[First published on skepolitical.com on 8/18/12]
Criticizing the deceitfulness of one’s ideological opponents is the national pastime of the blogosphere, but it’s all rank hypocrisy unless one simultaneously holds the discourse of one’s ideological allies to an equally high standard. I wish neither to be a hypocrite nor to relinquish the moral high ground required to criticize my ideological opponents, so I feel obligated to point out a an example of unfair “spin” that’s recently been propagated by Glenn Greenwald and Jay Tomlinson’s The Best of the Left podcast. Since this is ostensibly a skeptical blog, and since a primary goal of the Skeptic Movement is to improve the level of discourse in society, this topic seems especially appropriate. Besides, this shit’s been getting on my nerves for weeks. Before I get into it, I want to emphasize that these rhetorical offenses are not representative of BotL and (especially) Greenwald; to the contrary, I find them noteworthy because they are exceptional.
Basically, the criticism that I find problematic is the following: that libertarians and minarchists who receive government assistance are necessarily stupid or unprincipled or hypocritical. The assumption being made about libertarians is that because they would prefer a governmental system devoid of financial assistance and a safety net, it must follow that these libertarians consider it unethical to make use of the safety net or to accept any assistance from the government. Greenwald and the commentators on BotL disregard the possibility that a libertarian might simply be doing the best he can under a system he finds wasteful or otherwise problematic but not necessarily unethical. I think we can fairly call this type of criticism an “implicit straw man” argument: the critics are making an unstated false assumption about the ideology of these people, and then basing their criticism on that assumption.
As a quick aside, I want to say that even if an individual did consider the system unethical, calling him unprincipled for participating in it as best he can still seems unfair. We are talking about people who are stuck in a system that they believe unethically and forcibly extracts money from them through taxes. If a thief takes your money and offers some of it back, is that charity? When forced to live in a system you consider inherently immoral, do you really have a moral obligation to hold yourself to the ethical standards of your preferred political system? To hold people to their own higher standards in such a situation is, at best, rather presumptuous.
In any case, the “hypocrite” charges that I wanted to discuss here are even sillier, because they don’t even bother trying to establish whether the recipient of government assistance considers it unethical or whether they realize that they will lose their benefits under the system they are supporting. Examples of this sloppy type of criticism have been popping up on BotL for months, but I only started making note of them when I heard this egregious example in a clip featuring Jimmy Dore, where he calls Ron Paul a hypocrite for cashing his social security checks without establishing whether Paul has ever suggested that doing so is unethical. Later, BotL played this clip from The David Pakman Show, the end of which criticizes an opponent of the Affordable Care Act for “voting against her interests,” as if it would be more admirable for her to vote for her “interests” than for her principles. Now this past week, Glenn Greenwald joined the fray, denouncing “Paul Ryan — Randian Super-Hero of Individual Self-Reliance and Working Class Warrior against government debt, waste, and intrusiveness — whose actual life is a testament to the precise opposite values,” simply because “he has relied, and continues to rely, on various forms of government help in climbing every rung on his educational and careerist ladder.” This criticism is based primarily on the social security benefits Ryan received after his father died while Ryan was a teenager. Another BotL clip from Sam Seder on The Majority Report made explicit part of the “implicit straw man” argument by claiming that libertarians don’t even know what “small government” means, and that “everyone’s a libertarian until it infringes upon what they like.” Even here, though, the central assumption underpinning all these criticisms, that libertarians necessarily consider receiving benefits to be unethical, is left unsaid.
Let me state this as clearly as possible: there is nothing hypocritical, unprincipled, or even mildly pernicious about enjoying the benefits offered by one political system while simultaneously working towards changing that system. In fact, it is all the more admirable for someone to work for change when it would incur a negative affect on one’s own personal short-term fortunes, for this implies a willingness to sacrifice personal enrichment in exchange for what one perceives as a more righteous society.
Whether Paul Ryan or the other people criticized in these clips are truly motivated by such lofty idealism is not relevant to the point I’m making here. The point is that it is a breach of civil discourse to assume the most cynical of motives without any real evidence to support such an assumption. Greenwald implies that since Paul Ryan used social security checks to help pay his way through college (and other minor examples of benefiting from government programs), it’s now reasonable to assume duplicity when he says he doesn’t think such payments are good for society. To assume such base motives with such little evidence looks to me like rank out-group demonization. Greenwald does not even bother pointing out that Ryan has, in fact, criticized those who accept government assistance, calling them “takers.” It seems that Greenwald considers this irrelevant to his point that Ryan does not live up to his principles. To the contrary, it is a critical point. I’m genuinely surprised at Greenwald’s sloppiness here.
Just as problematic is Pakman’s argument that the woman who is opposed to Obamacare is stupid for not supporting what is clearly in her own self interest. To him I say: criticize such activists for being stupid if you must, but understand that such a criticism implies that you respect only the most cynical, personal enrichment-based ideology. Or perhaps you don’t care if your argument makes sense as long as it’s pithy. This is about as distasteful as things can get for a skeptic, and I have to call it out when I see it being made by someone on my side of the argument.
Worst of all was probably Jimmy Dore’s attempt at skewering Ron Paul for hypocrisy. An accusation of hypocrisy is only valid when the accused has attempted to mislead someone about his true convictions. Perhaps Dore assumes that Paul secretly likes big government because it has benefitted from it financially. If that were the case, Paul’s proclamations against big government would indeed be hypocritical. The problem is that Dore provides no evidence to suggest this is the case. Indeed, there is no indication that Dore thinks any such case needs to be made. He simply declares Paul a hypocrite for accepting Social Security. To me, Paul seems to simply be living as well as he can under what he views as an imperfect system. Either way, Dore transgresses civil discourse by making the charge of “hypocrite” without bothering to present evidence for it.
Finally, the Sam Seder clip reveals the amount of credit these commentators seem to be giving to the supposed principles of libertarians: “everyone’s a libertarian until it infringes upon what they like.” Just as with the other commentators, Seder is unfairly presupposing the worst possible motives for all libertarians. Even if it was meant as hyperbole, unsubstantiated blanket statements like this do not belong in civil discourse.
To be sure, some American libertarians don’t realize exactly what their political ideology would entail, and some libertarians do feel that accepting government charity is unethical. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that the individuals criticized by Greenwald, Seder, Dore, and Pakman are indeed guilty of the hypocrisy or stupidity with which they are charged. If so, it is incumbent upon their critics to establish this guilt rather than to just assume it. Otherwise, it lowers the level of discourse.
Glenn Greenwald is moving to The Guardian, which I hope will be less infested with intrusive ads than his previous host, Salon. (I guess I could have simply subscribed to get rid of those ads.) The Guardian is (was?) also home to Bad Science, the excellent skeptical column by Ben Goldacre.
The discussions at the end of the Best of the Left episodes recently have involved theories about centrism and third-party voting. Considering that I’ve been thinking about voting third-party, I’ve found the discussion quite interesting.
I just noticed that the August 6 episode of Occupy Media features Dan Carlin. I’m very excited to listen to that, especially considering I think I “introduced” Dan to them via Twitter. (132)