Perhaps because I teach in one of the reddest counties in the country — Orange — but every quarter, I make it clear to my students that I’m not interested in indoctrinating them. I’m left of liberal in my politics, but when I’m in the classroom, I’m interested in one thing and one thing alone: teaching these students how to construct a stronger argument. When I argue with conservatives online, I’m arguing with people who don’t know how to argue (or whose idea of arguing involves suing people who disagree with them). I tell my students I’m looking to create a better class of opponents. That I’d rather disagree with people who can state their beliefs forcefully, so that I didn’t always feel like I’m beating candy from a baby.
Since 2001, in the back of my mind, I always imagined I wanted to train my conservative students into being a wee Hitchens.
I know I’ll take flack for this, but honestly, the reason the left reviled Hitchens as strongly as it did was because it realized that it had a formidable opponent. For the most part, the left argues with the likes of Grover Norquist, whose influence is undeniable but whose skills are very much comparable.
Hitchens was different. We can turn a phrase, but he could cant and pirouette it. As I wrote after learning he died:
He’s basically our generation’s G.K. Chesterton: wrong about it all, but beautifully so.
I stand by it. He attacked Mother Teresa, and justifiably so, when he felt it necessary. And he embraced an unjust war, unjustifiably so, when he felt it necessary. But he also waterboarded himself, to justify himself, because he felt it was necessary, and he backed down. He was the opposition we should hate, because he makes his case so strongly; but he was also the opposition we should love, because he challenged us to make our argument in its strongest form and changed his mind to fit the facts.
Would that we always had opponents so eloquent and wrong.
UPDATE: Because it was brought up in the comments, I thought I’d at least shed a little light on how I deal with other “leading thinkers” in the conservative movement. I just don’t want anybody confused about the issue here, which is argumentative integrity, not correctness.
UPDATE II: Because someone brought up that I’d said it better before, here’s “Liberal Fascism: Two Words Next To Each Other.“