Law professor - and apparently legend in his own mind - Brian Leiter has a post up rationalizing his lack of civility in blog discourse.
There's not a lot new here - it's a well-picked over field. But I want to take a moment and add my own spin to the well-deserved criticism he's getting.
And note if you will that it applies to Duncan Black, Tbogg, Yglesias (all too often) and others on the left...it's a variant of "I just can't believe you aren't bowing the ineffable rightness of my positions" that we're used to seeing from the smart fat guy in the isolated cubicle - the one who knows more than anyone else about the fine points of the interactions between the Venice Specific Plan, the California Coastal Act, and Los Angeles planning law, or multi-threaded processing on early x86 chips, or the student films of George Lucas, or prewar Hegelian theory in the works of Lukacs.
But very few of them have much to say about how things are actually run.
They do coalesce into groups, sometimes - in my own experience I've run into them acting in concert primarily in evangelical religion, and in the net-based Randian community. It's virtually impossible to have dialog, in the traditional sense, with many members of either group, because once you point out that you don't accept the basic premises their worldview is crafted from, you're simply not worth talking to. It's a colloquial version of the Stalinist "if you don't support us, you must be crazy" model. Lately, I'm seeing them coalesce more and more into the Opposition to Bush.
Leiter stands foursquare in the middle of that intellectual style:
These questions, and many others, are easily addressed in the blogosphere, since there is no serious--or at least no honest or intelligent--dispute about the epistemic merits of the possible answers. Where I get into "trouble," of course, is with those who can't tell the difference between the two kinds of questions, the ones who think that the dialectical care, caution, and intellectual humility required for the genuinely "hard" questions ought to apply to the easy questions as well. These folks are a bit miffed when I dismiss their positions out of hand. But that is what their positions usually deserve.Boy, there are so many problems here.
Let me suggest three, two of which are grounded in my own intellectual history, and cite thinkers I'll happily hold up against Professor Leiter on their worst days, and one which is based in reality.
Leiter explains that the following are "easy" questions, which have yielded to his towering intellect the only true and correct answer possible:
Was the U.S. justified in invading Iraq?All of these - based as they are in complex questions of history, economics, sociology, and history of science are what Horst Rittel meant when he talked about "wicked problems." I've blogged about these before, but let me touch on a few highlights. They set out ten rules for defining wicked problems:
Are Bush's economic policies in the interests of most people?
Is Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection a well-confirmed scientific theory?
Is there a social security "crisis"?
1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad.
4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly.
6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
9. The existence of a discrepancy in representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution.
10. The planner (designer) has no right to be wrong.
Other than #10 and the question of Darwin, these rules seem to apply fairly well to all of Prof. Leiter's "easy questions," making them all, in my mind, pretty clearly wicked problems. What do Rittel and Weber suggest is the solution to wicked problem in the real world? In a gross simplification, dialog.
Before I studied with Rittel, I studied American political theory with John Schaar.
Prof Schaar wrote a lot about the failure of progressives in the 60's to capitalize on their success and radicalize the American population. He harped on one these:
"Finally, if political education is to effective it must grow from a spirit of humility on the part of the teachers, and they must overcome the tendencies toward self-righteousness and self-pity which set the tone of youth and student politics in the 1960's. The teachers must acknowledge common origins and common burdens with the taught, stressing connection and membership, rather than distance and superiority. Only from these roots can trust and hopeful common action grow."I'm interested in advancing progressive ideals - which I see in large part as using the power of government in favor of the less- rather than more-powerful. While I don't spend a lot of bandwidth gnashing my teeth over what I see as Republican policies that favor the wealthy and powerful - as an institutionalized value - when it comes to applying the power of the law, it's something that causes me a lot of distress.
I want to see a viable, powerful progressive movement in this country. I want this because those are my core values, and in part because we need the kind of back-and-forth dialectic that comes from two strong political wings to keep refreshing our politics. In large part it's because I'm afraid of what politics a class-stratified America might tilt toward.
And, to point out a small fact to Professor Leiter, the Democrats are getting their ass handed to them. The latest Democracy Corps poll shows a downturn in public regard for the Republicans, matched by a bigger downturn in regard for the Democrats.
With all due respect, I'll suggest that one of President Bush's - and the Republican Party's - greatest assets is their ability to relate to the "folks." Whatever innate feelings of superiority they may hold, their affect is lacking the obnoxious certainty that's displayed by Professor Leiter or the air of superiority and entitlement shown by both the Professor and his candidate, Senator Kerry.
Which beings us to the title of this piece.
I said a long time ago that the current Democratic leadership was actively harming the poor by failing to become an effective force in arguing for their interests. The wealthy and comfortable apparachniks of the Party, and the tenured supporters of the party like Leiter, live well while the poor and near-poor struggle.
If they were doing their jobs - if they were building a powerful and effective force for progressive values in this country - no one would mind that they were doing well by doing good. But the reality is that they are marching the Democratic Party off a cliff, and their arrogant blindness - and the fact that they revel in their arrogance - is one of the main reasons. Not only does it drive away what Leiter calls the "brainwashed" "cowed" and "fooled" by it's affect, but it leads to a myopia and unwillingness to change, react, and cope with the reality that is far from "easy." So we get bad people expounding bad politics.
But they have tenure, and high self-esteem.
The fact that they are losing - and worse, harming the people who depend on them winning to survive by losing - is something they can talk about on their blogs, in the therapist's office, or over a nice Viognier.
Have one for me, Professor Leiter. Drink to another decade of corporatist Republican power - brought to us by you and your arrogant, immature, and foolish colleagues on the Left.
Update: Here's an image that pretty much sums up my view: