For his debut New York Times column, Bret Stephens penned a tepid article in which he made the completely rational suggestion that both sides of the climate-change debate might fare better if they were open to hearing out the opposition’s arguments. Perhaps then, he argues, they could better work toward some sort of solution. It’s the type of platitude the Left is always pretending they want to hear from conservatives.
They don’t. The overwhelming reaction, as usual, was “Burn the witch!” If you challenge climate change alarmism, you’re a denier of science. If you believe Obamacare is flawed policy, you support killing poor Americans. If you support tax cuts, you’re a pawn of the plutocracy. There is a perfunctory reaction for every issue; a prefabricated smear devised just for the occasion. Every one is meant to circumvent debate while imbuing the Left’s position with a (fake) patina of morality and “science.”
Within this world, there’s no space left for any conversation that doesn’t begin with “You’re right. What can I do to help?” Thousands of educated people will supposedly unsubscribe from one of Left’s most prestigious institutions — an institution that reliably furthers liberal positions on their news pages every day — because it ran one op-ed challenging the idea that man can predict the future with certitude. (On Sunday, The Times published an op-ed arguing that fans of twentieth century Communists were just well-intentioned, naïf-ish do-gooders. This is fine.)
Journalists sprinted to Twitter to tell everyone not that they merely disagree with Stephens’ take, but that such a position is immoral, “insidious,” unprofessional, and shouldn’t exist in a reputable paper. As Mollie Hemingway has noted numerous times, when it comes to the bias, snark, and the dismissiveness that reporters have towards conservatives, Twitter has been incredibly illuminating.
Even some media critics, supposed champions of open debate like the Washington Post’s Eric Wemple, wrote that the Stephens article was not only “baffling and irresponsible” but “dreadfully argued.” It is a long-standing method of partisans to diminish the standing of those with whom they disagree by attacking their professionalism. The idea that Stephens’s piece was poorly argued or less cogent or more fact-driven than, say, a typical Charles Blow column, is laughable. A moderate conservative like Stephens — embraced when taking on Sean Hannity but less so when taking on Democrats — will have an entirely different set of standards to live by.
The Right has plenty of problems, but the reaction to this column reflects the rigidity and close-mindedness that has infected the Left. It shows that partisanship has increasingly become a faith-based proposition. Dissent isn’t treated as misguided opinion, but as apostasy.
The fact that environmentalists have reliably been wrong in predicting the climate over the past 50 years doesn’t seem to bother any of these self-styled truth-seekers. In any other non-political sphere it would be reasonable to point this out. If we had engaged in the baffling and irresponsible habit of basing our public policy on the warnings of Malthusians, we’d be living in a poorer, more immoral, and darker world, indeed. So it’s peculiar (or should be) to hear the same people throw around “denialism” — a stupid, meaningless catchword that has now become part of the Left’s vernacular.
Of course, the word is meant to intimate Holocaust denial, because, as you’ve no doubt heard, climate change is biggest threat facing humanity ever. But climate “denial” is no longer simply aimed at people who refute that humans play some role in causing global warming. Now it’s aimed at those who show the slightest bit of skepticism (like Stephens) about the hyperbolic scaremongering that transforms science into political dogma.
A “denialist” is now anyone who believes that the policy prescriptions the Left offers are at best useless and at worst harmful. Some of us believe in man-made climate change, but also in human adaptability. Moreover, science doesn’t dictate all things. It is not denialism to proffer that state control of economic choices as the only way to “fight climate change in any genuine way” has a poor track record and isn’t worth the tradeoff.
Now, this position might be wrong, but it’s not denialism. To Stephens’ broader point, making dissent off-limits makes it far more difficult to convince anyone of your view. Proselytizing through fire and brimstone hasn’t exactly produced results for liberals on this issue. Very few people care about the issue in any meaningful way, certainly not in practice.
As for the piece, there are two ways to look at the kerfuffle: First, that it reflects a growing narrow-mindedness and illiberalism on the Left, not only by self-proclaimed activists but supposed journalists who would rather bury ideas than debate them. Or we can take the brighter outlook, and point out that The New York Times just published a piece that — very gently — challenged liberal orthodoxy. Let’s see who wins.