When I was in law school, a student group brought in the director of a local film festival, or someone like that, to talk about a state subsidy that had become a political issue. The speaker told a story about the fallout from a fight over a small state grant, but she made some sweeping generalizations about the legislators involved that I knew to be false (I had worked for one of them for a few years before law school, so I knew the background).
Her big claim was that everyone against the subsidy had lost their reelection campaigns. It didn’t feel right telling her that her conclusion was misinformed in front of a large crowd. And the rest of my classmates didn’t ask any questions that would have revealed the shallowness of the speaker’s understanding of the relevant first amendment issues (even though I’m fairly certain that everyone in the room could see a few distinctions that the speaker didn’t seem to recognize).
I thought about that event recently when the conservative publisher Ben Shapiro challenged the congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to a debate for $10,000. Following a few less-than-flattering interviews in which Ocasio-Cortez made some unusual comments, Shapiro seemed ready to get in on the fun. But her response was to compare that debate offer to getting catcalled on the street.
That’s actually a pretty great response. It completely shifted the attention away from the prior interviews and toward something that everyone can relate to, even if only from seeing it on television. We can easily visualize men whistling at attractive women in the street, but visualizing budget deficits or the relative merits of financing healthcare one way rather than another? C’mon.
So the result of that is that Shapiro is compared to a creepy guy, and Ocasio-Cortez looks like a leader for correctly asserting that she doesn’t owe a response to unsolicited advances from either creeps looking for companionship, or ideological opponents looking for attention.
The downside of this distraction — and it is a distraction; Ocasio-Cortez could have simply ignored Shapiro and achieved the same result with respect to the proposed debate — is that we’re not having a public debate about the misery that would follow from moving the country in a socialist direction. Instead, we’re literally having a debate about debates.
It seems like we’re forgetting the basics about these things. One of the main benefits of real debates is that open-minded people can see who has a better case on some issue. People who like to participate in debates rarely are expecting to change the mind of the person that they’re debating; they’re participating because they want to convince the undecided audience that they are right, or to change the minds of people in the audience who aren’t as tied to a position as the debate participant.
My classmates and I could have pointed out to the film festival speaker that refusing to subsidize art isn’t the same thing as censoring it, but everyone in the audience already knew that. Unfortunately, it’s obvious that many people still need to learn how awful socialism is. In this, and in other matters of public importance, it seems like there are far too few instances of people from opposite sides of the issues having real public debates.
(Isn’t it odd, though, that it’s always the socialists who don’t want to have these discussions?)
There’s a time and a place to talk about any given issue. During a lunch event at a law school with an invited guest didn’t seem like the right time to get into the details of which candidates lost which elections. And I don’t get the feeling that before a congressional candidate is even elected is the time to be debating conservative commentators.
Ocasio-Cortez is not yet elected to congress. Her general-election opponents include a 72-year old Republican who is a professor of economics. If I were the Republican, I would want to have as many debates with her as I could schedule, particularly because she made an issue in her Democratic primary about her opponent not wanting to debate her.
I’m not sure how many bets are more of a sure thing than that the Republican is not going to win this election, but what an opportunity for public debate. Assuming he avoids talking about irrelevant issues, you would think that an economics professor could show how awful socialism would be for Americans. (Based on the two brief articles I’ve read about the Republican, however, I don’t actually think this economics professor could do that, but that’s not really the point.)