Part 1: Academia Should Have a Leftist Bias, Mr. Leef

(Editor’s note: The following article is Donald Lazere’s response to George Leef’s April 23 review of Lazere’s book. Leef’s rejoinder can be found here.)

My thanks to George Leef for his April 23 review of my book Why Higher Education SHOULD Have a Leftist Bias.

I brought the book to his attention with a copy of an open letter to the officials of several conservative scholarly organizations including the Pope Center, reiterating the appeal in my book for engagement in good-faith dialogue and civil debate between leftists and mainstream or libertarian conservatives. That appeal was couched in my list of eight “Ground Rules for Polemicists,” which include:

Summarize the other side’s case fully and fairly, in an account that they would accept, prior to refuting it. . .  . .  Allow the most generous interpretation of their statements rather than putting the worst light on them.

Be willing to acknowledge misconduct, errors, and fallacious arguments by your own allies, and try scrupulously to establish an accurate proportion and sense of reciprocity between them and those you criticize in your opponents. Do not play up the other side’s forms of power while denying or downplaying your own side’s. Do not weigh an ideal, theoretical model of your side’s beliefs against the most corrupt actual practices on the other side.

Do not substitute ridicule or name-calling for reasoned argument and substantive evidence.

Of course, I agreed to be subject to the same ground rules and invited “gotcha’s” calling me on my own lapses. I also made clear throughout the book that my arguments were not meant as “the last word” on these issues but just “the first word” toward further, open-ended debate—and toward which I hope this exchange between Leef and me will further prime the pump.

I would give Leef’s review a “C” at best for the extent to which he summarized my arguments fully and fairly or established an accurate sense of proportion between the forces on the left he criticizes and of conservative (not libertarian) ones in America. Most of those who commented on his review merited a “F” in stooping to straw-man stereotypes of me as a leftist and to knee-jerk ridicule of a book none of them showed any sign of having read, with only Leef’s “unbiased” account to rely on.

Leef says, “It’s not appropriate for professors to smuggle their naïve beliefs about socialism (or other topics) into English classes where they’re neither appropriate to the subject nor within the professor’s field of knowledge.” Well, the subject of the English courses I taught was argumentative writing, where my special field of knowledge has long been the rhetoric of mass politics and media. I am the author of a textbook, Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy: The Critical Citizen’s Guide to Argumentative Rhetoric.

Far from an offbeat or radical field for study, political argument is a classically conservative one, the central subject for scholars from Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero to the American founders, whose education was steeped in debating the controversies of the day. This subject includes study of the public uses and misuses of all the –isms, including socialism, and the biases in lines of argument about them addressed in my book.

Shouldn’t there be a legitimate role for critical college study of these issues, not only at the level of specialized scholarship but at the level of public discourse, and within strict ethical guidelines like those that I have strived to establish over many years, as in my “Ground Rules for Polemicists”? Central to this study, of course, is making students aware of the over-simplifications, distortions, and propagandizing of political issues on all sides in public discourse, and directing them toward specialized studies as a necessary further step.

Moreover, the aim of my book was not to deny all bias by academic and journalistic leftists (in the naïve manner of a “Don Quixote” that Leef snidely attributes to me), but to argue that their biases can only fairly judged in accurate proportion to all the conservative biases that pervade American public discourse, so most of the book surveys the latter at the length necessary to support the case that they outweigh the former, although most American public discourse simply accepts conservative biases as the unbiased norm of neutrality, or “business as usual.”

Leef makes the predictable move of dismissing my two hundred-thirty pages of evidence as “tiresome,” but how else could my case be made without this accumulation, and how could an adequate rebuttal be made without a thorough evaluation of it? Conservative rhetoric and corporate propaganda, after all, sink in through “tiresome,” calculated flooding of public discourse that drowns out opposing voices, in the mode of endless repetition of the same inane TV commercials. An effective counterpart would necessitate children being exposed to tens of thousands of commercials for, say, labor unions, or daily robocalls along the lines of, “Hello, this is Rachel calling from the Democratic Socialists of America.”

Contrary to Leef’s claim that I ignore libertarian thought, I have a good deal of respect for it, and find many affinities between it and the models of socialism based on economic democracy that I favor. I would say, though, that libertarians and democratic socialists tend to be equally “quixotic,” with libertarians bearing approximately the same, discomforting relation to actual, existing capitalism that democratic socialists do to what used to be euphemized on the left as the “actual, existing socialism” of communist dictatorships.

The obligation of both should be to denounce clearly and constantly the betrayal of their ideals—in the case of socialists, by communism; in the case of libertarians, by Limbaugh-esque demagogues, corporate criminals, the increasingly plutocratic control of both the Republican and Democratic parties (including the Obama administration), and propaganda extolling the virtues of “free markets” as a scam to obscure the global monopolization of markets and wealth.

Leef makes the common argument that it is a form of the ad hominem fallacy for leftists like me to discredit the motives of conservative journalists or scholars who are subsidized by corporate special interests when we should limit ourselves to open-minded evaluation of their substantive arguments. To a point, I agree.

How far does that point go, though? Should we disregard the motives of the sponsors of every TV product commercial or attack ad and be obliged only to evaluate its claims at face value?

In my book, I present the transcript of a “Sixty Minutes” report titled “Confessions of a Tobacco Lobbyist,” based on an interview with Victor Crawford, then dying of throat cancer contracted from smoking, who remorsefully looked back on his highly-paid career of fabricating arguments refuting claims, which he knew to be true, of the health hazards of smoking. His techniques included inventing phony reports by a “world famous laboratory” and “some cockamamy pollster.” He organized astroturf “smokers’ rights” rallies and played the libertarian card in smearing anti-smoking organizations as “health Nazis” depriving smokers of their civil rights.

Or consider the conservative foundations and think tanks that, behind a façade of being impartial research institutions, serve as PR agencies for corporations and the Republican Party, in the manner brazenly expressed by William Baroody, former president of American Enterprise Institute: “I make no bones about marketing. . . .  We hire ghost writers for scholars to produce op-ed articles. . . .”  Or by one-time Heritage Foundation vice president Burton Pines:  “We’re not here to be some kind of Ph.D. committee giving equal time. Our role is to provide conservative public policymakers with arguments to bolster our side.”

Are we simply to ignore these motives in evaluating their arguments or the tobacco lobbyist’s, Mr. Leef?

Whatever forms of bias conservatives may find among academic leftists, none that I have ever known in the humanities has had ghost writers for op-eds or been hired by a university employer with orders to cater her or his scholarship to bolster one party or special interest. In university research, does Leef deny that bias occurs most habitually in business fields or applied sciences, resulting from faculties’ corporate ties? That is one of the many instances I give of “leftist faculty bias” being exceeded by conservative counterparts that receive far less public criticism.

One of my proposals toward overcoming intellectual polarization and both sides preaching to their own choir is collaborative research projects—based perhaps in think tanks like the Pope Center—in which opponents could pool their respective bodies of evidence, such as those that Leef poses against mine, for adjudication by impartial referees. Would you support that, Mr. Leef?