Bloom Briefing 39: Against the Specious Two-Sidesism of Contemporary Conservative Punditry

After I brief hiatus, The Bloom Briefing is back. There is much to be said about the Mueller investigation, but I leave that for a future week. This week, the focus is on rebutting a particular kind of conservative argument I find to be both ubiquitous and unfounded.

There is quite a list of good writing below. I particularly recommend the Amy Butcher piece.

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The Continued Blindness of the Conservative Intelligentsia

A few weeks ago, center-right #NeverTrump conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan launched a broadside against the entirety of the left, alleging, in short, that the dumbest ideas percolating among neophyte leftists activists on college campuses are the backbone of the left’s ideology today. This foundation, argues Sullivan, means that the contemporary left poses at least as much a danger to liberalism (individual freedoms and the rule of law) as the contemporary right.

As a committed liberal, I believe we ought to take such concerns seriously. If the left truly poses a threat to liberal democracy, we ought to work to minimize that threat. But I’m also an avowed leftist. I believe that more equality, not less, is desirable, and that government is the only entity capable of moving us swiftly toward a more equal future. This naturally makes me skeptical of the notion that the ideas I hold dear pose a threat to liberal democracy. Nonetheless, I approached the article with an open mind, eager to see if there might be some valid critiques of the left.

Instead, I found a conservative in denial. The meat of Sullivan’s article tackles a series of liberal democratic principles, and argues that the threat from the “neo-Marxist” or “cultural Marxist” left (its Marxist ties remain unexplained) represent a real and present danger to liberal democracy. Having read them earnestly, I have found them all wanting. The article is a sophomoric and uncharitable take on virtually every leftist point of view.

Why then, you might ask, am I going to spend the bulk of a Briefing discussing it? The conservative ideas contained within the Sullivan piece are, at present, commonplace. It has become fashionable for conservative #NeverTrump critics to pick on the most extreme and idiotic examples of leftist activism to make a false equivalency/two-sidesism (white supremacists vs. totalitarian social justice warriors) palatable. It’s far easier for independents and those unwedded to a spot on the political spectrum to believe that everyone’s a bit to blame, and Sullivan’s article is at the forefront of staking out such a position.

To avoid this reductive false equivalency, it is necessary to treat each of these arguments seriously. Is it the case that the left is a bigger threat to each of these liberal democratic values than the right? No, it is not. But we can’t take that position for granted. We must defend it. My defense of that position is here.

Free Speech
The Conservative Claim: language policing shuts down discourse. See the attempt to silence speakers on campus and prevent Katie Roiphe from unmasking the creator of the list anonymously-made list of male sexual predators in the media. Only minorities are allowed to speak about racism. Only women are allowed to speak about sexism. “Voicing an ‘incorrect’ opinion can end your career.” As a result, people are fearful of expressing their ideas.

The Rebuttal: the only people getting fired for expressing ‘incorrect’ opinions are those on the left or those expressing outright racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc. Colin Kaepernick remains unemployed while lesser white quarterbacks get paid. Bill Simmons didn’t have his contract renewed because he was too critical of concussions. Jamelle Hill was suspended from ESPN for stating the transparently true fact that Donald Trump is a white supremacist.

What people have been fired for conservative views? (Sullivan hasn’t named any.) Curt Schilling? He equated Islam with Nazism and dehumanized transgender people. FoxNews runs racist TV segments all the time with no consequences. Barstool sports remains a cesspool of misogyny for chest-thumpingly masculine sports fans. Charles Murray can Tweet and publish books and retain an American Enterprise Institute fellowship.

The idea that only women or minorities are allowed to speak on subjects of identity and oppression is patently absurd. The editorial page of the New York Times alone should be enough to put that idea to rest, but then there’s also the fact that conservative pundits continue to opine about the threatening racial politics of the left (what Sullivan is doing in this very article).

Oh, and speaking of free speech, what about the millions of female Hillary supporters that joined private, invitation-only social media groups to avoid the hate-filled attacks of white supremacists and Russian troll-bots? Do white supremacists sending pictures of Jewish media figures in gas chambers not constitute a threat to free speech that is at least as severe as campus protesters?

The Upshot: the fact that conservative intellectuals mistake criticism of hate-filled views for a desire to limit speech is telling. These same conservative pundits also critique the left for its insistence on safe spaces, which it seems, is what they are now demanding for their own intellectuals. Conservative pundits making this claim seem to be implying that conservatives need to be able to voice repugnant views free from leftist charges of hatred.

There’s a “this is why we can’t have nice things” component to the argument on the left. In an ideal world, as most on the left would acknowledge, we would have absolutely free speech and a moral code that prevented people from voicing hateful speech. But our moral code is failing us, and free speech persists. If the right can’t prevent people (like the leader of the country) from expressing open racism, there is going to be a natural backlash on the left that’s going to protest both the content and the language in the name of defending the humanity of the marginalized.

Microaggressions and privacy
The Conservative Claim: microaggressions are a nonsense only intelligible to those who believe that the world is inherently a struggle between patriarchy/white supremacy and those seeking to overthrow such systems of oppression. To whatever extent this may be true, the left’s insistence upon policing not just the systemic-level issues but the micro-level issues as well, often in the private sphere, is incompatible with liberalism. As evidence, notice that none of those opining on the story about Aziz Ansari from the left even “accounted for the violation of his dignity.”

