our noses and vote for the lesser evil? These are complicated issues, and, if our ability to reason about them has been atrophied because we’ve grown used to navigating our way through political disagreements with mockery, shaming, call-outs and denunciations, these are inevitably the tools we will turn on each other. A quick glance at Left Twitter shows what that can look like. It would be far better for us to practice the art of making good arguments.

This concern might seem misplaced. After all, Current Affairs editor Nathan Robinson pens meticulously argued 10,000 word critiques of figures like Sam Harris and Charles Murray. Majority Report host Sam Seder regularly devotes an hour or more of his show to debating libertarians like Walter Block and Dave Smith. Noam Chomsky has spent decades critiquing American foreign policy with the methodical precision of a seventeenth-century philosopher reasoning about the foundations of knowledge. So what am I complaining about?

I. Mehdi Hasan Draws a Hygiene Line

Exhibit A is the reaction by many progressives (and even some of my fellow democratic socialists) to Bernie Sanders’ decision to do a Town Hall on Fox News. One might have thought that it would be foolish for someone running for US President not to make his case to the viewers of the most popular news network in the United States—but many commentators disagreed. Pod Save America co-host Dan Pfeiffer said that—while he understood the “short-term incentives”—“putting an imprimatur of legitimacy on one of the most destructive forces in American politics has long-term consequences.” Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman derided the idea that Bernie Sanders was being courageous and praised the other Democratic candidates for not wanting to “legitimize a Trump propaganda organ.” Mehdi Hassan of The Intercept, whose overall politics are closer to my own socialist views than to the mainstream Democrats at the Washington Post and Pod Save America, said that treating Fox like a “legitimate news network” was a “huge mistake.” Sure, he said, Fox has a big audience, but so does Breitbart—and the Senator would presumably never write a guest op-ed for them. “There has to be a hygiene line somewhere, doesn’t there?”

Exhibit B is a widely-shared article from the Stranger, in which Charles Mudede criticized the debate between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek—a month before it happened. Mudede praises Žižek as “an actual philosopher” and says that even his lesser work “contains brilliant bits of critical analysis.” Peterson’s work, on the other hand, is “not serious thinking.” Whatever one thinks of these assessments, this suggests that it’s good that Žižek debated Peterson. After all, Peterson is a bestselling author with a vast global readership. If his thinking is as bad as Mudede says it is, isn’t a widely advertised event in which he debates “an actual philosopher” an ideal way to call attention to those deficiencies?

Mudede draws the opposite conclusion. “Nothing good can come of this. Those who worship Peterson will gain very little from Žižek, a thinker whose critiques of the forms and manifestations of Western (and therefore capitalist) ideology lose much force when removed from their Lacanian, Hegelian, Marxist contexts.” The headline the Stranger gave the article preemptively declares that “nothing is a greater waste of time” than the planned debate.

Exhibit C is the reaction I got from a few people on the left when, a few days after the debate, I published an article in Quillette entitled “Marx Deserves Better Critics.” I argue that Peterson mischaracterized Karl Marx’s philosophy and that he has similarly mischaracterized it on other occasions. This is a critique that I’ve made before in other forums, and many of my comrades on the left were happy to see me make it in a new venue. Apparently, though, at least a few people who are happy to hear me say such things on The Michael Brooks Show or on my publisher’s YouTube channel, think that it’s a betrayal to say them in Quillette.

II. The Case Against Political Hygiene

It’s difficult to measure how widespread this taboo against wandering into enemy territory to make arguments for left positions may be, but it exists and it should be resisted. Upholding this taboo amounts to a preemptive declaration of surrender with regard to wide swathes of persuadable people.

Mehdi Hasan never bothered to explain how to reach the millions who watch Fox News. Perhaps he thinks that none of them can be reached, just as Charles Mudede seems to think that everyone with any degree of interest in or sympathy for Jordan Peterson is part of an unreachable hard core of “those who worship Peterson.” If there are people who watch Fox, but who might be swayed to support Sanders’ agenda, then is the plan to start by somehow convincing them to watch another less right-wing network before we try to convince them of anything else? Should we try to turn Quillette readers into Jacobin readers before exposing them to critiques of Peterson’s gloss on Marx? If Mudede were to concede that some convincible people are interested in Peterson, would the first step be to lure each such person into the library to spend a month doing the necessary background reading to understand Žižek’s ideas in “their Lacanian, Hegelian, Marxist contexts”? It would surely be better to start by crossing that “hygiene line,” so we can engage directly with those who haven’t yet been persuaded and forcefully make our case.

