17 April 2019

Debating the terms of debate

Daniel O'Connor, a Jewish student who attends college in Virginia after graduating from an Albany school, is understandably sick and tired of being called a Nazi. He belongs to Turning Point USA, which he describes as "one of the fastest growing student organizations in the nation." As a Turning Point member, he gets called a Nazi, from what we can tell from his article in an Albany paper, because he promotes "limited government, personal liberty and the free-market system." O'Connor notes that Turning Point has no set position on "social issues" and welcomes people from all walks of life. Nevertheless, campus leftists call Turning Point a "hate" group. Unsurprisingly, O'Connor blames this on the intellectual laziness of most college students, claiming that "many young people have never been challenged by opposing ideas during their entire education." You can't help but agree that it's incredibly lazy, if also impulsively satisfying to some, to call all right-wingers Nazis, even if you defer to the simplistic mindset that places Nazis and Republican conservatives in the common category of "cruelty." Once someone talks about limited government it should be clear that that person isn't a Nazi in any historically meaningful sense. Labels aside, the problem people like O'Connor face on campuses is the assumption that their position is essentially a cruel one. O'Connor challenges those who disagree with his ideology to "think of a counterargument, defend your position, try to poke holes in mine." There's something naive, if not clueless, in that challenge --  and not because O'Connor's opponents are uninterested in debate.

O'Connor doesn't seem to realize that the debate has become more radical or fundamental than whatever he prepared for. Because more people are talking about socialism lately, he expects a familiar debate about "free thought, individualism and keeping government out of people's way." Those are all means to an end that many on the left have rejected, along with many of the first premises of the usual Cold War debates. Leftists today, I suspect, are less interested in the particulars of socialism or the differences between Marxian or "democratic" socialism than in affirming an absolute, unconditional entitlement to life and dignity. From their standpoint, anything that smacks of the old sink-or-swim ethos or denies that a civilized world owes everyone a living might as well be Nazism, given its apparent indifference to whether people live or die. If O'Connor is any indication, many Republican conservatives haven't caught on to how the terms of debate have changed and so are sincerely caught by surprise by the unprecedented vehemence with which their old talking points are rejected. They can lecture the left on how to debate, but if Republican conservatives really want a meaningful debate they need to put away their Adam Smith and their Edmund Burke and their Ronald Reagan playbook and find fresh answers elsewhere to this more fundamental challenge. The issue, as far as people like O'Connor are concerned, shouldn't be whether socialism or "big government" can ever give people what they want, but whether people are right to want what they want in the first place. Obviously, there's no guarantee that this debate will be more civil than those the O'Connors of our time already have endured, since it still boils down to whether the world owes anyone a living, but at least it would have people talking less about Marx or Lenin or Stalin -- "I won't call you a Stalinist," O'Connor promises -- and more about the desires and fears that really drive people today.

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