May 6, 2003

· Politics

We all have our vices, I suppose. Dan Drezner has a weakness for empty arguments of the form “Why are liberals less x than conservatives?” where x is any virtue you choose. “Fun,” for instance, or “incisive” or “tall” or, in the present instance, “cosmopolitan.” As vices go, it’s a small one. I mean, it’s not as if Dan is giving lectures about the need to curb our appetites, pocketing his $50,000 speaker fee, and then sneaking off to Atlantic City.

Dan links to this piece by Michael J. Totten. The premise is that “liberals and leftists are bored by the outside world.” Totten quotes Gary Farber’s diagnoisis:

One problem I see is that only some leftists I know have actually engaged in a years-long course of education in the history of international politics (no, Howard Zinn isn’t sufficient), or long study of military theory and history, or even, in many cases, long study of political history that isn’t simply doctrinaire propaganda from a similar didactic point of view.

Now my first reaction to this was, this is trivially true and it cuts both ways. I for one have not engaged in a years-long study of military theory. But that is because I was engaged in the years long study of something else. Similarly, only some of the rightists I know have actually engaged in a years-long courses of education in these subjects, often for the same reason. Closer inspection, however, reveals that the last clause of Farber’s sentence—”that isn’t simply doctrinaire propaganda from a similar didactic point of view”—transforms it from a banal empirical observation into a self-confirming piece of ideological nonsense. If I produce a hundred liberals with Ph.Ds in history or international politics, Farber will assert that their years of study were filled with “simply doctrinaire propaganda.” So his generalization is immunized. QED.

The quality of the argument goes down from there. It’s the usual combination of confident generalization followed a few paragraphs later by “of course there are many exceptions”. For instance, Totten asserts that liberal magazines “rarely feature articles about what happens in other countries.” Oh yeah, except “The New Republic and Dissent both publish excellent analyses of international relations and foreign policy.” Similarly, “If you want to find a person who knows the history of pre-war Nazi Germany, the Middle East during the Cold War, or the partition of India and Pakistan, you’re better off looking to the right than to the left.” Now, earlier conservative argument may have convinced you that the history and political science departments of American universities are filled with liberal professors. Might some of these know anything about, say, Nazi Germany? Aha, you have forgotten the “simply doctrinaire propaganda” clause I mentioned earlier.

Gathering speed, Totten goes on to assert that

The far-left says Republicans are Nazis. And the far-right says Democrats are socialists or even Communists… but the reason it happens is very different for each side.

Radical leftists think the Bush Administration is like the Nazi Party for one specific reason. They haven’t studied the rise of the Nazis. They truly believe the comparison is apt not because they misunderstand Republicans, but because they misunderstand Hitler.

Far-right conservatives have the opposite problem. They understand Lenin perfectly well. It’s the Democrats they don’t understand.

Why didn’t I see this before? For years I had thought that phrases like “Feminazi” were cheap pieces of political abuse thrown by conservatives who knew nothing of Nazism, or indeed feminism. But now I see that this term has its origins in Rush Limbaugh’s deep knowledge of Lenin and his writings, no doubt obtained after “a years-long course of education” undertaken while avoiding military service in Vietnam.

So the piece further disintegrates into a contrast between “builders” (liberals) and “defenders” (conservatives). Builders are concerned with “the immediate surrounding environment” whereas defenders “are on the lookout for threats,” which makes them interested in foreign countries and history. Applying this disctinction to Scenes from the History of U.S. Foreign Policy is left as an exercise to the reader. Begin with the Marshall Plan. Years of study await you.

What’s happening here is that Michael is looking For A Nice Angle. You know, like the ones those clever writers for the New Yorker or the New Republic are so good at coming up with—vaguely provocative, challenging of the conventional wisdom, and just plausible enough to sustain a 750 word column. Michael’s Angle is, Conservatives are the True Cosmopolitans. Unfortunately, there are far more Nice Angles than good arguments. Just because you think one up doesn’t mean its remotely plausible.

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I am Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center. Learn more.

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