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Monday, July 22

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Airbags

It goes without saying that the Gapers' Block staff is lovable. I mean, one just can't help but find the numerous Gapers' folks snuggly. Naturally, we at Gapers Block, being a nerdly family of sorts, like each other. And yet, generally, there seems to be a lot of negative energy coming the way of Revenge of the Second City from the general population. Now, I have a pretty thick skin. Shed no tears for your humble reporter. But after a particularly crude email, I sometimes have to play my Abba Gold record extra loud and have scotch to calm down.

It is not only in the capacity of this column, either. It happens socially, too. I get a lot of sneers and angry harangues. And here's just a tip, but one person can only hear "You don't know what you're talking about," so often before it completely loses meaning. My point? Well, I'll excerpt a recent letter that is demonstrative of the type of feedback I often get:

Ramsin-
I read your column on housing, and I'm afraid -- actually, I'm glad -- to tell you that you have no idea what you're talking about. This is just another example of a conservative "Democrat" buying the Daley family's party line about what is right and what should be done. After I read your column on housing I went through your catalogue of columns and it made me sick. It's people like you who call yourselves liberals that make real, thinking liberals look bad. You're such a lackey, I can't believe they let you write columns there anymore.

Love,
X

Okay, they didn't sign it "Love." I added that for irony. Also he went on for a paragraph about how the capitalist system will always be unjust. And he swore a few times. But you get the gist.

Considering how much of my time I devote to writing about progressive causes and attacking conservative arguments and policy initiatives, letters like this -- and conversations I have with people that often end the same way -- can start to hurt my feelings. And as I look through some of the mail I've gotten in the past, it started to worry me, because a lot of the complimentary letters I've gotten were from people who designate themselves as conservatives or moderates. Maybe that one guy on YayHooray! was right: maybe I am a "bullshit conservative reactionary in liberal clothing."

Or take this gem from constant gadfly "Steve," which came my way after an article on good ol' capitalism:

Ramsin-
It isn't just that you're wrong about all the [stuff] you [freaking] write, it's that you do it with this [bovine scat] sense of [freaking] [Golly-Darned] authority. Like you're the only expert, and it's impossible that you're ever [freaking] wrong once. It's obvious you get all of your news from [freaking] network TV, from the Tribune and the Sun-Times.* Have you ever bothered to pick up alternative** media!? It is so obvious that you're angling for this tough-guy know-it-all persona that is complete and utter [animal refuse]. If you can have a column on a website designed for intelligent people, then I can be the editor of the New York [Freaking] Times.
...

Rock,
"Steve"

*Note: I do actually get all of my news from the Sun-Times.
**Note: I added the italics to make it more sneer-y sounding.

This has caused me to do no little soul-searching and, um, self-reconsidering. Which is good, because that's a pretty liberal thing to do. But that question still nags at me: Why don't liberals like me?

Months back on my own site I wrote about prevalent logical fallacies employed by pundits and wags on both sides of the political fence. Front and center were Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter, but in general I was just giving tips on how to identify such fallacies as Straw Man, hypostatization, and fallacies of composition and division. When I pointed out that noted feminist and liar Naomi Wolf and well-meaning but erratic documentarian Michael Moore were often guilty of these and other types of fallacies (well, Wolf mostly just lies), there was quite a backlash. When considering my poor standing among liberals, I was reminded of that event, and I came to a very interesting, and somewhat heart-breaking, realization: Many liberals are idiots.

In the same sense that many conservatives are idiots, great big heaps of liberals are idiots. Not because they criticize me -- if everybody that criticized me was an idiot, half the city of Chicago would be babbling incoherently - but because that's the nature of people who prefer to fall back on dogma rather than risk espousing an unpopular position. Take for example the furor that was raised when I told a group of my peers that government should have as much respect for the upper-middle-class tax payer as to the poor. All of a sudden I felt like Milton Friedman at a Bolshevik plenary conference. (Just as a side-note, the implication is not that all moderates are smart. They're just confused.)

The vast majority of liberals, of course, are not idiots. In fact, they're quite smart. That's why they're liberals (or, the preferred term, "progressives.") But it appears to me that a major problem with the liberal establishment is that they like to make a claim, find one or two demigods (like Noam Chomsky, for example) to back them up, and leave it to that. And God forbid any conservative ever makes a good point, ever.

It is simply that the American liberal has become so beleaguered by popular media that it is an all-or-nothing proposition. Espouse everything it means to be liberal, or get the hell out of the club. And if you sway, you're faking it, which is worst of all. There seems to be a dogma to liberalism that is quite powerful -- perhaps just as powerful as the dogma on the far right, if not more so -- that is predicated on a sort of Leninist attitude of being the vanguard. "Oh the sheep," the liberals may say, "They know so little. We must think for them. And hark! My Harper's is right on hand that I may minister to them from it."

In the movie Dr. Zhivago, Yurii Zhivago, played by Omar Sharif, gives a very good reason for not joining the Bolshevik party. He says, "I cannot approve today something you may do tomorrow." In other words, every action and policy must be studied on its own merit. The attitude that supports institutions, instead of ideas, is very dangerous -- and lazy to boot.

