When motive not fact becomes the basis for discourse

People complain a lot these days about the divisions in our society. Some put stickers on their car bumpers in favor of civility and say the world needs more love in the face of terrorist attacks and political infighting.

What’s odd, however, is how so many of those who preach compassion refuse to debate the merits of an issue and dismiss others on the basis of their motives.

Take for example, President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Accords. Rather than respond to his stated rationale, which was that the agreement was damaging to the U.S. economy without doing very much to improve the environment, people attributed his decision to his being a “climate denier.” In other words, they say we shouldn’t look at what Trump said about his decision, but conclude his remarks are a cover for his true motives.

This is not an isolated instance, but represents a pattern by people on the Left when they don’t like something someone who is a Republican, or worse a conservative, does or says. By labeling their opponents greedy, bigoted, misogynist, or racist, critics don’t have to deal with their opponents’ actual positions or behaviors.

The same tactic is used against those who defend the existence of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria (also known as the West Bank). Critics call those who defend the so-called settlements “colonialists” who engage in apartheid, but in doing so they refuse to take into account why they exist in those locations––their origins and history. To some, a Zionist––someone who supports the existence of a Jewish state in the land where Judaism was born––is a racist, end of story.

Attacking someone’s views by claiming their motives are impure is an attempt to avoid having to deal with the fact that all individuals are imperfect and that people can change. Those on the Left can’t accept the possibility that while Mr. Trump has faults, he might be giving us his honest beliefs about something like Paris. Isn’t dismissing his or anyone else’s every statement itself a form of bigotry?

A perfect example was the media’s attacking Trump for bumping into an official from Montenegro in Geneva. It was cited as evidence of his boorishness, when calmer reflection suggests it was the kind of incident that has probably happened to many of us in certain social situations. Attribution of motive replaced rational explanation.

The unwillingness of people to take others at their word suggests a defensiveness about their own positions. For example, why won’t those who support Paris respond to Mr. Trump’s assertion that the agreement would accomplish little at such a great cost? Could Mr. Trump be correct in claiming a better agreement is possible––i.e., one that would do more to reduce pollution without blackmailing the U.S. to pay for others to clean up their problems? His critics can avoid such a discussion by doubting his motive, which protects them from having to defend their own logic and their facts.

With regard to the Jewish communities in the West Bank, their existence only represents an impediment to peace if one ignores the fact that no Palestinian leader has been willing to concede the existence of a Jewish state where Israel currently exists much less one that includes traditional Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. The Palestinians won’t accept any boundaries that thwart their demographic majority. Instead they rely on the fact that they can create millions of Palestinians at a moment’s notice by recruiting residents of five or six Arab countries to overwhelm the Jewish population, create an Islamic caliphate, and kick any Jews who won’t convert into the sea. To object to such a scenario is not up for discussion if opponents can be dismissed for having “colonialist, racist” motives.

That so many people who know better––academics, journalists, and elected officials––engage in motive blaming or fail to challenge it, suggests our culture is infected with a form of ideological insanity. What people who claim to want peace and to save the planet really want is for those who hold views antagonistic to their own to give up their positions and go away. They need to believe in the purity of their own motives and therefore assume that when one is pure of motive the facts are on your side. It’s time to give up motive blaming and go back to traditional rules for resolving differences––focusing on evidence and demonstrable fact.

 

Is it okay for candidates to change their views and other issues challenging our democracy

One of Marketplace’s political pundits recently attacked Donald Trump for being a phony. His proof? Some of Trump’s views today aren’t what he espoused fifteen, twenty years ago. On another front I see people taking positions on issues based on who is in favor (or opposed). Both approaches are easy to fall into, but both ultimately are dangerous because in a democracy it is important that people form and defend views shaped by careful consideration rather than toeing a party line or basing their views on someone else’s.

Let’s examine the notion that a candidate is not being honest if he has changed his views on a topic such as abortion or immigration. Why do we assume that he changed his view for an illegitimate reason? This criticism suggests people who change their views are not to be trusted, when in fact the opposite should be true––to wit, anyone whose views have not changed based on experience and/or changes in external conditions is likely out of touch with reality.

Consider population control––today a not-very-controversial issue, but in 1968, many readers of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb were won over to the notion that governments needed to impose stringent measures immediately to curtail a population growth rate that would doom the planet. It became clear fairly soon that Ehrlich was wrong, but his predictions inflicted damage, convincing many people not to have children or to limit family size. Would someone who was once convinced by Ehrlich but later recognized his predictions were wrong be unworthy of trust? Of course not.

What about a candidate’s changing his view on a topic because poll numbers show the public is against him? In some cases, it works out to express to deeply held positions despite public opposition. When Mario Cuomo ran for governor of New York State, he refused to support the death penalty even though the public was in favor by a large margin. The public respected his position and very few voted against him for that reason. What about someone who supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq, but later became a critic? Who can quarrel with that person if the reason for the change was that he obtained information he didn’t have before?

That Donald Trump’s views may have changed should not by itself be an indication of his worthiness for voter support. It should depend on what his views are today and why he changed positions, if in fact he did.

A more difficult problem people have to deal with is considering issues apart from who supports or opposes them. If Rush Limbaugh or Barack Obama are for something, some people are automatically against. Doesn’t that kind of thinking tell the world, “Please don’t let anything get in the way of my biases?”

