In this occasional “stray thoughts” column, editor Nathan J. Robinson offers musings that are too inconsequential or ill-formed to be developed into full articles.
- Ben Shapiro has challenged Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to a debate. Ocasio-Cortez has, sensibly, declined the offer. Is this because she’s “afraid” of him? No, it probably has more to do with the fact that Ben Shapiro is not the sort of person one can have a productive discussion with; he says openly that his mission is to “destroy” leftists. That means that he isn’t trying to sort out ideas and get to the truth, he’s just trying to use debate tricks like the “gish gallop” (saying a lot of dubious things very quickly so that your opponent struggles to respond to them all) to overwhelm his opponent and make himself seem smarter than them. Because he’s very good at this, it’s easy for him to one-up people, and if you’re not a highly experienced debater, you can come away looking foolish even if the things he said made absolutely no sense. As I’ve explained at length, when you actually look at them carefully, Ben Shapiro’s arguments are often fallacious. But he doesn’t need good arguments to win a debate, because debates favor those who are the most glib and confident, both of which Ben Shapiro definitely is. Still, while I understand AOC’s reasons for refusing, I do think that Ben Shapiro can be debated successfully. As one of the world’s foremost scholars of his written work, I have previously offered to debate him, and received no response—though he vaguely mentioned my article in one of his speeches, so I know he knows about it! Perhaps the offer was not formal enough though. Therefore, in collaboration with Maximillian Alvarez of the Baffler and our own Briahna Joy Gray, I am extending a formal invitation to Ben Shapiro, along with Charlie Kirk and Bari Weiss (who also often talk about their love of Discussing Ideas, and so would presumably want to be included). Here’s how Common Dreams rather flatteringly described the Current Affairs offer: Current Affairs editor-in-chief Nathan Robinson—who penned a thorough, measured, and must-read takedown of Shapiro late last year… has repeatedly offered to debate Shapiro in a public forum. Shapiro—despite his repeated insistence that leftists are afraid to debate and that they are dodging him—has never responded to these requests or to Robinson’s piece, but late Thursday Current Affairs seized upon Shapiro’s expressed desire to debate socialism to renew Robinson’s offer. “Let’s talk about socialism,” reads a graphic Current Affairs posted to its Twitter account, calling on Shapiro and two other prominent conservatives to agree to a panel debate with Robinson; Briahna Joy Gray, senior politics editor at The Intercept; and Maximillian Alvarez, a writer at The Baffler. “We’ll even let Ben keep his $10k,” Current Affairs tweeted. “Surely they’d love this!” With the help of fawning profiles in the Times and other major American outlets, Shapiro has fashioned himself as a ruthlessly logical foil of the left, but Current Affairs concluded on Thursday that Shapiro’s unwillingness to actually engage with leftists like Robinson and Gray put the lie to the notion that Shapiro is interested in a serious discussion of ideas. Responding to one Twitter user who offered to reserve a 600-seat University of Michigan auditorium for the proposed panel debate, Current Affairs wrote, “How can they say no? Unless, of course, it turns out that the right actually don’t want to debate ‘ideas.'”
- Speaking of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: When I was in Michigan following the Abdul El-Sayed campaign recently, I got to attend five different events at which she was speaking and see her in action up close. I came away incredibly impressed with her. She is a true asset to the left, and not just because she’s really good on TV. She also happens to be an incredibly hardworking and dedicated person. She had a miserable journey to Michigan with multiple flights canceled and ultimately left JFK at 6am on Saturday, to do three speaking events in three different Michigan cities that day. Every speech she gave was full of energy. She made all of them inspiring, and she did not give generic stump speeches: They were all about Abdul and Michigan, and she had clearly put a lot of work into preparing. She was generous with her time, talking to anyone who approached her and taking pictures with anyone who wanted them, smiling and listening. Over the weekend, she did half a dozen and almost as many press conferences, and in every one she made everything about the Abdul campaign and calculated everything she said to maximize its chances of helping Abdul. There was nothing compelling her to go to a state she isn’t from to support a local candidate who has nothing to do with her own campaign. But she put in an unbelievable amount of effort, she really gave it everything she had. It’s impossible to know what people are really like until you encounter them up close, but I have to say, I came away truly impressed. I have seen people criticize her for being insufficiently socialistic, or not having good answers on some things, and obviously politicians should be held accountable and nobody is exempt. But she’s clearly truly dedicated to advancing the progressive left, and everyone should respect the amount of labor she has been putting in to support others.
