Berny Belvedere created this site, this place, to publish differing views of a wide variety of subjects and issues. It’s called Arc Digital. There are some wonderful writers, wonderful posts there. There are also some truly stupid posts, not so much because Berny says to himself, “hey, let’s post something dumb today,” but because he tries to include such varying points of view that some putative recognized proponents of a particular view can’t muster a cogent argument.
I mean, it may well reflect the best possible argument for a position, but the position is irrational and hence the effort to argue is incomprehensible. You either feel it or not, but you can’t explain it because it makes no sense.
I’ve written a few posts for Berny at Arc. He’s a great editor, by the way, and makes me sound wiser than I am. I also had a post edited by someone else there, who butchered what I wrote because he didn’t grasp the specifics of law and blunted the precision with the squishiness of a philosopher’s eyes. I’m no philosopher. If I use a specific word, that’s the word I mean.
I still send Berny a post for Arc on occasion, but I don’t post there regularly, both because I’ve got my own joint and because Arc really isn’t the best site for a legal point. Its readers tend more to the philosophical than the legal. They don’t have the foundational knowledge to get the details, and don’t seem to understand that doctrinal law isn’t whatever cool idea pops into their heads. I tend to be rather pragmatic about it. Philosophers tend not to bind themselves by facts, logic or reality.
But I read Arc all the time, as many of the writers on non-legal issues are pretty darn good. Some are great. Some aren’t, but that’s bound to happen. But something happened the other day that made Berny realize that his efforts to create a pluralistic site* were akin to traversing an intellectual minefield, where any step could blow it up.
Earlier this week, Brookings fellow (and Arc contributor) Shadi Hamid tweeted something that was far too reasonable to escape controversy. “If you don’t have a single conservative (or even a vaguely right-leaning person) among your friends and friends of friends, you’re doing something wrong,” he wrote.
Yes, you read that right — Hamid had the audacity to recommend people make friends with those who have diametrically opposed beliefs.
Berny uses the word “audacity” not because Hamid’s point was outlandish or outrageous, but because his contention that political isolation, the inability to tolerate any view other than your own, is a bad thing has become a landmine. Hamid stepped on it and look at what happened.
Hamid used the word “conservative,” which is a hard word to pin down these days. The problem isn’t defining it as right of center, but identifying center. I used to be easily identified as a liberal lefty, the sort of guy who supported the rights of the accused, the free speech of the angry, even the oppressed, and expressed occasional criticism of the police, the courts and the law. Today, I still do the same, but now I’m routinely informed that I’m a conservative, or at least a “centrist,” which is an epithet for someone who lacks sufficient guts to take a side.
But Hamid’s detractors went off the edge, leaping to the conclusion that a conservative is a racist, a white supremacist, a Nazi, because anyone who isn’t progressive, a woke social justice warrior, can be nothing else. And their response was that they do not have to be friends with racists. They don’t have to read racists, hear racists, tolerate racists.
Berny’s baby is trying to keep the idea alive that we can hold differing views and, well, still be open to thinking about them, to tolerating them. And in true liberal fashion, one of the voices he’s amplified is Noah Berlatsky.
Berlatsky writes for Arc. I’ve read his posts, although I can’t see his twits because he’s blocked me. They’re crap. Not because I disagree with Berlatsky, which I do, but because he presents a word salad of meaningless gibberish. He argues that he’s right because HE’S RIGHT!!! Your option is to believe him because you believe or else. I pick “or else.”
At Reason, John McWhorter wrote a rather long and prolix post about how social justice isn’t political, but a religion, complete with kneeling and foot washing. One can discuss the merits of political views with someone whose views are grounded in facts and logic. One can’t argue religion, even the secular religion of social justice.
Yet, Berny, against my advice, continues to offer real estate to a guy like Berlatsky. Not because he agrees with Noah. Not even because he thinks Noah is a decent writer who makes sound points. Noah sucks as a writer,** is essentially incomprehensible unless you speak fluent critical theory and care little about verbizing nouns for the sake of the marginalized. Berny gives Noah space because Noah Berlatsky represents a point of view that not only exists, but is held by an unfortunate number of people.
It’s not for Berlatsky’s sake that Berny posts Noah’s polemics, but for ours, so we can read what Noah says and not be limited to hearing only what an echo chamber tells us.
I’m friends with people with a wide variety of views, many of which I find fairly silly, but my disagreement with them doesn’t devolve to hating them such that I can’t tolerate sitting down with them for a beer and a chat. In the world of the woke, I just stepped on a landmine and blew up, not that it would be the first time.
I hope Berny’s baby, Arc Digital, thrives and clears the minefield for all ideas, even the stupid ones like Berlatsky’s. Berny eschews the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor, but not because it’s necessarily inapt.
It sort of cheapens ideas to conceive of them as “products” for “consumers.” But, sure, something like the metaphor can be used to describe us — I myself have used the idea of a forum, or a public square, or a roundtable, to describe Arc’s approach. A place where you and your ideological rivals present your cases before an audience made up of people of mixed philosophical commitments fits the animating principle best.
Don’t be Berlatsky. Be Hamid. Be Berny. And read Arc Digital.
*Some may remember my effort to create Fault Lines, a crim law site that would present all perspectives. If so, then you remember that it failed, not for lack of fabulous content. It was almost always ten steps ahead of the media in what was happening. No, it never gained critical mass because it failed to cater to one side or the other. Pro-defendant people wanted only to read pro-defense posts. Same with the pro-prosecution/cop people. And each hated the other sides posts, which were too smart, too reasonable, too rational to avoid the horrible and exhausting pain of cognitive dissonance.
**When George Orwell wrote about “meaningless words,” he was talking about people who do the Berlatsky.