It’s not easy to come to positions apart from those of people you hate or admire. It can result in others questioning your sanity, but a true democracy requires citizens who are willing to consider and debate issues based on their own reading of the facts, not how other people think.

Some people don’t think they have time to study the issues and therefore have to go along with someone else’s opinion. True, it can be difficult to study an issue such as the Iran deal given the daily barrage from experts in the media, and one can’t assume news outlets are unbiased. Yet there is no lack of information on the major issues of the day if you are willing to search on a topic and read news stories and opinion pieces that reflect opposing sides.

Politically illiteracy jeopardizes our democracy. Too many people’s views are based on choices made at an early age––choices they never subject to serious questioning from one election cycle to another. As Christopher Lasch wrote in his insightful The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1994), “In the absence of democratic exchange, most people have no incentive to master the knowledge that would make the capable citizens.” (P. 12) Democracy is dependent Lasch states on “a vigorous exchange of ideas and opinions.” Holding regular elections is not enough.

Each citizen should feel capable of finding sufficient information on any issue he cares about in order to form his own position; each citizen should feel a duty to express his opinion in a respectful manner, listening to the other side and challenging his opponents with facts, not name-calling. Each citizen should be inclined to want to vote in elections because the alternative is allowing someone else to make the choice for you.

It’s okay to change one’s views; it’s okay to disagree with someone whom you are inclined to support most of the time; and it’s not just okay, but is a positive social good to challenge other people’s views as long as you can marshal facts and arguments to support your own.

Final thought: When Barack Obama disparages his opponents on the Iran issue, he is undermining a core principle of our democracy. He wants us to support the deal because he tells us to, but that’s wrong. We are not only entitled to form our own views, but the future of our society demands that we do so.

Debate Lesson: Challenge the Assumptions

How an argument is framed often puts opponents on the defensive. When Barack Obama, for example, says the only alternative to his agreement with Iran is war, his goal is to back his opponents into a corner. Anyone who accepts war as the only alternative to his deal is stuck since no one wants war. A similar tactic is used by those who say you are a racist if you support Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. Let’s examine that argument more closely.

The racist argument assumes as fact the notion that Israel is “white” and that the Palestinians are a “people of color.” That concept is simply false. There are Jews in Israel who came from Africa, which should give Israel greater claim to being a “people of color” than the Arab Palestinians, but the underlying difference separating Israel and the Palestinians is religion, not race.

If those who say Israel’s existence is racist want to claim Arabs as a “people of color,” the proper response is to challenge the definition of that concept. Is it based on skin color? If so, that by itself is a racist notion. Isn’t the goal of civil rights movements to deny skin color as determining one’s destiny?

The other underlying assumption in the racist argument is the notion that it is Israel that is blocking the Palestinians from having their own state. Israel has as great if not a greater claim on the so-called occupied territories as the Palestinians. The Palestinians’ argument only makes sense if one is unwilling to go further back in time than 1967. That was the year Israel pushed Jordan out of Jerusalem, Samaria, and Judea (the so-called West Bank). Jordan had captured those territories in 1948 after the United Nations affirmed the right of the Jewish people to form their own state. Prior to 1948 those territories were part of the British Mandate which was set up after World War I to prevent chaos after the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the entire region for more than 400 years, was defeated by the Allied Powers.

Of course, it all comes down to boundaries. Where would the Palestinians place their state? From the statements and writings of the PLO (Fatah) and Hamas, the answer to that question is they want the whole thing––not just the West Bank territories, but all of present day Israel as well. Does that sound like a two-state solution?

What therefore is the proper response when someone says you’re a racist if you support Israel? Attack the statement on both assumptions. First, explain that race has nothing to do with it. Remind them that Hebrew and Arabic are both Semitic languages that came from the same region. Then explain that neither Fatah nor Hamas want a two-state solution. If anyone’s a racist, wouldn’t it be the Palestinian leaders?

Eventually someone will ask, “What is your alternative?” If the United Nations wants to create a Palestinian state, they should do so, but not where Israel presently exists, nor in Jerusalem, to which the Palestinian’s claim is fraudulent, nor in Samaria or Judea, where Israel’s claim is stronger based on the League of Nations Mandate. They ought to create it in Jordan, which was originally part of Palestine and where many of the Arab people who call themselves Palestinians resided before 1948. Also, if Egypt is willing, Gaza, which already is a fully Palestinian territory, could be enlarged to include part of the Sinai desert.

A corollary to that solution would be for Israel to offer to those Palestinians who want to remain in the West Bank or Jerusalem the same deal non-Jews who live in Israel proper receive––i.e., full citizenship in the state of Israel. It is likely that a large number of Palestinian Arabs would accept that solution since Israeli citizenship would raise their living condition above what they are today under the corrupt Palestinian Authority. Those wanting to move would be allowed to do so, going to Gaza or the new Palestinian state in Jordan.

But the key lesson I hope people take away from this essay is not to be pushed into a corner when discussing world events by allowing your opponent to frame the issue in a way that you have no choice but to accept their position. Challenge the assumptions hidden in the way the argument is presented. When Barack Obama or the boycott Israel advocates present an either/or proposition it often means the facts are against them and the only way they can win the argument is by preventing a fact-based discussion, which is why the choice they want to give their opponents is no choice at all.