Beyond Winning The Round

Matt Yglesias ponders intellectual honesty. This prompts Noah Millman to make a distinction between pundits who make arguments that they think are true and pundits who make arguments according to political affiliation. Julian Sanchez illustrates the difference:

Back when I debated for NYU, I was always honest: I would not knowingly assert factual falsehoods. But I was often intellectually dishonest, because my job in those particular contests was not to engage in an impartial search for Platonic truth; it was to win the damn round... I certainly wouldn’t volunteer my own doubts about my arguments, or acknowledge responses I thought had hit homeunless strategically, as a prelude to a stronger counter.

Sanchez wants writers to give "the full and sincere engagement of their brains, including all the doubts and reservations, rather than the most vigorous defense they can offer of a position." But in my view, that often is the most vigorous defense. If you can include the obvious counter-points, acknowledge their strengths and still argue forcefully against them, you are much more persuasive.

When I was a debater at the Oxford Union - in other words, when it really was a game in some post-adolescent sense - my own decision was often to pick what would likely be the losing side. I enjoyed trying to hone the best case for an unpopular position. In three years of debating, I think I was on the winning side of the debate once.

For some reason, I'm feeling nostalgic these days and I was thinking yesterday of exactly one of those 06-the-oxford-union-debating-chamber-pic-courtesy-rajiv-dabas-2 debates when my side lost decisively - and how it resonates in my mind still. The motion was "There is no moral difference between the foreign policies of the United States and the Soviet Union." It was a big event which, as president I had originally set up - between then US defense secretary Caspar Weinberger and E.P. Thompson, the Marxist historian. I picked Thompson's side, which was a little shocking to my Oxford peers given I was a paid-up Thatcherite and Reaganite who actually welcomed the arrival of Pershing missiles in Britain with a bratty champagne party. But it wasn't only perversity and the thrill of making a case I knew would lose that drew me in. Looking back, the argument I made is one that has actually dominated this blog these past few years.

My point was that America's democracy did not exonerate it from moral judgment in its conduct of foreign policy; and that the use of military force, directly or by proxy, had to obey universal moral norms that were not suddenly exempted because one side was a dictatorship and one a democracy. The use of violence was the use of violence; war crimes were war crimes even if the side which committed them was more generally benign than the other; warfare and realpolitik - whether exercized by the US or the UK or the USSR - were to be judged by universal standards. In other words, my speech was a Tory critique of American exceptionalism. I recall looking directly at Weinberger and uttering this neoconservative heresy (I paraphrase from memory):

"You are just another country; just another republic in the history of the world. You are subject to the judgment of history, not exempt by the fact of merely being America."

Later, I interrupted Weinberger's speech at one point with the simple question, decrying his logical dependence on the internal democratic system of the US as the core reason its actions were always morally superior to the Soviets:

"Does an immoral act become less immoral because we have the right to choose to do it or not?"

I have been accused of inconsistency, idiosyncrasy and God knows how many things over the past decade as my revulsion at neoconservative hubris has deepened. But that teenage debater was onto something. And I cling to it still.