My friend Emilio (not his real name) says he’s having a love affair with the writing of Nathan J. Robinson, and — being the jealous author sort of guy that I am (not really) — I’ve decided to throw some cold water on the romance. Nathan is the editor of Current Affairs; he has penned an argument to soothe the leftist’s soul.

As Emilio puts it:

I’m discovering what seems to be a love affair with Nathan J Robinson’s writing. This article should be read far and wide. Anything to reduce the disturbing “tendency of people who are nominally “on the left” to make arguments based on conservative premises.” Stoppit.

My initial comment was simply:

Isn’t adopting conservative premises a good thing, if they’re correct? That’s basically what integral politics is all about, finding the truth wherever it leads.

Ah, but that was not satisfying to my friend, so I promised a longer reply. But still it’s going to be pretty short because Robinson’s article isn’t bad, really. He makes sane points about the overuse of the term “neoliberalism” and some fairly clear cut examples of ways that a couple of liberal writers (Kevin Carey of Washington Monthly and Mike Rose of UCLA) fell down in responding to bad conservative arguments. If Robinson’s presentation of these various arguments is correct, then I think he’s right to feel let down by the liberals.

But that doesn’t mean that Robinson’s thesis is correct when he criticizes the tendency of “people who are nominally ‘on the left’ to make arguments based on conservative premises.” The problem isn’t that the liberal writer is making arguments that take into consideration the conservative premises; it’s simply that they’re not *also* making arguments that re-frame the discussion in ways that are wider and more expansive than the premises offered by the target of their criticism. 

If Robinson were a good integralist, he would know better than to suggest that arguing “from the left” and “from the right” are mutually exclusive options. The argument “from the right” ideally captures the conservative’s attention, lets them know they’ve been heard, and then refutes the flaws in their argument. The argument “from the left”, added on top of what came before, then may very well fail to appeal to the conservative. But it would appeal to open-minded independents and liberals who need the wider perspective. By combining both points of view, a stronger case is made overall for a wider audience, plain and simple.

Why does something so plain and simple not occur to Robinson? Probably because like many people still caught in flatland culture wars he is operating under a sort of implicit  “intellectual scarcity” model. He seems to think that if you give an inch to the enemy they will take a mile, so you have to refuse to acknowledge the truth of what they say whether it’s valid or not. That’s not integral, and it’s not what is going to get progressive causes through the culture wars with progress made.

I only have one more thing to say about Robinson’s article. Remember, the topic of his article wasn’t strictly about using conservative frames, it was about the term “neoliberalism”. And his main point is to introduce an odd contrast between liberalism and leftism:

I gave a similar example recently of the difference between the way a neoliberal framework looks at things versus the way a leftist does. Goldman Sachs produced a report suggesting to biotech companies that curing diseases might not actually be profitable, because people stop being customers once they are cured and no more money can be extracted from them. The liberal response to this would be an empirical argument: “Here’s why it is actually profitable to cure diseases.” The leftist response would be: “We need to have a value system that goes beyond profit maximization.”

How peculiar, indeed! I have never heard liberalism in any form, classical or contemporary, defined to virtually reduce the liberal mind to that of a parrot with no capacity for flexibility of thought or originality; nor have I ever seen the leftist mind described as a purveyor of Confucius-like wisdom regarding “value systems” (aren’t leftists usually ontological materialists who reduce value systems to epiphenomena?).

Although on the face of it Robinson’s point is not sound, it probably somehow helped him to express a glimmer of a more integrative, transpartisan impulse. He may be implicitly recognizing a growth hierarchy/holarchy (this is good! this is a notion from cultural evolutionary theory!), one with at least two levels: liberals on the bottom acting like a yo-yo to conservatives and leftists acting as the voice of mature, expansive vision. By integrating the two levels of the value hierarchy, the left can thereby integrate both conservative and progressive values, and then we can get on with the serious business of change. I’m not saying that Robinson’s growth hierarchy (if there indeed is one) is particularly well-conceived, but it’s a start.

We don’t need more polarization in our discourse with people who seek progress refusing to see the truth when it’s spoken by their political opponent. Such separation is not only political malpractice, it’s also a sort of lie against our highest nature as interconnected, indivisible people. In short, we need people who can see beyond the illusion of separation to a higher unity… and we need debaters who can perform a skillful jiu jitsu of values and policies, responding flexibly to block weak arguments while setting up a powerful strike in the direction of our best and wisest values.

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