There is no one in public life I admire more than the noted conservative legal and political philosopher, Robert P. George of Princeton University. He is a man of rock-solid integrity, a supremely accomplished scholar, an influential public intellectual, a beloved mentor and colleague, and a tireless advocate for free speech and respect for the dignity of all human life. He is an outstanding advertisement for the value of religious faith in one’s life and interactions. He is also lovable and charismatic.
But on one matter, I take issue with the eminent Professor George. And that is his insistence that it is vital for conservatives to try to engage with progressives on nearly every issue, provided that both sides agree to certain parameters.
As George put it in a 2017 joint statement with his close friend and frequent partner in public dialogue, the African-American scholar and self-identified socialist Cornel West: “All of us should be willing—even eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of truth-seeking discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence, and making arguments.”
George often refers to what he calls “reasonable people of goodwill.” The trouble is, at this point, he is just about the only person in the United States who falls into that category.
I hasten to say that I am not a person of renown or brilliance. It is an act of gargantuan effrontery for me to criticize a person I consider to be a genuinely great and good man. I have watched many of his lectures and public appearances online, listened to interviews with him on podcasts and on television and radio, watched online the entirety of his famous Princeton University courses on Constitutional Interpretation and on Civil Liberties, and read several of his books. The book Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, of which George is a co-author, is a classic of science writing for general audiences, and his first book, Making Men Moral, is a fascinating, much-cited study of the use of the law to create better societies and citizens. Reading his work and listening to what he has to say have made me a better citizen and person.
However, I have—in the jargon so beloved on the left—life experiences that render me skeptical about George’s touching belief in the fruitfulness of conservative-progressive dialogue.
Are Liberal Ideas Really Worth Engaging?
Like Professor George, I grew up in and live in a university town. In his case, the state was conservative West Virginia and his surroundings and background more rural and far more modest than mine—as he puts it, “hillbilly.” In my case, it was the increasingly left-wing Oregon. Everyone I love the most in the world is liberal. Like George, who is a professor at Princeton, I am surrounded by mostly liberal co-workers. Unlike him, though, I lack a vast network of social conservatives, and I do not have a Cornel West of my own to provide me with a sense that reasonable of people of good will still abound.
By background, I should be a classic Hillary Clinton-type Democrat. I am a single woman in a white-collar job raised without much in the way of religion in a liberal family in the godless Pacific Northwest. I have been an NPR listener since I was around seven years old. (I am now 58.) For decades, I have been a subscriber of the usual reading matter of upper-middle class white progressives: The New Republic, The Atlantic, The New Yorker. What I have found there makes me doubt that there is much to be gained from engaging with progressives.
Basically, you just don’t learn anything. Indeed, NPR could be renamed “National Predictable Radio.” The bulk of the content of these outlets is repetitious, boring, sanctimonious and shallow. It amounts to little more than propaganda—approved by a self-appointed cultural elite and fed to people who want to be reinforced in their liberal beliefs and sense of personal rectitude (“virtue”) for thinking the “right” thoughts and holding the “right” (i.e., left) views. This affects even the five-minute news bulletins on public radio. They can’t even seem to read the news without including some sort of utterly gratuitous anti-Republican slam.
The obsessions of these outlets affect even what one would assume would be politically neutral cultural reporting. Sometimes, they result in comically strained efforts. A report on a new opera, for example, must have something to do with climate change, race relations, transgenderism, the #metoo movement, income inequality, or the dastardly Donald Trump.
So when public intellectuals on the right plead with fellow conservatives to open their minds and be willing to engage liberal ideas and arguments, I can honestly say I’ve done that! Unfortunately, I have found that few organs of liberal thought offer up any actual ideas or make any real arguments. I’m willing to be open-minded, but liberals are going to have to give me better material.
Progressives Have Politicized Everyday Life
And all of us conservatives have experienced the weird habit progressives have of inserting these obsessions into settings that, until a few years ago, had been considered free of political discord. In my case, this happens most often with my fellow white women of late middle age.
Here are some examples. During an intimate physical exam in October 2020 or so, a female gynecologist told me that President Trump was going to pressure the FDA to approve an unsafe Covid-19 vaccine to help him win the election. When I praised the heroism of the police who rushed into my mother’s burning house, a female neighbor replied, “Well, we have to remember that we are white and privileged . . .” In the eye doctor’s waiting room, a retired nurse tells me that she has been riveted by the trial of Derek Chauvin. Moreover, she says proudly, her daughters have both married men of color. She speaks as if those sons-in-law are some kind of a trophy she has won at a fair and not men with individual personalities, virtues, and flaws.
