The Times has a comparatively new conservative columnist, Bret Stephens. He has won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. He is also 19 years my junior. I am reacting to his most recent column, The Dying Art of Disagreement. This is the text of an invited speech he gave in Australia. My reading of it was the same reaction I described in the paragraph above. I thought it was a hatchet job.
I thought it might be useful for me to illustrate why I came to that conclusion. In a fantasy that almost surely won't happen, somehow Stevens himself gets to read my piece and see the arguments I put forward. This would be part of the disagreement he seemingly wants. I have no idea what reaction that would produce, but just maybe the conservative columnists at the Times, as a group, might learn to consider their readers, who are mainly not conservative, in a somewhat different light as a consequence. As this is pure fantasy, nothing more, perhaps a more useful function my essay can serve is for the few readers I have to adjust how they read Stephens and other reasonable conservative commentators.
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Stephens begins discussing his time before becoming a student at the University of Chicago. He became enamored with Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. At UChicago, Stephens found the liberal education that he had clamored for as a teen.
As it turns out I had read Bloom's book a while back and more than a decade ago wrote about it in a post called Out of Step. Here are the relevant paragraphs, that in my humble opinion give some necessary context that Stephens entirely omits.
Now let me switch gears. During the Reagan years the TV shows (Larry King, Crossfire, etc.) featured a variety of voices on cultural/educational issues. William Bennett and Nat Hentoff are two of the more prominent names I remember. I was uncomfortable with what both of them had to say. Hentoff argued that free speech, even when it clearly was hate speech, should never be suppressed. (During my time at Northwestern an Engineering professor, Arthur Butz, published his book denying the Holocaust and the Nazis had their march on Skokie. In my own internal cost-benefit calculation on upholding the Bill of Rights versus promoting pernicious nonsense, these outcomes constitute defeats, not victories.) Bennett, was known to champion the reading of certain works (the authors had to be dead white males, who had penned “classics”) and to scorn the reading of other books, notably those that were au courant, emblematically represented through the works of Toni Morrison. (During that time, the great New York Times columnist and humorist, Russell Baker, had a piece on this debate to the effect that Johnny didn’t read, period, so all this culture war stuff was beyond the point. Exactly.)
Perhaps 9 or 10 years later, well into the Clinton years and after I had begun to embrace Learning Technology, I read The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. The book had served during the Reagan and Bush senior years to make “une cause juste” for the Bennett position. Severed from those trappings, I didn’t find the argument so unreasonable and indeed that the reading of classic works should be a part of one’s liberal education seems a sensible thing to me. Somehow, and I’m not quite sure of the path to this, but possibly it was that I was a Book of the Month Club member, soon after reading Bloom I read a different book, one much less well known but I think worth reading called The Opening of the American Mind by Lawrence Levine, which while billed as a rebuttal to Bloom’s book (and the title was obviously chosen for this purpose) though it served a quite different purpose for me.
Nowadays “diversity” is a core value on campus and I suspect on most campuses around the country. Levine’s book gives the key arguments for why that should be the case, how we can’t understand each other unless we know the stories of ordinary men and women from all walks and stations and that a history that focuses only on the heroes, the so-called makers of history, will inevitably be incomplete and inadequate as a consequence. I encourage the reading of Levine’s book. And I suspect it will have more impact on the reader if Bloom’s book is read first.
So the hatchet job I'm talking about begins with Stephens not giving any mention whatsoever of liberal critics during the culture wars or of writers such as Levine, who produced pieces much later (Levine's book is from 20 years ago, while Bloom's is from 30 years ago) that were critical of the argument that Bloom advances. Here I ask myself, why did Stephens omit even a mention of such criticism? Possible explanations are many but I will present two extreme forms. One is that Stevens was well aware of such criticism but declined to engage it. I'd call this being cagey. It is a debating tactic. Don't recognize the strength in the argument that the adversary makes. The other extreme is that Stephens was ignorant of Levine's book and criticism of that sort. If ignorance is the right explanation, then I'm asking myself, how does this column get to appear in the NY Times? So right off, before Stephens gets to the point he wants to make, I'm thinking it is a hatchet job.
Then Stephens moves onto saying our politics has gotten more extreme; the right has moved further right while the left has moved further left. He treats this largely as a symmetric phenomenon and that bothers me as well. (There is one short paragraph where he mentions Fox News without a liberal counterpart. But the rest he argues for symmetry.) So, for example, he disregards the work or Mann and Ornstein in their book It's Even Worse Than It Looks, where they place the blame for the polarization squarely on the Republicans. Nor does he confront the argument by Jane Mayer put forward in 2010 in a piece called Covert Operations about the Koch Brothers producing this outcome by following a long term plan where they've invested huge sums of money to produce the result. And he doesn't address the asymmetry in electoral outcomes that his new colleague at the Times, Michelle Goldberg, wrote about today in a piece called Tyranny of the Minority. None of this looks close to symmetry for me. Stevens insistence on this point, based on some polling data that I found completely unpersuasive, looks like more hatchet job to me.
Am I supposed to have moved more to the left in my views about politics? What would be a test of that? That Democrats as a group are more left after The Great Recession and the rise in income inequality that has been so much in the news, because the economics of the situation demands it, doesn't seem to get a mention at all. All of this I found disturbing.
Now let me get to Stephens point in the essay. Current students at some campuses not allowing certain speakers to present shows they are poorly educated and don't understand the role of debate in the free exchange of ideas. What if there is an alternative explanation for the student behavior? Stephens doesn't even try to consider that possibility, which I find rather odd given the timing. (Stephens speech may have been given well before the furor about players taking a knee during the National Anthem at NFL games, but the appearance of the text in the Times made them seem coincident.) As an alternative I would advance that the students are engaging in an act of protest. The protest is perhaps less gentle than taking a knee, but in this media saturated world in which we live, a gentle protest on a college campus would be ineffective and not garner any attention. Why do that? The gentle protest can only work if visibility is otherwise guaranteed. Isn't that at least a plausible alternative explanation?
This is what I find so difficult about conservative commentators who are writing mainly for a liberal audience. They seem to have the urge to preach, to show us the error in our ways. They are the possessors of truth. We should listen to them for just that reason.
The reality is that tone matters a great deal for persuasion. Preaching works - to the choir. For the rest of us, I'd much rather hear an argument about a possible line of thinking that is unlike my own, but that admittedly may have some flaws to it.
Let me close by paraphrasing Miss Manners.
It is far more impressive for the writer to admit the weakness in his own arguments than for the readers to discover them on their own.