It all comes down to what it means to be a liberal, or progressive. It is not, as some may believe, adhering to a certain set of ideals or central tenets. It is not always supporting one social cohort against another. Progressive politics, at least in the United States and especially in Chicago, means equitable policy initiatives based on reason, purely passed hypothesis: as Lenny Bruce famously said, "That's what I want. Give me passed hypothesis." Then again, he was a morphine addict.

In argument, unlike in fist fights, you cannot cheat. If you cheat, you create a precedent that decimates the entire structure of public discourse. When one uses an appeal to authority, or an appeal to popularity, or pure viscera, one makes it OK for the opposition to do the same. To win an argument, you must always be sure that your proposition can stand up to even the most wilting rejoinders and counter-examples, and if it can, how can it be wrong? And if one accepts that they would never choose to be placed at a structural political disadvantage, then that basic tenet plus a perfectly constructed argument is the most liberal policy proposition conceivable.

As you, dear reader, are sure to have guessed, I relish a good debate. And losing is often just as fun, if not more, than winning, because that means you'll be even stronger the next time out. But take it easy with the sloganeering (if you use the word "colonialism" or "empire" more than twice in one discussion of foreign policy, you're probably sloganeering), wouldja?

And, if you're guessing, make sure you say you're guessing. I guess a lot.

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Comments

MC High Life / February 25, 2004 9:52 AM

I also consider myself pretty liberal but get annoyed when I'm debating a "dogma liberal" that shoots down my thoughts for not being "progressive" enough. Give me a break. A good idea is a good idea whether a conservative, liberal or what have you thought of it.

lacey / February 25, 2004 4:55 PM

More than anything, I think this particular column emphasizes your humanity (not that you were un-human before by any means, but this definitely will win you points with these "liberals" and if it doesn't it's only because people can be hard-nosed). Also, from the sampling of correspondence you've laid out here, it appears that some people out there need blogs of their own...

'Phant / February 26, 2004 1:30 AM

Maybe it's just because I know you in real life, not just the gigaland, but I never really thought of you writing with "this [bovine scat] sense of [freaking] [Golly-Darned] authority."

I've always thought of your articles as simply stating, "This what I think and why I think it." And more often than not, I think it's well thought out and witty, regardless of if I agree with your stance or not.

But Ramsin, you'll never get respect from liberals if you keep getting all your facts from the Sun Times. Because for some reason, checking out the "alternative" media is better than using a credible source.

Cinnamon / February 26, 2004 10:23 AM

I have to say, Ramsin. I completely agree with your column except for the part where you say you get all your facts from the Sun-Times. I'd feel this way if you said you got all your facts from (insert indie media name here). Everyone and every media outlet has a bias. By reading various different types of media you'll be able to figure out where the bias lies in each one.

Ramsin / February 26, 2004 11:28 AM

Of course, I was being sarcastic when I said I got all my news from the Sun-Times.

MC High Life / February 26, 2004 1:03 PM

Don't feel bad about the Sun Times comment, Ramsin. I get all my news from Howtown On the Make...

Cinnamon / February 26, 2004 2:34 PM

Damn! I have to get that sarcasm filter fixed!

chitown reader / February 27, 2004 9:52 AM

Ramsin
I feel your pain. I too consider myself a liberal but am tired of my "liberal" friends and coworkers being unwilling to doubt their position for even a moment. The other day Jon Stewart had a conservative Pro-Bush author on the show and the audience could barely let him speak without making a snide comment. Jon was embarrassed and tried to explain to them that everyone's opinions are important and worth hearing, even if you don't agree. So long story short, you're in good company.
"Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority.The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on "I am not too sure." - H.L.Mencken

mike / March 1, 2004 4:14 AM


True liberals enjoy their fellow men and women and find it in their social, economic, and political capacities to help them. When people do this, they come under heavy attack because it is often a sign of true sympathy, empathy, and reason. Too often, college educated and often formulaic "liberals" confuse discourse or "sloganeer" simply because they generally don't take into account what might be best for the community or, more sadly, they don't enjoy their fellow men and women and instead choose to parade among them.

brian / March 1, 2004 8:13 AM

The funny thing to me about the term 'liberal' is that it is quite amorphous. I always think of liberals according to earlier definitions of the term: people who believed in greater participation in the government by citizens and free and open trade.

I always see the term liberal thrown about to refer to an opposing position - in my opinion it isn't a group that chooses to define itself, but rather is defined by those who wish to oppose them. (Personally, I think Rush Limbaugh popularized the current term, but that's just me.)

Also, everyone gets hate mail. Some of us enjoy your column. If you want to see real hate mail, subscribe to Mark Moford's newsletter and see what it's really like to be hated. It's hilarious. http://sfgate.com/columnists/morford/a/

christiana / March 2, 2004 11:25 AM

I find most liberals to be hypocrites. A party that preaches tolerance, and yet the average member seems to have so little for any view that opposes their own.

 

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