The Rebuttal: for so long, conservatives have attempted to legislate morality. Conservatives long touted themselves as those caring about family values. They opposed (and often still oppose) gay marriage because they believe it is a violation of Christian morality. For the first time in a generation, the left is asserting a vision of a moral world and attempting to get people to live according to those values. Identifying microaggressions as areas of moral shortcoming is one way of getting people to lead more moral lives. When you shout “basketball, basketball, basketball,” at a black hockey player, as Chicago Blackhawks fans did, it is appropriate that your fellow citizens explain to you how you have mistreated your fellow human. And oh by the way, literally every one of the articles on Aziz Ansari I cited in the Bloom Briefing from several weeks ago noted that it was wrong for the woman who wrote the article to violate his privacy in that way.

The Upshot: conservatives want to be the only people allowed to voice moral opinions on politics. The left is fine, just so long as it doesn’t make any claims about what better or worse person-to-person interaction looks like. It shouldn’t be lost that this is precisely the “political correctness run amok” argument that helped propel Trump to the White House.

It’s not easy to be told that your way of thinking about and being in the world subtly reinforces racism or sexism, but that sorry truth is that many Americans still have much moral learning to do. Is this learning just going to happen of its own accord? Of course not. The shortcomings must be pointed out. It’s not the fault of the left for pointing out our country’s collective moral shortcomings.

Due Process
The Conservative Claim: the real world is now a college campus where a quick-to-judge culture will find people guilty in the court of public opinion simply for being accused of some identitarian misdeed. Can you believe that universities will expel a man, ruining his life, simply for a preponderance of evidence that he committed an act of sexual assault? Every corporation is now rife with affirmative action that promotes incompetent minorities and women over more competent white men.

The Rebuttal: on the point of affirmative action, the vast majority of corporate executive suites and boards of directors, faculty senates and boards of trustees, newsrooms and editorial pages, state legislatures and congressional delegations, etc., etc., etc. are white and male. Pure, unadulterated liberalism won’t solve inequality. If the inequality were naturally occurring, unadulterated liberalism might be just, but when inequality is the product of centuries of exploitation, oppression, and marginalization, the only just response is an illiberal response. This is why affirmative action policies make sense and should be supported.

On the point of lower thresholds for evidence in cases sexual violence on campus, this seems perfectly reasonable. College campuses aren’t part of the criminal justice system. The inconvenience for the rarely unjustly expelled student seems an acceptable price to pay to reduce sexual violence on campus. An expelled student can enroll elsewhere, and it prevents his victim from having to confront him regularly. The vast majority of cases of sexual violence will still go unreported and unprosecuted.

The Upshot: this is an instance where liberalism and the left come into conflict. Liberalism is concerned only about the equal application of rules. The left is concerned with remedying historical and ongoing injustice. Sullivan’s assumption (and this is common among conservative pundits) is that the left is inherently illiberal because it is willing to compromise on liberalism. Such an interpretation is both disingenuous and facile. The left’s position is most often thoughtful and considered (unless one takes 19- and 20-year-olds at Wellesley and Berkeley to be characteristic of the left as a whole). The left (again, unless we go far outside the mainstream) isn’t illiberal; in fact, it is deeply supportive of liberalism. It simply believes that at times, liberalism must be compromised for the sake of justice.

Objective Truth
The Conservative Claim: The left has taken up the post-modern concept of subjectivity – the idea that we all have a unique experience in the world – and reduced it most often to race- and gender-based interpretations. Mostly, this section is just Sullivan complaining about black people not understanding objective truth and publishers employing sensitivity readers.

The Rebuttal: people have different experiences. When you say something that is incomprehensible to people of color and you assume it is a group of them that doesn’t understand reality because you have said something objectively true, maybe it’s more time to reevaluate your own perspective than assume that a whole group of people can’t recognize objective reality when it’s staring them in the face.

The Upshot: it’s really hard to read this far in the piece and not feel a sense that Sullivan is venting frustration that the way that he talks about things and views the world is in conflict with the way many on the left do. He wants to be able to say Jim Crow is gone because that’s factually true and not have people argue with him that it continues to exist in spirit.

Final Thoughts: The reason I dedicated so much time to this piece is because I think it encapsulates much of the problem with the contemporary conservative intelligentsia. That class (mostly) never supported Trump because he’s vulgar and crude, and also doesn’t care at all about liberal democracy. But they never reckoned with the notion that their conservative worldview helped propel Trump to the presidency.

The conservative punditry wants not to deal with America’s complicated legacy of racial oppression. Every time the left puts forward any solutions to the contemporary ills of the country’s sordid past, it screams bloody murder, because none of the viable solutions is wholly liberal. And because the conservative intelligentsia are saying that racial oppression is either not a big deal or irremediable, conservative (or Trumpian) voters are given cover to believe that racial oppression in America simply isn’t a big deal.



Additional Reading:

A team of reporters at the New York Times published an in-depth story on how Trump’s personal layer, Michael Cohen, used his connections with the tabloid media to suppress damaging information and photos of Trump.

Also at the New York Times, Moises Velasquez-Manoff has written about the need to solve the crisis of masculinity if we are to solve the gender problems of American society. “Rewiring male sexuality shouldn’t be seen as another attack on beleaguered men – the Trumpian interpretation – but as another step toward their emancipation.”

In a beautifully-written piece at LitHub, Amy Butcher has written about how the increasing activism of women has hurt relationships with progressive men who don’t understand them.

For Reveal (an investigative journalism non-profit), Aaron Glantz and Emmanuel Martinez reported on the continuing inequality in access to mortgages for people of color.

At the Washington Post, Aaron Blake has quantified the alarming number of ethical inquiries facing Trump cabinet-members, the same subject of which was the topic of a piece by the New York Times Editorial Board.

Following the school shooting in Florida, James Fallows penned a moving piece at the Atlantic on “The Empty Rituals of American Massacre.”