THE WAY WE ARGUE: The liberal world and the dogma rules!


Part 5—Increasingly, we want our Maypo:
Just for the record, we aren’t big fans of Sam Harris’ anti-religionism.

For ourselves, we don’t have any religious or cosmological views, aside from the view that we humans are very poorly equipped to answer cosmological questions.

That said, we the humans have always been religious. It’s kind of silly to think that we the liberal intellectuals can find a way to stamp that out.

As a political matter, the impulse toward that approach also seems counter-productive.

What about Harris’ interest in the views of Muslims worldwide? We have no particular thought about that, in part because of Ben Affleck.

Uh-oh! On October 3, Harris began discussing his views on Real Time with Bill Maher. To watch the whole segment, click here.

The gent didn’t get very far. Eighty-seven seconds into the segment, Affleck staged his first interruption. Excluding Maher’s introduction, Harris had spoken for 43 seconds at that point.

Seconds later, Affleck grossly misparaphrased something Harris had said. (Affleck: “You’re saying that Islamophobia is not a real thing.”) And alas!

Before two minutes had passed in the program, Affleck had dropped the first of the several R-bombs he would unloose. This is the type of racist statement Harris had made at that point:
HARRIS (10/3/14): I’m not denying that certain people are bigoted against Muslims as people. And that’s a problem.
“That’s big of you,” Affleck sarcastically said. Seconds later, his first bombs were dropped.

Affleck’s remarkable sense of grievance created a striking discussion. As we noted yesterday, it’s hard to find any factual disagreements between the allegedly racist Harris and the aggrieved racist-hunter Affleck.

Nicholas Kristof supported Affleck in the televised discussion, and in a later New York Times column. He dropped his own R-bombs in both settings—but in his column, he kept repeating the sorts of things Harris and Maher had said during the TV program.

For these reasons, we think that October 3 “TV brawl” provides a fascinating picture of The Way We Argue.

Alas! Increasingly, we liberals argue in the ways we long derided among those in the other tribe. Increasingly, we insist on hearing our treasured frameworks and dogmas to the exclusion of everything else.

Increasingly, we drop our bombs on those who refuse to comply with our desires, even when we seem to agree with every word these Others have viciously said.

Increasingly, this is The Way We Argue. In our view, a modern nation can’t function this way. It’s hard to believe that progressive advances will result from this unimpressive conduct.

Why was Affleck so aggrieved that night? On a rational basis, we’d have to say there was no obvious cause.

Once again, we’ll suggest you review the full road to the first of his several bombs. This is the full discussion by Harris which led to “You shifty Jew:”
HARRIS (10/3/14): Well, liberals have really failed on the topic of theocracy. They’ll criticize white theocracy. They’ll criticize Christians. They’ll still get agitated about the abortion clinic bombing that happened in 1984.

(Maher chuckles)

But when you want to talk about the treatment of women and homosexuals and free thinkers and public intellectuals in the Muslim world, I would argue that liberals have failed us. And the crucial point of confusion—

(Audience applauds)

HARRIS: Yes. Thank you. The crucial point of confusion is that we have been sold this meme of Islamophobia, where every criticism of the doctrine of Islam gets conflated with bigotry toward Muslims as people.

MAHER: Right.

HARRIS: And that is intellectually ridiculous.

AFFLECK: So hold on! Are you the person who understands the officially codified doctrine of Islam? You’re the interpreter of that, so you can say, “Well this is—”

HARRIS: I'm actually well-educated on this topic.

AFFLECK: I’m asking you! So you’re saying, if I criticize— You’re saying that Islamophobia is not a real thing. That if you’re critical of something—

MAHER (ironically): Well, it’s not a real thing when we do it.


MAHER: It really isn’t.

HARRIS: I’m not denying that, that certain people are bigoted against Muslims as people. And that’s a problem.

AFFLECK (sarcastically): That’s big of you.

HARRIS: But the—

MAHER: But why are you so hostile about this concept?

AFFLECK: Because it’s gross, it’s racist.

MAHER: It’s not. It’s—but it’s so not.

AFFLECK: It’s so— It’s like saying, “You’re a shifty Jew.”
Somewhat pitifully, that was all it took.

It didn’t take much to set Affleck off—to persuade him to unloose his bombs. By the end of the ten minutes, Kristof had also signed on for the fight, though he was more refined than Affleck.

“This does have a tinge, a little bit, of the way white racists talk about African-Americans and define blacks by black criminals, which are not representative,” Kristof said at the nine-minute mark. Our advice?

Beware of pundits who claim that they can detect “tinges!” More importantly, beware of scribes who will drop our most sensitive bombs on the basis of such perceived “tinges.”