- One more thing from Michigan: When I was there, I was struck by how minimal the local media presence was. Most of the reporters following Abdul’s campaign were from the national press. Hardly any local press were present; in one press conference in Ypsilanti, it was me, The Baffler, The Guardian, The Washington Post, the World Socialist Website, and a guy from a local high school newspaper. Local media, as everyone knows, has been decimated over the past decades. In Michigan, Ann Arbor no longer has a real local press, and the function of a local newspaper is served by the University of Michigan student newspaper. Many papers have been absorbed into the mostly-online “MLive,” and the Detroit Free Press is owned by USA Today. I was told that there are only seven or eight full-time political reporters left in the state. (The state legislature has well over 100 members!) I genuinely think this contributed to Abdul’s loss. All of the candidates in the race struggled with name recognition, but some of them had the money to purchase extensive television advertising. Abdul did not. When there is a strong local press, it informs the public about the candidates and covers the race. When there’s no press, the race doesn’t get covered. There was shockingly little coverage of the governor’s race, even though it was for the top office in the state. This means that candidates with more money to purchase attention have even more of an advantage than they ordinarily would. A bad, bad situation and another argument for why it’s so important to support independent political media.
- Caitlin Flanagan has an article in the Atlantic called “Why The Left Is So Afraid of Jordan Peterson.” Flanagan says that people on the left cannot deal with Peterson’s arguments, and do not understand his appeal. I have previously written a 10,000 word article dealing with Peterson’s arguments and explaining his appeal, an article which Peterson himself was unable to respond to with anything other than a couple of dismissive tweets (one of which was just an outright logical fallacy). Flanagan thinks leftists fear Peterson because he shows that “identity politics” is foolish. Eric Levitz of New York magazine has capably explained that this is not, in fact, the source of left criticisms of Peterson. Instead, we dislike him because he pushes incoherent and harmful ideas. Furthermore, it’s not even clear what Flanagan means by “identity politics.” Levitz points out that Flanagan calls Barack Obama “the poet laureate of identity politics,” which is weird, because one of the central themes of Obama’s rhetoric has always been the importance of transcending difference. Levitz says the only thing making Obama a practitioner of “identity politics” is that he is “an African-American who participated in politics.” I do think many people on the right seem to think that “identity politics” means any acknowledgment by people on the left that race affects people. If you’d like some criticisms of the way “progressives” have used identity, though, you don’t need to turn to Jordan Peterson when you could read Briahna Joy Gray’s excellent “How Identity Became A Weapon Against The Left,” which is also collected in our book The Current Affairs Mindset. (And for more on Peterson, be sure to pre-order my upcoming book The Current Affairs Rules For Life from our online store.) I’v actually written about Flanagan before, when she misstated the views of Noam Chomsky, seeing him as someone who thinks “intellectuals” are more important than other people when he is actually an anarchist who is radically critical of this idea (which he associates with Lenin). Our attempts to point out Flanagan’s error to her were not received well. I have long thought that many of those who say they want to discuss ideas do not actually care to discuss ideas. Flanagan’s Jordan Peterson piece is yet more confirmation.
