Reality Check

From The New Criterion

To a greater extent than ever, those on both sides of the political fence, and even those sitting on it, are only talking and writing to and for people who already agree with them. The only time most of us engage with those who have different views from our own is when we think we have come up with a suitably sneering one-liner to launch against the tweet of someone whom we have come to think of as the enemy. One consequence of this new form of global village parochialism is the atrophy of whatever capacity we may once have had to put ourselves in the place of this putative enemy and to see the world as he sees it — if only for the sake of better understanding and so refuting his arguments.

But how are we supposed to care about that if argument itself is now a lost art? Such appears to be the case from Lee Siegel’s Why Argument Matters (Yale University Press), which I have reviewed for a forthcoming number of The Claremont Review of Books. With this book the cultural moment of the Twitterverse has found its apologist and its theorist. On Mr Siegel’s telling, “argument” has joined that long list of words — like “lie” or “racism” or “insurrection” or “democracy” or “disinformation” or “free speech” or “fascism” or “anti-fascism” — whose meaning has now changed in common usage (common media usage anyway) into something quite different from or even directly opposite to what it was only a few years ago.

In Why Argument Matters, the word “argument” does not describe conventional reasoning, or reasoning at all, but existential assertion — a way of saying, with Mrs Willy Loman of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, that “attention must be paid” to one. And attention must be paid to the would-be arguer not because he or she has anything to say that anyone else might find interesting but just because he or she demands it. This new kind of argument does not seek to persuade but to defeat, and by any means necessary. Mr Siegel’s own argument takes off from the bedrock assumption that now people identify themselves with their opinions — as in fact appears to be the case with most of the people who live on planet Twitter — so that to change or modify those opinions in the light of further knowledge or understanding would amount to a kind of self-annihilation.

Such people must therefore live perpetually at the opposite pole to that of what the poet Keats called “negative capability,” which is the ability to inhabit a different mind — precisely not, that is, to assert one’s own identity, in Lee Siegel’s Twitter-friendly terms. A century after Keats’s time, the philosopher R.G. Collingwood in The Idea of History recommended a similar course to the historian. All history, thought Collingwood, is the history of mind, which is why the historian cannot hope to understand the past without an attempt to inhabit the minds of the people of the past — to see the world as they saw it in order to understand what they made of it.

Nowadays, of course, Twitter-man and his kind have no more interest in understanding the past than they do in understanding their many enemies. They don’t call it the culture war for nothing. The past is there only to be judged and condemned, its relics removed or destroyed. We prefer to judge the past by our own standards, which are alien to it, as ours will presumably be alien to the generations to come after us. But if we had a little more practice in trying to think of the world the way our ancestors did, we might also learn to look at our own contemporaries who see things differently from the way we do as something other than enemies. We might even do better at the arduous and ever-failing but necessary attempt, for the truth-lover, of seeing ourselves as others see us.

“It’s not uncommon,” as the sub-head to an article by Parker Molloy on the NBCNews website puts it, “for people to delude themselves into believing that their preferred political side is the reasonable one.” She was writing about Elon Musk (“how out of touch he is with political reality”) and his takeover of Twitter, but it obviously never occurred to her to think that these words might apply equally to herself. Anyone who has spent any time reading left-wing polemics can cite similar examples of irony-free, self-vitiating comment. One of my favorites, as I may have mentioned before, is the banner hung outside several churches in my neighborhood reading: “All Are Welcome. No exceptions.” The point of such virtue-signaling is precisely to make an exception of people whom the holy ones suppose, rightly or wrongly, to be bigots.

Fired up with righteous anger about Republicans’ belated concerns with the curricular diet being fed to young children in public schools, Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times thundered: “Democrats, You Can’t Ignore the Culture Wars Any Longer.” It’s not just absurd to suggest that the Democrats have been ignoring the culture wars hitherto; it’s absurd to suggest that anything which could be metaphorically characterized as a “war” could be ignored by one of the parties to it. This “culture war” appears to be the first war in history which only one side is fighting. Or perhaps it’s no war at all. “Democrats need to fight back against the Republicans’ phony culture war,” writes David Remnick of The New Yorker. Wait. If the culture war is phony, how are Democrats supposed to “fight back”? And if they do, doesn’t that make the war very much un-phony?

Kate Clanchy, a Briton whose memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me was canceled by her publisher earlier this year for alleged racism, writes on UnHerd

As Twitter the joint organism has evolved, and its potential for shaming has been revealed, so too has its underlying bias towards a particular quality: innocence. If what you retweet shows the world who you are, and the consequences of being the wrong sort of person are dire, then a need is created for something not just appealing and colourful to place in your feed, but for something that is guaranteed to be harmless, something that will bolster the retweeter’s safety: a neophyte’s plea, a child’s painting or hand-turned salad bowl. Emergency Kittens.

The left’s pretense that they are the innocent victims of a right-wing war of cultural aggression is just their litter of Emergency Kittens. Thus, too, Randi Weingarten and Jonah Edelman, in Time magazine write of the man who has done more than anyone else to expose the teaching of Critical Race Theory and its offshoots in public schools as “culture war orchestrator Christopher Rufo.” There they were, Randi and Jonah, minding their own educational business, when along came this culture war orchestrator out of the blue to attack them.