Warning! Such pundits will often be looking for ways to state their own preferred frameworks and dogmas. There may be nothing “wrong” with those frameworks. There may be something we can gain from hearing those frameworks advanced.

But there is something wrong—something badly wrong—when pundits are willing to drop our most consequential bombs on the basis of small disagreements. Affleck did that all through the ten-minute “brawl.” Kristof followed suit in his subsequent column.

In truth, Harris had said nothing even dimly racist when Affleck dropped the first of his bombs.

When Kristof wrote his subsequent column, he included an R-bomb and a B-bomb. But it’s amazingly hard to find the place where he actually disagreed with anything Harris had said.

What explains the willingness to strike that way on the basis of small disagreements? (To the extent that any disagreement can be found at all.) The answer lies in the realm of dogma—in the attractiveness dogma may have for our small little brains.

We liberals are good at mocking conservatives when they repeat the tedious scripts they’re handed by Rush and Sean. As Harris noted in the passage above, we’re often good at mocking the dogmas of white Christians.

It’s harder for us to see how dumb we liberals are when we insist on our own treasured scripts. Increasingly, though, that is The Way We Argue over here in our own “liberal” world. And uh-oh:

Historically, when liberals start behaving this way, it leads to conservative triumphs.

Where can this “liberal” trend be seen? We’ll offer two suggestions today, although we’ll put off the analyses till next week.

For starters, we’ll suggest you consider the types of analyses emerging from young liberal writers concerning a range of sexual questions. As we noted last week, we think Salon’s Katie McDonough is the most interesting of these young writers, though we don’t necessarily mean that as a compliment.

To liberals like Affleck, every wayward statement about the world’s different populations will quickly be scored as “racism.” To writers like McDonough, sexual encounters which go bad will almost inevitably be scored as “rape.”

In our view, this dogmatic reaction leads McDonough to judgments which sometimes tilt toward being quite dumb. Here’s the problem:

Pleasing though such judgments may be to a certain strain of liberal, people in the wider world will perceive these judgments as dumb. In such ways, writers like McDonough have often triggered counter-reactions which badly harm progressive causes.

It can be hard for liberals to see this. But these counter-reactions are often justified on the merits.

Here’s a second suggestion. For another example of dogmatic liberal writing, consider Margaret Sullivan’s recent posts about the Shonda Rhimes flap.

Sullivan is the New York Times public editor. Rhimes is the highly successful TV producer whose most recent series is called How To Get Away with Murder.

Here's the background to the recent debate:

On September 21, Times TV writer Alessandra Stanley offered a 1500-word review of Rhimes and her work.

As Sullivan correctly noted, the piece was “intended to be in praise of Rhimes.” That said, the piece struck many readers as offensive and racist. Sullivan offered two long posts about the furor, in the course of which she endorsed the complaints.

(Sullivan: “The readers and commentators are correct to protest this story. Intended to be in praise of Ms. Rhimes, it delivered that message in a condescending way that was–at best–astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch.” For her second post, click here.)

Was Sullivan right in her judgment? We’re not sure. In large part, this is why:

In her two long posts about this matter, Sullivan makes no attempt to justify or explain the judgment she stated. It was clear that she sided with those who complained. But at no point did she attempt to say why.

(Warning! Simply calling something “tone-deaf” isn’t an explanation.)

We were struck by the lack of explanation or argument in Sullivan’s lengthy posts. Still, the analysts didn’t start to cry until they saw the piece in praise of her work at Salon.

In the lengthy piece, Simon van Zuylen-Wood went on and on about the way Sullivan has changed the role of the ombudsman. Here’s the way he started:
VAN ZUYLEN-WOOD (10/13/14): When Alessandra Stanley published her now-infamous essay on Shonda Rhimes in the New York Times last month, the backlash was swift and furious...Through it all, there was one consistent voice of reason: New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan.

“Intended to be in praise of Rhimes,” Sullivan wrote, “[the article] delivered that message in a condescending way that was—at best—astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch.” Sullivan, thanks to that sentence, became a Twitter hero. Emily Nussbaum called the column “thoughtful and balanced”; novelist Gabriel Roth tweeted: “I don’t envy whoever has the public editor gig after @sulliview.” At every turn in the controversy, readers and critics seemed to be waiting for her to weigh in.
To van Zuylen-Wood (and others), Sullivan’s statement made her the bomb. He didn’t seem to notice that Sullivan never argued for or justified the judgments she had stated.

Next week, we’ll look at this matter, along with McDonough’s judgments. But it’s hard to miss an obvious point:

Increasingly, we liberals love to hear our dogmas stated. In Affleck’s case, the gentleman couldn’t wait two minutes before he began to recite.

