Here’s what I don’t get. Ideally, in a well-run society of intelligent people, you need to advance arguments for your position. You can’t just wave your arms up and down, claim “It’s not right!” and expect that to be the end of it. And your own personal disgust isn’t grounds for anything. When you enter the public sphere, you’re supposed to present *arguments*.
Now, granted, sometimes — often — personal disgust sells things. It shouldn’t, but it does. I’m convinced that the fundamental belief underlying opposition to gay marriage, for instance, is that opponents believe anal sex between men is disgusting. (If the gay-marriage debate were about *lesbians’* right to marry, I doubt it would be nearly this acrimonious.) There have been lots of purported “arguments” over the years against gay marriage, but none of them amount to anything at all. “Marriage is about raising children”: sure, but what about childless couples? “But won’t this lead to pedophilia and bestiality?”: obviously not, because obviously we only support marriage between consenting adults. And so forth. The problem with these arguments isn’t that they’re wrong, it’s that they’re *incredibly* wrong. They’re remarkably simple to swat down. It’s so simple to swat them down that they don’t even count as arguments. They’re not arguments; they’re reflexes. They’re meant to make other people raise their fists in agreement; they’re culturally evocative totems, not arguments. I’m not obliged to respond to your culturally evocative totem, and you’re not obliged to respond to mine. We’re only obliged to respond to arguments made in good faith. And so far as I can tell, no one has made any such arguments against gay marriage.
Nor have they made any such arguments against the “mosque” in lower Manhattan. The only “argument” I’ve seen is essentially that the wound from 9/11 is too raw, and that the area around Ground Zero is holy in some way. But clearly the “mosque”‘s opponents would have no problem with a Christian or Jewish (or Buddhist, or Zoroastrian) place of worship in that area. So the fundamental argument against the mosque, so far as I can tell, is that *Muslims as collectively guilty for 9/11*.
That’s it, right? Everyone knows that that’s the subtext beneath the entire dispute. If you can find some other, deeper reason why the “mosque” shouldn’t be built there, let me know, but I’ve certainly not seen it. And when Newt Gingrich says that “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia”, it’s clear that he means exactly what I’ve suggested. All Muslims are responsible for 9/11, so there’s some kind of global [foreign: quid pro quo] that requires the Muslims everywhere to pay for the crimes of Muslims anywhere.
Put that way, I hope everyone would acknowledge that it’s a profoundly stupid, offensive, and false proposition. A tweet asking whether, since Tim McVeigh was Catholic, no churches should be allowed near the Murrah Federal Building sums it up as well as anything could.
And that’s it. That’s all they’ve got.
The debate became immediately confused, like they always do, by the meta issue of how this will affect [choose your favorite politician] in [choose your favorite upcoming race], or more specifically whether this will make Democrats look like pussies on what should be a morally clear issue (answer: yes). But all of that is immaterial. And doesn’t it just needlessly exhaust you? It exhausts me. There are a lot of things to think about in this life. There are a lot of things to get mad about. There are a lot of arguments to have about a lot of really important things. Becoming a morally aware adult, it turns out, is really hard.
If a lot of people are upset about the “mosque” in lower Manhattan, that is their business. If so many people are upset about it that it will cause some politicians to lose their jobs because they’re insensitive to others’ concerns, it is the politicians’ business to care about that. It is not my business to care about that. It is my business, as a rational member of a democratic society, to look at the arguments put forward against the Cordoba House and judge them on their merits. And there are no arguments. Shouldn’t that settle it?
Forgive me if this is an oversimplification of how democracies work. It certainly is. There’s a time and a place to engage in spirited rat-fucking. Other times, you just have to claw through the confusion on these issues, acknowledge that they really have no argument, and move on.
“When you enter the public sphere, youre supposed to present arguments.”
That, right there, is why the left is losing.
On something specific like the mosque controversy or gay marriage, tell me what we ought to do differently. Essentially in both cases we need to respond to irrational gut instincts, right? The way you overcome that in the case of gay marriage, I hope, is by
a) appealing to the better angels of people’s natures
b) appealing to deeper-seated ideals that override the gut revulsion (e.g., freedom, the Constitution, etc.)
In the case of the mosque, it’s the same way:
a) Most Muslims are peace-loving
b) The Constitution, and our ideals, demand respect and tolerance for all religions
c) It’s not actually at Ground Zero
d) Respect private property
Those are arguments.
The alternative to arguments is
a) impugning the other guys’ reputations
b) impugning their motives
c) distracting with unrelated issues
d) the raw exercise of power
Anything else you’d recommend in here?
Seems to me that using actual arguments — accompanied by Jon Stewart-style sarcasm — wins. Am I wrong?
Arguing about the mosque means we lose, because any conversation on the topic is the sound of us losing. No one who fears Muslims will be convinced, but the bigger the “issue” gets the more people the Republicans loop into their pre-election program of racist Two Minutes Hate.
Instead, progressives should concoct their own controversy — or use a real one, like the denial of health care to 9/11 workers — and then employ the same message discipline that the conservatives have to shove it down the country’s throat until THAT is what everyone is talking about. But that discipline is lacking.
I can get behind that, for sure.
As for gay marriage, no argument in the national conversation is going to work … targeting minority groups and countering messages about children in local fights with similar emotional appeals (based on the gay people the target audience might know in their daily lives) could help some.
This is why I hate people.
This LS person is onto something, but god damn do we rational people need a Glenn Beck of our own to rally around. Why is it that this shit is so hard for us? I’m not sure I want an answer so much as I want someone to stand up on the national stage and just summon us all into whatever the liberal equivalent of the fucking Tea Party would be.
