Thursday, March 31, 2005

Jonathan Chait Responds

Not to me, of course. He's much too busy for that. Jonah Goldberg might have the decency of at least linking to me, but Chait completely ignores me, not once, but twice. Man, I'm starting to feel used. But he did respond to Goldberg as part of their so-called duel. And while it was certainly better than his first attempt, it was clearly inferior to my own response. And he even had the benefit of being able to read my response, which I personally emailed to him (and he promptly ignored). So he has no one to blame but himself for blowing it so badly.

His main problem is that he still seems fairly themeless. I guess maybe he has some tough deadlines, but it really doesn't look like he had time for a coherent argument. Instead, it's kind of a scattershot of attacking various parts of Goldberg's rebuttal, without ever going for the kill. And that's bad news when debating a dissembler, as they can just pick off your little arguments, rather than facing the brunt of your theme.

Again, when thinking of Goldberg, the analogy of a debate-terrorist comes to mind. He can't win from a direct assault because he's just plain wrong, but he'll attack every little premise for either being too vague or overly specific. And then finally claim victory, on the idea that attacking your opponent's minor arguments is always enough to undermine the entire argument. That's what Goldberg did after their first confrontation, and that's what he'll do tomorrow. Chait needed to have his forces consolidated behind a powerful theme, and then allowed his arguments to stem directly from that theme, without letting his lines of communication be disrupted. As it is, enough of his troops will be picked off one by one by a professional debate-sniper like Goldberg; thus allowing him to claim that he defeated Chait's theme.

Style, Not Substance

And the crux of Chait's problem is that he takes Goldberg's arguments seriously. In fact, that is the primary flaw of all of the left-wing pundits. They try to debate the substance of their opponents arguments, rather than the arguments themselves. But the implications of Chait's own original theme shows why that's such a mistake. The main theme is that liberals are people who want to make the world a better place and seek out evidence which points them to the best way to do that. But conservatives start from the opposite point. They believe that they already know what will make the world a better place, and seek out evidence which can be used to justify those actions and convince others. That was the premise that got Chait into this mess to begin with, starting the duel with Goldberg.

But the natural conclusion of this premise is that, because they are so convinced that the end goal is correct, they must assume that any evidence to the contrary is obviously flawed and/or irrelevant. They have no other choice. If you know that your shirt is blue, and someone tells you that you have a red shirt, you would be a fool to even consider their opinion on it, even if they're a fashion expert. Equally, if you know you're 30 years old, and your drivers license says your 31; you'd be a fool for not ignoring your drivers license, even if it's a government document. There should be no consideration or debate of a fact that you know to be false. So, if you know that Iraq must be attacked, or that taxes must be cut, or that Social Security is socialism, or that Medicare is be bad for America, you'd be a fool for contemplating any fact that goes contrary to that. That's just the way their logic works. And so it does no good to attack the substance of their arguments, as the substance is merely window-dressing for their premise. If you disprove one fact or argument, they'll just replace it with another as the fact or argument isn't the basis for their premise and they've lost nothing.

They didn't need evidence of WMD's; they already knew they were there.
They didn't need evidence to show that tax cuts help the economy more than they cost; they know it's true.
And they don't need evidence to know that Social Security is on a dead-end path.

They knew that it was simply a matter of time until history proved them right. All they need is the opportunity to implement their plans and everything must fall into place; and nothing can dissuade them from that. And even when all of this turns out to be wrong, they will find some rationalization for why it didn't work. The WMD's are in Syria, or still hidden in the desert, or they were found and the MSM just won't tell us. Or whatever. The specific reason doesn't matter at all because they know that their initial premise was correct. For them, evidence is what you give the other guy. Similarly, to ask for proof of God is proof that you aren't a true believer. Only nonbelievers require proof.

And that's the exact reason why arguing substance with them makes no sense. They cannot accept any fact, evidence, or argument which goes counter to their primary belief. They just can't. You can't have anything to say which can throw them off. It's not that they're stubborn or stupid (though they may be), it's just that they know you're wrong. You must be wrong. And if you're not wrong, then their entire worldview and everything they know is destroyed; and it's much easier to find a vague loophole in your argument or ignore it all together. If the context is against them, they'll change the context. Again, if their initial premise is correct, they'd be fools to think any other way.

How to Debate a Conservative

So does this preclude us from having any kind of debate with them? Of course not. But it should significantly alter the way that we think about these debates (and if it doesn't alter it, then you're probably not a liberal). Rather than debating the meat and potatoes of our case, we have to address their actual argument style, as that's all they have left. Take my rebuttal of Goldberg, for example. I didn't state my case. I didn't present evidence. I merely dissected his argument and showed how, flim-flam aside, it only confirmed Chait's argument. And that's the thing about being right: flim-flam and sophistry can only get you so far, but in the end, you have to be right to be right. It must be that way. So if you can just remove the flim-flam, the truth will become obvious.

And what of my argument earlier that Goldberg is actually a liberal Republican and not a conservative? Does that fall? Of course not. He really does believe that government should be used to solve the problems that it is able to solve. He says so himself. And that puts him at odds with conservatives like Reagan who believed that "government does not solve problems; it subsidizes them". But his problem is that he's trapped. He considers himself to be a Republican. And good Republicans are supposed to be conservative. And conservatives have all the great rhetoric and tons of fun and he writes for a conservative magazine, so he must be a conservative. And because the conservatives work on an overall premise that does not require proof, he has been forced to adopt their methods. So he grabs his conservative argument and pushes his liberal little brain to the max trying to make some sense of it. But it's fairly nonsensical, which is why he requires such a high level of flim-flam to make any kind of argument.

And that's also why he couldn't comprehend Chait's argument at all, an admission he explicitly stated. Overall, he doesn't really believe that limited government is the ends that he seeks, so he couldn't debate against it. Chait gave an argument against conservatives that Goldberg agreed with, but Goldberg didn't want to agree because he calls himself a conservative. So he was basically screwed. But Chait seems to have missed that completely and allowed Goldberg to hide in arguments which Chait knew were full of crap. He's so busy defending himself against Goldberg's attacks, that he doesn't even realize that they're both in agreement; which is the entire purpose of the conservative attack style.

But I guess that's what you get when you send journalists to do a man's work.

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