Factitious innocence is the natural concomitant of the factitious outrage that drives Twitter, and both were on display all over the media, spilling out into the streets, in response to the leak in early May of a draft decision of the Supreme Court, apparently written by Justice Samuel Alito, overturning the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973 which legalized abortion in all 50 states. One of the milder examples of the media’s response popped up as the headline in an e-mail newsletter from The Los Angeles Times. “Stories on the reality of abortion are rare,” it read. I swear when I saw this that I thought the media’s border wall excluding any consideration whatever — “rare” is a considerable understatement — of “the reality of abortion” had finally and unaccountably been breached. Here, Twitter-ites everywhere, is some real innocence for you to contemplate.

I should have known better. For me as for most of those who oppose it, “the reality of abortion” is the butchery of a living human being while it is still in its mother’s womb. Or, if former Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia is to be believed, just out of it. That, anyway, is what abortion indisputably is — as even President Biden must have recognized when he inadvertently spoke of the fabled “woman’s choice” as the choice “to abort a child”? Fetus, Joe! Not child. Remember: we’re only aborting fetuses now, not children. That’s our reality. Or a part of it.  For “reality” is another of those words, mentioned above, whose meaning has changed with the advance of progressive semantics. Reality is now plural. And proprietorial. There is no more reality, really, only realities: your reality and my reality.

The reality of abortion for the columnist Mary McNamara, author of the Los Angeles Times column mentioned above, was summed up in its sub-head: “Most Americans support legalized abortion. But you wouldn’t know that from our popular culture, which reduced a woman’s choice to a political issue.” Of course it was not to be expected that Ms McNamara — or, probably, anyone else at the Los Angeles Times — was negatively capable of seeing the “reality” of abortion as anything but (a) a woman’s choice or (b) a political issue, since those are the only two conceptions of abortion that matter to her, and therefore the only two that, for her, exist. That’s her reality and it has never occurred to her — or it has never occurred to her to care — that it might not be everybody’s, let alone what I suppose we can only refer to as real reality.

The mutual incomprehension of the two sides in the abortion war — it would be absurd to call it a “debate” — has never been better illustrated than in the reaction to the leak of the draft opinion overturning Roe. And President Biden himself, the man whose inaugural watchword was “Unity,” appeared to be setting the example of apocalyptic hyperbole for his fellow Democrats (who seem to be largely pro-choice) when he claimed that the cancellation of Roe v. Wade would mean “that no one can make the judgment to choose to abort a child.” In fact, of course, it only returned abortion law to the democratic processes of state legislatures where Roe had found it half a century ago in a very different America from the one we inhabit today.

The end of Roe would also, thought the President, jeopardize other landmark decisions of the court based on a notional “right to privacy,” such as Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) which invalidated a Connecticut state law dating back to the 19th century against contraceptive devices. The idea that contraception, which has become a way of life in Connecticut as in every other state in the last half century could ever be outlawed again is laughable. But, as Lee Siegel might say, an argument doesn’t have to be reasonable, or even plausible, to be effective. This argument was intended as a declaration of cultural war, not as an indicative statement of opinion meant to be evaluated on its merits, if any.

One couldn’t help but wonder how far this was true on both sides of the often intemperate back and forth of the media campaign. In The New York Post, for example, my EPPC colleague Edward Whelan wrote: “Alito makes masterful argument to ‘overturn’ Roe v. Wade” — a statement of opinion, to be sure, but not one susceptible (or so it might seem) of airy dismissal. Yet Reason’s quick take on the draft decision, by Elizabeth Nolan Brown opined that “Alito’s Draft Opinion That Would Overturn Roe Is a Disaster of Legal Reasoning.” Well which is it? I suppose you’d have to be a law professor to judge for yourself.

Where Ashley McGuire in USA Today wrote finds that “Justice Alito’s draft opinion on abortion is a courageous gift to American children,” Nicole Hemmer of CNN thinks that “there is perhaps no greater farce than Alito’s appeal to democracy.” I love that “perhaps”! And where David J. Garrow in The Wall Street Journal sees “Justice Alito’s Originalist Triumph,” Charles P. Pierce of Esquire — who by the way sees President Biden’s raising of the spectre of Griswold and raises him Obergefell v. Hodges, Lawrence v. Texas and even Loving v. Virginia, which struck down laws against interracial marriage — can only see that “women are going to die. Politics is going to get immeasurably uglier. The reputation of the Supreme Court is going deeper into the dumpster. But Justice Samuel Alito, the sole occupant of his own universe, is the smartest guy in the room, so that’s all that matters.”

Oh, the irony!

Since, clearly, not all of these things can be true, and all are dressed up in superlatives of right or wrong, good or evil, pro or con, it would be understandable if a neutral observer of the controversy, if there be any such, were to conclude that one side or the other, if not both, is only engaging in the sort of mock combat presupposed by Lee Siegel’s idea of argument. Argument for effect. Argument as self-validation. We are not meant to assess such arguments on the basis of their reasonability but their effectiveness as polemic. The argument has become inseparable, in media-think anyway, from the political implications of its conclusions and can only be assessed on the basis of whether or not we like those implications.

One question remains. Have both sides thus poisoned the wells of rational debate in America — and, indeed, in much of the world beside — or has one side taken the lead down that road and the other only followed haltingly and reluctantly after? And if the latter, which is the guiltier party in this sham debate. To answer that, I think we first have to ask which side stands to gain the most from the destruction of rational argument, the denial of good faith or even common civility to the other side, and the consequent cynicism such denial must breed in the population at large who are left to shake their heads and turn away, muttering, “They all do it.” Don’t they? Obviously, I think, the benefit must accrue to the side that has the weaker moral or rational case. But I’m afraid I must leave you to decide which side that is.

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