- Speaking of bad arguments in the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has a piece called “Democratic Socialism Threatens Minorities.” I do not think it is very good. The central problem is that Friedersdorf conflates “democracy” and “majority rule.” His argument is that if the democratic socialists had their way, and there was more popular input into the economy, the economy would become racist, because many people are racists. Here’s a quote: Many young people who say they’re “democratic socialists” may fail to grasp all that minorities would lose if democracy were radically less constrained by the political and economic system under which we currently live. Control over industry and decisions about what to produce would reside in state planning agencies. And imagine their decisions perfectly, if improbably, reflect the actual democratic will of workers, whether in the nation; or a state, like Ohio or Utah; or a metropolitan area, like Maricopa County or Oklahoma City.” … Popular control is finally realized! So: How popular is Islam? How many Muslim prayer rugs would the democratic majority of workers vote to produce? It’s true: If we simply let majorities make all decisions, minorities would suffer. But that’s why leftists who talk about “democracy” do not mean “51% of the vote.” In fact, a lot of socialist thinking has been devoted to figuring out how to protect minority interests against tyrannical majorities. This is the whole reason for the kind of “consensus process” that was used by the anarchists of Occupy Wall Street, which is designed to make sure that all viewpoints are taken into account. Democratic socialism, at least when the words “democratic” and “socialism” are taken seriously, means trying to design egalitarian institutions, i.e. ones where people have equal power rather than some people or groups dominating others. Capitalism, on the other hand, is like an election in which some people get one vote, some people get negative votes and some people get 150 billion votes. More importantly than all of this, though, Friedersdorf seems to be talking about a centralized command economy in which a single government body directs all of production, which is not at all what many democratic socialists are advocating. Instead, as Matt Bruenig explains, democracy involves a certain decentralization of authority, and a system in which “planning is done in a more dispersed way by the multitude of socialist firms.” What is often called “market” socialism (a term I dislike, because it’s misleading) still involves satisfying consumer preferences, just with lots of popularly-owned firms. Just imagine that instead of shareholders in our nation’s largest companies being disproportionately wealthy, they were the general public. I strongly recommend that Conor Friedersdorf read some more books on socialism before writing further articles about it.
- For more bad arguments in the Atlantic, here is a piece from Adam Serwer called “The White Nationalists Are Winning.” Actually, this one isn’t so bad, I just don’t like the framing much. Serwer is right that white nationalists are naturally pretty pleased at the direction of U.S. government policy. But his caveats are very important: The alt-right is not doing well, and Nazis remain incredibly unpopular. As he says, The attempted rebranding of white nationalism as the genteel and technologically savvy alt-right failed… the alt-right and its fellow travelers were never going to be able to assemble a mass movement…many of the white nationalists associated with the rally in Charlottesville have since suffered disgrace, ridicule, or legal consequences. Serwer says, though, that their goals have are being pursued by the Republican Party instead. I accept this, sort of, although I think this statement is amusingly off-base: “American history is replete with tragedies that are epic in scale, but few are comparable to what has happened to the party of Lincoln.” The “party of Lincoln” hasn’t been the party of Lincoln since Lincoln, and even Lincoln was a racist. Let’s be careful not to draw too many distinctions between today’s Republican Party and the supposedly better or more noble Republican Party of ages past. The Radical Republicans of the 19th century were great, but for the last hundred years or so there’s been little to respect about the party, and I tend to caution people over and over against “Trump exceptionalism,” which treats Trump as some kind of departure from the Republican norm.
- A few weeks ago I wrote about a somewhat disturbing incident I saw at 2am at a diner in New York City. A woman, who appeared to not be in her right mind, had passed out in one of the booths. When the EMTs arrived, though, they seemed much more concerned with shaming her for not having enough money to pay her bill than with helping her. I was struck by how little they seemed to care about the experience of the person they were supposed to be aiding. Well, in response to that, I receive an email from a man named David Anderson, who had worked as a volunteer EMT in Connecticut. David said that while there was no justification for what the EMTs did, it is actually quite common to see that attitude, but it’s partly a product of the dysfunctional private ambulance system. EMTs are overworked and underpaid, turnover is high, and many of them become resentful and frustrated. David’s email was so fascinating that I asked him to write an article about why having emergency medical services privatized is a problem. Today, we’ve published that article, and I’m very proud of how it came out. Thank you, David!
- Lately I have spent a lot of time pondering sea creatures. I went to the aquarium this weekend and spent ages gazing at stingrays and seahorses. Now I am watching Blue Planet II. Here is a cool clip from it in which a fish jumps out of the water and eats a flying bird. And another one about a transgender fish. The ocean is so extraordinary. How fortunate we are to have all these strange and wonderful beings on the planet alongside us. I hope we don’t kill them all through our greed and destructiveness.
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