I swim in a sea of progressivism and wokeism, and I can scarcely cite an interaction of recent years with a progressive that causes me to consider what Robert P. George and his fellow champions of open-mindedness want me to consider—the possibility that liberals are right, at least about some important things.
Liberals Aren’t Interested In Truth-Seeking
In my view, George is being far too charitable in his blithe assumption that progressives have any actual interest in truth-seeking. Can anyone name a single public radio program hosted by a conservative or one that features one speaking as a conservative? At best, you might find the liberals’ favorite so-called conservative, David Brooks, popping up for short segments. As we all know, public broadcasting’s version of balance is to feature reporters from say, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Politico talking to a liberal host. Do you ever hear Byron York or Mollie Hemingway on NPR? Or Alexandra DeSanctis Marr? Where is this “truth-seeking” supposed to take place? At universities, where admission policies are so opaque that determining if conservative applicants are being treated fairly is impossible? Would a young Robert P. George get into Yale these days? I work in a non-teaching job in academe, and even writing this essay under my own name makes me nervous. In workplaces, where the recent rage for Pride Month pro-homosexual flag-waving made very clear that taking any sort of public stand for traditional marriage is career poison? In one’s daily interactions in a small community? Try being a Trumper in heavily liberal Corvallis, Oregon, and see how that goes. On social media? Tell that to Parler.
Shaky “Science” and Unethical Medicine
As I say, I was born in and raised in a university town. Oregon State University is a research institution, and the adults who were my parents’ friends were often scientists and medical professionals. In recent years, however, my faith in the good will of the liberals in science and technology has been shaken.
Consider, as Exhibit A, the dismissal out of hand by the scientific left of the perfectly plausible theory that COVID-19 escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China simply because Donald Trump put some stock in that theory. The scientific establishment on the left not only was abandoning the scientific method because of Trump Derangement Syndrome. It also smeared and mocked scientists who were true to their callings and said that the theory was worth looking into. It tried to ruin their careers and banish them from their vocations for engaging in the truth-seeking that Robert P. George has nobly championed and practiced throughout his life.
Or think of Exhibit B: the dangerous opposition by leftist medical professionals to any serious research on the effect of transgender “treatments” on young children over the course of their lives. What kind of medicine is it to allow the chemical and surgical castration and mastectomies of children who are not actually ill?
How can we engage in truth-seeking dialogue with fanatics who deny that there is even a theory worth examining or who refuse to study the effects of a life-altering medical procedure or life-long hormone-regime that is based on the confused mental state of a child? Such shaky “science” can hardly be called science at all.
Yet these charlatans exhort America to “believe the scientists,” all the while discrediting and undermining science itself. Truth-seeking, indeed.
Is “Truth-Seeking” Worth Conservatives’ Time?
Truth-seeking takes time. George argues that it is vital to social comity, civilization generally, and one’s own moral standing. But that’s hard to swallow if, by truth-seeking, George means stomaching progressive drivel that one could sum up after reading the first paragraph or attending a potluck of white Unitarians who assume all Republicans are racists. Don’t conservatives have better uses for their time? We don’t all have the easy access to the progressives with impressive intellects that George engages with in the Ivy League.
Moreover, we are not all Robert P. Georges. That is to say, he is a leading light of American conservative thought. He is respected by his foes and charming in person, which makes him welcomed by audiences in any forum he graces. The rest of us dwell in less lofty locales and do not possess his powers of persuasion. Our truth-seeking efforts are bound to be less efficacious than his.
The left has long been suspicious of the idea of objective truth. Today, even conservatives have become wary of the whole project of “truth-seeking,” which has become closely associated with the anti-white racism of critical race theory. The phrase now conjures up images of white people being made to abase themselves in the workplace or having their children taught that every white person is a racist, and that that is the “truth” that cannot be denied. Of course, George would rightly argue that true truth-seeking is not racialist or revenge-hungry.
To his credit, George does make clear that one must oppose compelled speech. He has been an outspoken critic of the increasing Orwellian insistence of the left that, for example, we all must agree to call someone who is manifestly a man “she.” As George famously put it, “Ordinary authoritarians are content to forbid people from saying things they believe to be true. Totalitarians insist on requiring people to say things they believe to be false.”
Professor George does not sugarcoat the professional, personal consequences of standing up for the truth. He is an eloquent, courageous person. It is just that he underplays at times the sheer mendacity and power-seeking of the left, which he described so powerfully in his 2019 remarks at the Catholic Information Center’s Annual Dinner.
Still, one loves him for never giving up on his fellow man.