For years, we liberals laughed at conservative talk for its clueless lines of reasoning. We laughed at talk radio’s ditto-heads, at the way they recited their tribe’s dogmas and storylines.

Increasingly, though, a problem obtains: Dogma isn’t just for the right anymore! Increasingly, that's also the way we argue.

Affleck and Kristof point to a problem. Increasingly, we liberals want our Maypo too!

We suspect this will lead to no good. More on this problem next week.


  1. Repeating such a slur in any context and for any purpose is hurtful. I was shocked when he said it.

  2. I am shocked Somerby keeps repeating slurs as well.

  3. He is doing it for the shock value, just as Affleck did it to slam Maher and Harris. I don't think such slurs should be repeated by anyone. That does not invalidate Somerby's argument or make him a bad person, any more than it does Affleck.

  4. If Somerby hadn't repeated the slur, the trolls would be complaining that he was too vague about what an R-bomb is or some such nonsense, perhaps alluding to his complaints about Sullivan's unsupported attributions. This is such a stupid game. Can't we just talk?

  5. OMB (

    "Historically, when liberals start behaving this way, it leads to conservative triumphs.

    Where can this “liberal” trend be seen?"

    So sayeth the BOB. And what examples does he lay before us?

    Katie McDonough's writing on rape in Salon.

    Margaret Sullivan's chastisement of the TV critic in the NY Times.

    Pardon us. Did BOB call someone else out for being perceived as "dumb."?

    This is your HARVARD degree at work interpresting history?

    In our visits to your planet we must have missed this place called Liberalworld. Perhaps if we rub our two IQ points together some spark of recognition will be struck.

    We'd next like to see some examples of historical conservative triumphs from such terrible trendsetting in the past. We'll be in convulsions until next week. Maybe an Affleck flick will calm our
    mordant-to-monumental chuckles in the meantime.

    1. G.W.Bush for starters.

    2. Why go for such small taters? Hell it was hippies that gave us Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

  6. I am talking about Somerby's slurs against liberals. Are you commenters as dumb as he claims liberals are?

  7. Apparently opposing racism is something only left wing people do, but Bob still thinks it proper to spend the entirety of his online life attacking ... the left. You might think he'd have something to say about people who never see racism under any circumstances, but naaaaaw, not Bob.

    This is Bob on his best behavior, I might add,

    1. Why is it wrong to spend the entirety of an online life attacking the left?

    2. "Wrong"? I don't know where that word came from.

      Bob claims to oppose racism, but never actually says anything that, you know, actually opposes racism. In fact, at every turn, Bob complains whenever people actually do say things that combat racism. Or stand up for an issue (Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, this whole thing on Muslims) that has strong racial undertones. They never do it right, according to Bob, and besides, it will just cost "the left" votes. As with racism, so it is with everything else. Bob claims to have a set of values, but he never says anything that promotes those values, never attacks the people who oppose those values. Instead, he attacks the people who DO hold those values. Is that "wrong"? Here at the Howler, you get to decide. It's your word, after all. The word I'd use is "peculiar."

    3. Some of us consider the work we do teaching racially diverse kids to be combatting racism because we are giving kids the means to confound stereotypes and exceed bigoted expectations. Given that Somerby spent 10 years doing this, I think he has been actively fighting the effects of racism. Plus what about all those posts he writes about education issues affecting black kids? He has been doing plenty to reduce racism, unless you think the only way to combat racism is to label other people as racists.

    4. He used to be a teacher, so he has been fighting racism. Check. Sorry, stopped reading after that.

    5. He taught in inner city schools, at a time when they were underfunded and unequal. Don't you think actions speak louder than words?

    6. Nope.

      You are fighting racism if and only if you are calling people racists.

      That's how you promote "values."

      Sorry, stopped thinking after this.

    7. Stopped thinking before you wrote this, obviously.

  8. I would add that for Sullivan and some others this issue is intertwined with employing more black people. She writes:

    The Times, of course, can’t just graft on some diversity (just add a few black people and stir, as one commenter mockingly put it) and then call it a day; change has to be deeper, broader and more integral than that. Numbers do not automatically translate to a more balanced perspective. Editors and reporters must be willing to have frank conversations, to grapple with unexamined prejudices and to engage with sensitive subjects head-on.

    I find this POV ugly and racist. I see no evidence that good criticism of the arts requires that the critic be of the same ethnic group as the artist.

    Furthermore, this proposition has ugly consequences. It then would follow that blacks shouldn't be hired to criticize works produced by whites and Asians. And, Michiko Kakutani, the Times' lead book reviewer, shouldn't be allowed to review books by whites.

    In short, Sullivan's view comes close to the idea that people should be judged more by the color of their skin than by their character. Martin Luther King must be spinning in his grave.

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