Elevate Difference

Get Opinionated: A Progressive’s Guide to Finding Your Voice (and Taking a Little Action)

A few years ago, my uncle, the family’s token conservative, sent me a copy of Dinesh D’Souza’s Letters to a Young Conservative, probably to irk my mother. Despite my inclinations, I decided to give it a try. The first chapter of Letters is masterful, beginning with a lecture D’Souza gave at Columbia University, at which he was greeted with crowds of angry, rioting, liberal students bent on silencing his conservative point of view. D’Souza recalls fighting his way through bullhorns and posters saying things about “capitalism” and “imperialism.” D'Souza presented this situation as a testament to the sorry state of modern liberalism. Although today this sequence may remind us of a Tea Party rally, the image of the crazed young liberal beating drums and waving signs is one that’s hard to shake.

I thought of D'Souza's Letters while reading a new book on modern progressivism, Get Opinionated by Amanda Marcotte, editor of Pandagon and regular contributor to RH Reality Check and Slate's Double X blog. Both are fiery calls to action from well-respected authors. Unfortunately, both are also a little light on facts and evidence.

Marcotte clearly sees her goal as motivating liberals—ostensibly young liberals—to become more politically aware and take steps in their own lives to see their ideals realized. “Consciousness raising isn’t just for identity politics,” she tells the reader, urging him or her to leave comments on blogs to foster intellectual discourse. Marcotte says that to counter anti-government histrionics from conservatives progressives need to put forth “positive, truth-based counter-arguments to raise people’s consciousness.” If only Get Opinionated practiced what it preaches.

The problem is that Marcotte isn’t arming her readers with strong arguments. Instead, Get Opinionated teaches readers that hyperbole will suffice when it comes to shaping political beliefs. If Marcotte urges her readers to go forth and debate, then she should also explain that they should be equipped with serious arguments and evidence, which some progressives aren’t.

Marcotte acknowledges that liberals often have a PR problem. Addressing the war on drugs, for example, she reminds us that stoners don’t make the best spokespersons, stressing that, instead, sensible drug policies are best fought for by someone who looks good in a suit, doesn’t smoke pot, and will discuss the social and economic ramifications of mass incarceration. But while Marcotte notes that a reasoned liberal makes a stronger case, she doesn’t always follow her own advice.

“Deep down inside, we all wish people read and thought about subjects in a little more depth,” she writes. But when it comes to offering a framework for addressing more touchy subjects, Marcotte has a harder time presenting sober, nuanced opinions. Take, for example, her discussion of terrorism. The language used in discussions about terrorism is tricky, with liberals often confusing their emotions about Bush's misadventures in Iraq with the separate issue of terrorism. Marcotte herself falls victim to the dangers of emotional rhetoric. “The most likely explanation for the unnecessary histrionics at airport security is that they’re part of the ‘frog in boiling water’ strategy of introducing a stronger police state,” she writes. Such an argument echoes the kind of wacky conspiracy theories that keep liberal opinions from being taken seriously. Perhaps Marcotte is right, but such accusations need evidence. Presented only as speculation, they are no better than Fox News claiming Barack Obama is a socialist.

Political debate should not rely on ad hominem attacks, but that good idea is frequently overshadowed by the ways in which Marcotte fires at conservatives. A great blogger, journalist, and feminist, Marcotte is just the person to demonstrate the sexist implications of social conservatism. Instead, she intimates that socially conservative men get turned on by talk of “family” and that they spend an inordinate amount of time “monitoring the status of their teenage daughters’ hymens.” These accusations are counterproductive, sidetracking the debate from the actual reasons social conservatism harms women. Marcotte risks alienating potential supporters of women’s rights by giving a distasteful comment while setting a low bar for political debate.

Marcotte is at her best when she argues that “You Don’t Have to Be a Stinky Hippie to Care about the Environment,” the name of her first chapter. She paints an enticing picture of a life in which Americans ride bikes, grow gardens, eat less meat, and save energy in myriad ways. But most liberals already accept that America needs to reduce its carbon footprint. So even though this is a strong point, it is by far the most conventional.

What Marcotte misses in her book is that liberal thought today still lacks a coherent and well-reasoned approach to national security. It’s too bad she took a reactive stance rather than the positive goal of creating a new, liberal approach. It is precisely because Marcotte repeatedly invokes the power of conversation, debate, and good information that the lack of careful reasoning in the book is so strange. Get Opinionated is clearly Marcotte’s own vision of liberalism, one that she hopes will inspire others to think and talk. However, she should demonstrate how to formulate intelligent and persuasive opinions, not just encourage her readers to get political.

“I want badly to say that reading this book means you’re already on the right path, but humility forces me to declare that it is only marginally deeper than Jon Stewart’s book featuring naked pictures of historical figures,” Marcotte says. She could argue that Get Opinionated was all in good fun, that this review is overblown because she wasn’t that serious. But publishing a book has responsibilities, especially when it purports to represent a liberal viewpoint. Marcotte is smart and could have done better. Instead, she may have accidentally given D’Souza new fodder for a second Letters.

This article was created by Campus Progress.

Written by: Pema Levy, May 5th 2010

That was a very interesting review. I would add that one problem with progressive groups is that they're disorganized.

Yes, I know that progressive groups (which certainly includes feminist organizations) don't have as much money as conservative groups. Still, organization isn't just about money. It's about commitment, it's about following through on promises. As long as progressives say they will attend a meeting but never attend it, as long as say that they believe in equal rights but keep using sexist language, we're not going to build the trust that is so necessary to sustain a long-term social movement.