Intellectual life in America has seen better days. We all agree with that. The question is: has it seen worse days?
A vibrant and functioning intellectual life requires that all ideas be stated and engaged. Such is not happening in today’s America.
In a radicalized, politically correct world one set of ideas becomes to dogmatic truth while the other side is dismissed as unworthy of discussion. Often, those who take the other side are personally attacked and demeaned. If not, their ideas are dismissed as empty-headed nonsense.
Thus is the marketplace of ideas corrupted and public debate made into a shouting match where the strong side attempts to silence the weak side.
This has been happening for decades now. The radicalized educational and media establishments have taken it upon themselves to indoctrinate their charges, insisting that leftist beliefs be taken as unquestioned truth. Thus, the marketplace of ideas has succumbed to a monopoly control. Those who do not follow the party line are put out of business.
Unhappily enough, our current president practices this same radical intellectual politics. He himself does not denounce his critics as racists and sexist, homophobic Islamophobes. He leaves that dirty work to his satraps and camp followers.
No, our president does not engage with differing ideas. He dismisses them as non-ideas, mumbo jumbo, worthless and useless, unworthy of consideration.
During the debate over the Iran deal Obama and his supporters insisted that the only choice was between his deal and war. Alternative policies, of which there were many, were dismissed as though they did not exist. Perhaps it was simply too difficult for Obama to think through them.
Recently, Bret Stephens reports, Gen. David Petraeus was asked to propose some ideas for a new strategy for dealing with Syria:
David Petraeus testified last month to the Senate Armed Services Committee on U.S. policy in the Middle East. Regarding Syria, the former general and CIA director urged a credible threat to destroy Bashar Assad’s air force if it continues to bomb its own people. He also recommended “the establishment of enclaves in Syria protected by coalition air power, where a moderate Sunni force could be supported and where additional forces could be trained, internally displaced persons could find refuge, and the Syrian opposition could organize.”
When Barack Obama was asked his views of the Petraeus proposal he responded as he has to many other alternatives to his view. He dismissed them as unworthy of his consideration:
But Barack Obama does not agree. At his Friday press conference, the president described such views as “mumbo-jumbo,” “half-baked ideas,” “as-if” solutions, a willful effort to “downplay the challenges involved in the situation.” He says the critics have no answers to the questions of “what exactly would you do and how would you fund it and how would you sustain it.”
America’s greatest living general might as well have been testifying to his shower drain for all the difference his views are going to make in this administration.
It isn’t about who is right and who is wrong. The current conditions of the Middle East ought, at the least, have taught Obama the virtue of humility. It ought to have pushed or nudged him to seek out some new ideas from a different group of advisers.
Alas, it has not. A president who is too arrogant to accept failure prefers to double down on it. Whether he is insisting that Vladimir Putin has gotten himself into a quagmire or that history is on his side, Obama refuses to deal with reality. The first symptom is his refusal to engage with dissidents in the marketplace of ideas.
If you cannot consider different policy proposals, because the only distinction you draw is between yours and theirs, you cannot conduct policy successfully. The Middle East being a case in point.
But, you will ask, what if Obama was right about Putin’s Syria quagmire? Stephens responds:
In the meantime, note what Vladimir Putin, lectured by Mr. Obama for getting Russia “stuck in a quagmire,” is achieving in Syria.
For a relatively trivial investment of some jet fighters and a brigade-sized support force, Moscow extends its influence in the eastern Mediterranean, deepens a commercially and strategically productive alliance with Iran, humiliates the U.S., boosts Mr. Putin’s popularity at home, and earns a geopolitical card he can play in any number of negotiations—Ukraine, gas contracts, Mr. Assad’s political future, you name it. If things don’t work out, he can pull up stakes within a week without much loss of money, lives or prestige. It’s a perfect play.
You cannot play in the major leagues if you are thinking in bush league terms. The game will simply pass you by, leaving you shaking your head on the sidelines.
When you ignore all alternatives to your own ideas, you are ignoring complex realities.
Stephens offers another example from the Obama playbook:
If Republicans want a tougher line in Syria, they’re warmongers. If Hillary Clinton thinks a no-fly zone is a good idea, she’s playing politics: “There is obviously a difference,” the president tut-tutted about his former secretary of state’s position, “between running for president and being president.”
Obama pretends that he is being forced to choose between doing nothing and re-invading the Middle East. He believes that withdrawal from the region was a major achievement. Stephens explains that Petraeus has offered an alternative, one that requires level of subtle thinking that seems to be beyond the president:
“It is frequently said that there is no ‘military solution’ to Syria,” Gen. Petraeus said in his testimony. “This may be true, but it is also misleading. For, in every case, if there is to be hope of a political settlement, a certain military and security context is required—and that context will not materialize on its own.” Is this, too, mumbo-jumbo?