May 2, 2017


Liberalism's self-defeating howl (Damon Linker, May 2, 2017, The Week)

As I've argued on previous occasions, declaring opponents unacceptable, illegitimate, and out of bounds is a perennial temptation. That's because politics always takes place on two distinct levels. On one level is the back and forth of partisan conflict, involving persuasion, argument, electoral battles, triumphs, and defeats. On this level, pretty much anything goes as long as it abides by the rules of the political game. But there's also a second, more fundamental level of politics that involves a competition over who gets to set those rules, the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable -- and precisely where those boundaries will be positioned.

Far more than conservatives, liberals love to rule certain positions out of bounds in this second-order sense. [...]

For a vivid recent example of what can happen to political thinking and debate when one side becomes wedded to upholding rigid and exceedingly narrow strictures on permissible opinion, take a look at the blistering (and bizarrely disproportionate) reaction of liberals to Bret Stephens' debut column in The New York Times. Now, I was no fan of Stephens' writing in The Wall Street Journal, where he recently resigned, especially when it came to foreign policy. Neither did I appreciate his stance on environmental issues, which struck me as overly dismissive of evidence for climate change.

But in his first Times column, Stephens came right out and described global warming, along with evidence of "human influence on that warming," as "indisputable." That sounded unobjectionable to me -- as did his overarching point, which was that those who favor policies to combat climate change would convince more people to go along if they sounded somewhat less absolutely, positively, unwaveringly, indisputably certain in their predictions about what is always, after all, an all-too-uncertain future.

Stephens himself predicted in the column that his humble case for humility would cause heads to explode, and sure enough they did. Liberals on Twitter sputtered in indignation, as did several center-left news sites. The Times had hired an apologist for climate change "denialism," proclaimed Slate. According to Vox, he was a "climate change bullsh--ter." (The Week, too, was not immune.) No wonder climate scientists and many others lined up to cancel their subscriptions to the newspaper in protest.

Except that none of it was true. Stephens didn't deny the reality of climate change. He merely dared to advocate a slight rhetorical adjustment to the way environmental activists and their cheering sections at websites like Slate and Vox, and newspapers like the Times, go about making their case to the wider public. What followed was not a reasoned debate about the rhetorical effectiveness of claims to modesty and certainty, dispassionate concern and outright alarmism. Instead, there was simple, pure, satisfying, but politically impotent condemnation: "You can't say that!"

Posted by at May 2, 2017 8:03 AM