III. Bernie Sanders on Fox

I’d like to think that I did that in the Quillette article. In other contexts, I haven’t done so well. When I debated libertarian podcaster Dave Smith about Smith’s contention that taxation is wrong because it’s “theft,” I argued that, given that all systems for allocating resources require enforcement, complaints about force and coercion are red herrings. The real debate is about which distribution of goods to enforce. This was a sound argument, but my mode of presentation left a lot to be desired. I acted far too much like the philosophy professor I am, batting around playful hypotheticals and teasing out subtle distinctions in a forum that calls for much more directness and concision. Žižek did better in Toronto. In one of my favorite moments in the debate, he challenged Peterson’s emphasis on solving social problems by encouraging personal virtue with the example of the Zen Buddhist monks in Japan, who supported the militarist regime during World War II, despite their virtuous lifestyle. In another, he challenged Peterson to name specific thinkers rather than make vague generalizations about postmodern Marxists.

The standout example of giving them an argument in recent weeks, however, came from Bernie Sanders. When he crossed Hasan’s “hygiene line” to do a Town Hall on Fox, moderator Bret Baier challenged him on his support for replacing the private health insurance industry with a Medicare for All single-payer system. What about all the people who like their private insurance, Baier asked? No one likes changing health insurance, but the transition to Medicare for All would make almost everyone change.

Sanders could have responded by simply denouncing Baier as a right-wing propagandist. Instead, he analyzed Baier’s premise. Why do people fear changing their insurance? Their co-pays, premiums or deductibles might go up, and no one wants to have to find a new doctor because the old one is no longer in-plan. Well, Senator Sanders pointed out, the cost of the increased tax burden to pay for Medicare for All would be less for the average taxpayer than the combined cost of their current tax burden and their private health insurance premiums, copays and deductibles. Don’t want to find a new doctor? The only time you would ever have to go out of plan with a national system like Medicare for All would be if you left the country. Finally, Sanders said, people already have to change their health insurance all the time—because they change jobs, or because their employer changes it for them. “What I’m offering is stability.”

This argument seemed to move the Fox News studio audience. When a still skeptical Baier polled the audience about how many of them had insurance through their employers, almost everyone raised their hands. When he asked them how many of them would be happy to transition to “what the Senator is talking about,” almost as many hands were raised.

Of course, there was no guarantee that the event would go well for Sanders. The only certainty is that no Fox viewers would have been reached if he’d followed the advice of Hasan, Waldman and Pfeiffer. Drawing a strict “hygiene line” between you and the places where those you haven’t yet persuaded congregate is a good way to guarantee failure. Far better to be like Bernie and give them an argument.

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13 comments

  1. We should consider the context this critique exists in. Our world is one where right-wing ideology is reiterated and supported by corporate mass media 24/7 and most people have been indoctrinated. Actual leftists have historically been attacked and sabotaged by the FBI and other groups, and leftist institutions are under attack and losing.

    None of that makes dismissal an effective form of argument for the left – but when the left is so grossly outnumbered, it’s trivial to waste leftists’ time and energy with bullshit, until they can no longer engage effectively.

    Perhaps the left needs to get smarter about identifying likely allies/converts and neutral or favorable venues for discussion, instead of beating their heads against the hardest walls they can find and attacking up the steepest hills. Bernie did well on Fox but he was given a platform and a place of honor; we won’t all get that.

  2. Hey, Ben, ol’ buddy, looking good. And I’m glad you are in support of this general political line of Areo, to oppose “post-modern irony”/mockery, and defend and support “engagement.” One quibble of course is that I disagree that we should be anything like Bernie: war-mongering, anti-immigrant sheepdog for the Democrats.

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with the argument presented in this piece. I find it very useful to go to forums like Quillette and others to have substantive discussions rather than simply stick to a left-wing filter bubble that does not try to take in “converts.” I have been really happy to see Quillette publishing more left-wing writers, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find more materialist/economic Leftists in the comments sections.

    I’m happy that Bernie Sanders did the town hall on Fox News, though I’m sure the accusations of “white supremacy” or “white supremacy adjacent” came quickly after he made that decision. There’s no way to move a social democratic agenda forward if we only stick to the people who agree with us and if we summarily dismiss Fox News watchers, Trump voters, et cetera as “white supremacists,” “racists,” “homophobes,” “sexists,” et cetera. But perhaps we need to ask ourselves why people who voted for Obama twice and/or voted for Bernie in the primaries decided to vote for Trump: https://nonsite.org/article/black-politics-after-2016

    Of course, the corporate neoliberal Democrats have a vested interest in this type of dynamic because it allows them to obscure the fact that they are committed to upward economic distribution in much the same way that the Right is.

