On Moving the Political Needle

I was on an adjacent sub and saw someone predicting, on a timeframe of a few decades, a mass conversion of progressives to Islam. My first reaction was that the idea was ridiculous. Upon further consideration, I thought it was worth thinking about how such a misconception could even arise. (Sorry if anyone feels called out by this.)

Anyway, here's a general theory about political discourse. Imagine the spectrum of opinions on a political issue as a vehicle dashboard gauge with a dial and a needle, like a speedometer. The rationalist and rationalist-adjacent ("gray tribe") norm for political argumentation is for the speaker to express where they would put the needle. The goal of a typical pronouncement is to answer the following question: if the speaker had sole control over the issue, what would they do? In contrast, the left-liberal and left ("blue tribe") norm is for the speaker to express which direction they want the needle to move in. The argument is always relative to the overall state of the discourse.

One way to understand the ethos of American left-liberalism is that it is essentially "post-Protestant" --- the transference of liberal Protestant values of individual freedom, pluralism, and social justice into a secular framework. (As Matthew Rose put it: "The central fact of American religion today is that liberal Protestantism is dead and everywhere triumphant.") Left-liberals understand perfectly well that this value system is in conflict with the more communalist aspects of Islam. The reason they're focused on defending Islam's compatibility with American values is not that they prefer Islam to Christianity, it's that they're trying to counteract people who claim that Christianity deserves a privileged position in the Anglo-American public sphere. They're trying to push the needle away from the "Judeo-Christian ethics" understanding of Americanism, not place it all the way over at sharia.

Sometimes Scott gets this and sometimes he doesn't. His comparison of reactions to the deaths of Osama bin Ladin and Thatcher constitutes, in my opinion, a failure to appreciate this point. Reactions to Osama's death were muted among liberals in part because in the context of a racist and Islamophobic society, there was a reflexive (and arguably justified) fear that they would spill over into general intolerance and xenophobia. In contrast, no one was seriously concerned about violence against Thatcher or Reagan supporters.

On the other hand, Scott's reading of Chomsky is an example of him correctly understanding this phenomenon:

Because if people have heard all their life that A is pure good and B is total evil, and you hand them some dense list of facts suggesting that in some complicated way their picture might be off, they’ll round it off to “A is nearly pure good and B is nearly pure evil, but our wise leaders probably got carried away by their enthusiasm and exaggerated a bit, so it’s good that we have some eggheads to worry about all these technical issues.” The only way to convey a real feeling for how thoroughly they’ve been duped is to present the opposite narrative – the one saying that A is total evil and B is pure good – then let the two narratives collide and see what happens.