“That, right there, is why the left is losing.”
By what definition of losing is the left “losing”? I suppose if you define winning as turning in the U.S. into Sweden, and anything short of winning as losing, then you could argue the left is losing. But that’s a lousy definition of losing.
If you take any substantial dispute from the last 400 years that has broken down across left vs. right lines, from Roundheads versus Cavaliers to school prayer, the left ultimately wins 90%+ of the time. Even apparent victories by the right have either been a) a very limited rollback of policies created by the left (welfare reform) or b) Pyhrric victories that achieved little in the short term and backfired in the long term. For instance, the neocons got their war, but ten years later conservative foreign policy is entirely discredited and the U.S. is leaving with its tail between its legs.
I can understand an argument that says the left should avoid getting complacent with its victories. But I cannot understand an argument that says the left is actually losing.
The idea that the left should adopt underhanded, demogoguery a la Glenn Beck would be raising the white flag. Insofar as you are willing to stand on principle in politics, you will sometimes find yourself at odds with “your own” party. This is as true for conservatives as for liberals. The idea that you need to give up on principle to “win” is to gain victory in a battle in order to forfeit the war.
But Steve — you are incorrect that there are “no arguments” against the MCC or gay marriage. The argument against gay marriage is twofold: 1) Marriage is “by definition” a contractual relationship between a man and a woman for the purpose of raising children. Now, it may not be always correctly entered into, it may be dissolved (all bad things, presumably), but the argument is one based on the analysis of the concept. (I’m not saying this is a good argument, but it’s an argument.) 2) Homosexuality is deviant sexual behavior, thus it shouldn’t be licensed by the state. This argument is based on a particular “natural law” view of human sexuality that holds that there are right and wrong ways (instituted by nature–God) of copulating. Just as we shouldn’t license extra-marital affairs, pre-marital sex, or masturbation (so the argument goes), we shouldn’t license homosexuality. (Again, I don’t agree with this argument, but it’s an argument.)
As for the MCC: the “argument” by the more rational among those who are against it is not that they don’t have a “right” to build the Muslim community center there, but that it is in bad taste, it is disrespectful, or in some sense insensitive. In light of the nature of this claim, clearly appeals to personal disgust are warranted, though there is some question how far this should range in a free society. Makes me think of political correctness…
‘1) Marriage is by definition a contractual relationship between a man and a woman for the purpose of raising children.’
That’s not an argument, though. That’s a postulate. To quote Bertrand Russell from the “Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy”: “The method of ‘postulating’ what we want has many advantages; they are the same as the advantages of theft over honest toil.” I could just as well postulate that marriage is “by definition” a contract between two people who love one another.
“2) Homosexuality is deviant sexual behavior, thus it shouldnt be licensed by the state. ”
That strikes me as more in the nature of an argument. The people who would advance it would be those who also object to granting lots of other civil rights to gay people. I mean, if the state shouldn’t condone homosexuality, then it should forbid sodomy and so forth. Barring that, maybe gay marriage is the “this, and no further” of their side.
‘not that they dont have a right to build the Muslim community center there, but that it is in bad taste, it is disrespectful, or in some sense insensitive.’
Seems to me, though, that if you go one level down, this just returns to the argument that I contend is the basis for all arguments against the community center. Namely: why is it in bad taste, disrespectful, or insensitive? Would it be in bad taste for Christians to build a church there? (Or for Christians to build a church near the Murrah Federal Building, for that matter.) Presumably they’d say no. Why? Because it’s in bad taste for Muslims to build a community center there. Why is that in bad taste? Because Muslims perpetrated 9/11. Clearly there’s a collective-guilt argument lurking there, no?
It is mostly pointless to logically go through this. In difficult times, fear is easy to foment. The Republicans (I refuse to call them “conservative” or even “the right” these days) have mastered capturing and amplifying the instinctual fear emotions of the majority of the country. Through language and repetition they have a brainwashing-like control over a huge number of people. It always strikes me as odd when Jon Stewart mocks Republicans/Fox News by showing them repeating the exact same talking point over and over–to me that is how you get your point across to an ignorant populace.
This is all calculated. Newt Gingrich is a very bright person. He doesn’t personally care at all about the mosque except for serving as an election issue so his group has the best chance of winning in the upcoming elections. The ignorant, emotionally swayed, easily fooled portion of our country is really much of the swing vote now. For a long time they tended towards Democratic but over the past decade they’ve been moving Republican.
The average American could not name a single Muslim American. No, they don’t know that Dave Chapelle, Fareed Zakaria, or even Muhammed Ali are Muslim.
I’m sure your ideal world is a great place.
Andrew, just because demagoguery exists and winning a political argument doesn’t depend on good argumentation, doesn’t mean it’s fruitless to examine arguments.
BTW, Ross Douthat presents another position that strikes me as extraordinarily flimsy that is none of the above mentioned: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/09/opinion/09douthat.html?ref=rossdouthat. It’s as if he concedes that marriage is simply a constructed and empirically vanishing ideal, but we should hold onto it anyway because of Ward and June Cleaver.
Anyway, Steve, you take a substantive philosophical position when you claim that there can be no arguments, only postulations, about definition. Most of these people (true believers) are essentialists. So, for them there are real meanings to words and when we misunderstand or misuse words, we are violating some metaphysical property of the universe. This is not a particularly popular position among philosophers, but it’s out there and sometimes it’s worth engaging. I mean ostention (which is what you suggest) is not really viable either. There are relatively stable concepts that have real meanings, but even these change; they’re not entirely created by us, but they probably don’t exist independently from us. So, it’s complicated.