    Looking forward to reading your book, Ben.

  4. Good article overall. However I take exception to commending Massey & Robinson’s article on Harris when their article was anything but a meticulous critique. The piece clearly laid out their idea of what Harris is (racist) and then proceeded, via a mish-mash of out of context quotations, to redefine said quotes by using very lax concepts of the words. Examples abound such as conflating “ethnicity” (social group) with race (using the pantone definition of melanicity degree); criticizing reductio ad absurxum only to use it throughout (e.g. the nuclear scenario); the use of power status as a measure of morality; conflating pan-arab nationalism (sensu Zaydan) with Islam, etc. Robinson lacks the intellectual depth and honesty to write grounded critiques, and is instead an examply of the intellectual “hygene” this article wishes to resist.

    1. Agreed, Robinson is just not very bright, nor well-informed. He is at least trying to make an argument with more detail than
      a tossed off slur, but it’s only a shallow repackaging of the same old unwillingness to read his opponent in good faith that is so
      common among Harris’s critics. It’s not like everything Harris says is above criticism, but if your conclusion is that he is a reactionary,
      racist, war-monger, who doesn’t make any rational arguments, then you’ve failed as a critic.

  5. The illiberal left or social justice left or whatever you choose to call them has little interest in debating ideas. The whole shtick of this group is to categorize their critics as pure evil and therefore a debate is not only useless but also harmful in their minds as it legitimizes the enemy. So I doubt much headway could be made with this group which are the ones causing so many problems for the broader left these days. What will be necessary will be for the moderates on the left to overthrow this pernicious radical ideology completely which doesn’t seem likely to happen before the right completely solidifies around similar tactics.

  6. Why, if Current Affairs is doing such a commendable job on explaining the let’s position, does it not allow comments on the articles? Where Quilette, Areo, and the New York Times thrive on comments, virtually all leftish publications shun them nowadays. They claim that the moderation cost is too high but I seriously suspect that they hate the confrontation with actual facts?

    It is great that you engage with your opponents but my estimate is that you are not convincing a lot of people but that you’re actually transitioning to dark site 🙂 like I did not so long ago.

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    1. But there are also more sinister, elitist motivations. A study conducted by The Washington Post and USA Today found that readers who viewed articles with comments sections were more likely to develop a negative opinion of the news media. Curiously, this effect was seen even when commenters praised the article in question. In other words, when the opinions of journalists and the opinions or ordinary members of the public are placed close together, it leads readers to question the competence of the mainstream media. What horror!

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/08/19/its-time-to-end-anonymous-comments-sections/

      If there is no comment section, I won’t read the article, why? Because it shows me that the media outlet are authoritarian jerks who are afraid of my opinions.

      http://www.breitbart.com/tech/2015/10/27/the-lefts-war-on-comment-sections/

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      1. Comments undermine the authority of the media, by often pointing out what the journalists leave out or misrepresent.

        Until the Internet, it was easy for journalists to reassure themselves that they were generally respected, because they never got to hear what people were saying about them in their living rooms. In person, people acted polite and admiring, and they were nicely ensconced in their echo chamber, giving each other awards, etc.

        Now they tell each other, “Don’t read the comments!” Too destructive to their self-esteem…

      2. But this was about anonymous comments. I do agree that these are generally cess pits and the cost of moderation is steep. However, not even allowing subscribers to comment does smell like fear.

        1. On popular sites, I see no difference between anonymous comments and non anonymous ones. Requiring ID on its own does nothing except restrict commenting to those who feel they have nothing to lose, i.e. often the craziest and nastiest, while discouraging the average person with a job and community to worry about upsetting if they disagree publicly with its accepted views. So those sites most often have a small number of people trading insults, no intelligent debate.

          The only thing that makes a difference is moderation, but intelligent moderation is difficult.

    2. I don’t know. Just as what can be explained by incompetence shouldn’t be attributed to conspiracy, I tend to think that what can be explained by little magazines being broke all the time probably should be. (And I say that as someone who’s spent a frustrating amount of my life waiting for checks to arrive.) I’d also point to a large and suggestive counterexample–the Intercept.

      1. I’m Dutch and currently subscribed to 2 newspapers. They both canceled their comment sections a few years ago. One reinstated it partially for subscriber only. I’m going to cancel one. I’d gladly pay for something like The Atlantic if they could restore it to the quality it had before they closed the comments.

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