Yesterday Ms Penny published a long and most inspiring list of books and essays that would interest radical thinkers. I was on it like a shot, and I’ve already explored some of the essays available online. Like many commenters I dutifully “added” to the list those whom I thought would interest other people. Then I read what the other commenters said and noticed these nincompoops claiming that “we” (presumably Ms Penny and all those on the Left) should keep our minds open and “read those people whom we disagree with” because we are bound to learn more from them. I exclaimed, inside my head, a very loud, distinctive “poppycock!”.
First things first. The man being recommended as worthy of being read was Milton Friedman. Now, this is not some obscure author of books, promoter of a particular idea that was his and his only, intermeshed in an ocean of ideas as potentially valid as his. This was a man who was directly involved in international economic policy. This is a man who singlehandedly influenced the fate of the global economy, and all the economies in it. If there is a man out there whose “ideas” came to be implemented in the real world, next in line to Machiavelli, was this Friedman chap.
Why does this matter? Simple: I don’t need to read his words in order to know what he thought; I just have to look at the world around me. Because his words came to alter the aspect of the world, by the very act of living in the world I have been made aware of what he had to say already. We can say that we are exposed to his “politics” by osmosis, and we receive them whether we like them or not. This is important: we have no choice but to be exposed to the rubbish thinking of the Right.
Now compare that to Marx, if we can make such a comparison without feeling nauseous. The only way to know what Marx thought is to go and *gasp!* read his words. Because Marx ideas haven’t been implemented in the real world, at least not in this country, there is no way to know by “existing”. The proof, if anyone needed it, is in the pudding: go to the street and mention how people’s “free” choices affect what is being sold and everyone will nod approvingly. Mention instead “historic materialism”, “means of production”, “rate of exploitation” or “commodity fetishism” and people will be looking at you as if you came from planet “Discourse”. Indeed, the very fact that understanding Marx is so difficult, while reading Friedman isn’t, is enough proof that one is completely unknown while the other is practically second nature.
We may not have even bothered with this explanation of why we should not engage as much with authors we “agree” or “disagree” with. And the reason lies in turn in the very reason why the Right challenges us to do so: because it is a bullying trick. This is why it is important to understand it. So we can keep an eye on it when it shows up and ignore it with a fiery passion.
Let’s start slowly, since reaching the conclusion that some people are bullies is not nice. The argument of this commenter is that in order to be “well read” and “unbiased”, in short, in order to be absolutely sure that we are right we must listen to the people we disagree with. (You may have spotted the reason why this innocent-looking “advice” is doomed to failure, since the people telling us to “look at the Right before you can think of yourself as being right” are the very people on the Right who will never think of us as being “right”, whether we have read their ideas or not. In short, they will accuse us of being “narrow minded” or “biased” or whatever bollox they want, the ultimate fact is that they think we are wrong and want us to shut up.)
First, we can ask, “who are the people who never, not once, have the decency of listening to the people they disagree with?”. And the answer, in this discussion, is obvious: those on the Right. Rightwingers never, ever, listen to those people they disagree with. I am yet to hear of someone who read Marx and found it to be flawed in favour or pure “free market” doctrine. Let’s be clear here: they are accusing us of being “narrow minded” for not reading their stuff, but they themselves never read our stuff. They are the first ones to not do what they preach. Why do they hold us to different standards? This leads us to the reason why this is a bullying trick and why it is so effective.
It is effective because people on the Left are goody-two-shoes, who generally believe (blindingly, I might add) in “science”, in “being objective and unbiased”, in “facts and evidence”, in “logic”, and in a general “free market” approach to ideas of “let’s let the best political idea win”. The Right on the other hand doesn’t believe in any of that. It believes in one thing and one thing only: that it is right because it wants to. End of story. If you accuse a person on the Right of not listening to the alternative arguments, of not paying attention to “facts”, of forgetting “logic” in the blender with the fair-trade bananas*, that person will shrug, or shout at your face, but they will not give two damns. Let me repeat for clarity: people on the Right don’t care about objectivity, evidence, or logic. That’s it. And it’s very easy to prove. In the words of Michael Parenti, I can prove to you that capitalism doesn’t work in one line: most of the world is capitalist and most of the world is poor. Anyone who is so deluded as to believe that “capitalism is working” is deluded enough to not consider the state of the world around them as proof enough of the fallacy of that statement. What more proof can we give them to change their minds when the world they live in hasn’t done so? I’m stressing this to show the difference between the discourse of the Left and the Right, and why we can’t either listen to their bullying nor use it against them. If they say “we are being biased, and narrow-minded and we are “not considering other people’s views”, there is no point in arguing back with evidence or logic. There is no point, in short, with engaging with that accusation. By the same token we can’t say to the Right that they are being biased and narrow-minded because they won’t care. If the Right thought that they could convince the world of its rightness by the sheer weight of their arguments, they wouldn’t spend billions on weapons.
This accusation of “narrow-mindedness” amounts to bullying because it is designed to keep us self-doubting and self-censoring, ashamed of not reaching the very standards we believe in. It is effective because we have set those standards ourselves, we believe in them. And we want to be right, we want to think that our arguments are well founded. This “bullying” is effective because it uses our “scientific” standards and hits us where it hurts: our insecurities. By its very nature, the Left seeks to distance itself from the real narrow-mindedness of the Right. That is why we pay close attention to any signs of “irrationality”, or unfounded claims. There’s also the fact that the Left is not ruling the world, which always keeps us second-guessing ourselves. All of this plays into our insecurity and distracts us from our real task at hand.
And our task is to change the world before is too late. Our task is not to argue asininely yet again on why capitalism doesn’t work with someone on the internet who is “wrong” and doesn’t get it. There is such a thing as constructive debate, but that ain’t it. This kind of “debate” leads us nowhere and it drains our energy. We are not here to convince those who don’t want to be convinced.
It is important to remember that we are the ones who set the standards of objectivity and evidence for our movement. We should be the ones questioning each other with such standards, not allowing those on the Right to use them against us.
* Look, when you read a line as funny as that you cannot help but adding it to anything you write. Hat tip to Kate for sharing her creative humour with the world!