No defense of “no labels”

David Frum has responded to Stanley Kurtz’s critique of David’s recently launched “no labels” movement. David offers no real argument I could detect in favor of his position that the use of labels like “socialist” is improper in political discourse. Instead, he mainly argues (1) that Stanley’s book, Radical-in-Chief, doesn’t engage the question of whether socialism is a bad thing and (2) that, in any event, the book fails to make the case that Barack Obama is a socialist.
David’s first point is mostly true, but no important conclusions flow from it. Radical-in-Chief is a political/intellectual history of Barack Obama. It describes the ideas that Obama has subscribed to, the causes Obama has fought for, and the groups he has fought alongside. It concludes from this analysis that Obama is a socialist.
This descriptive approach is legitimate. The political/intellectual historian is not required to, and often does not, add a prescriptive component by evaluating the merits of whatever belief system the subject is found to have subscribed to. To take an extreme case, one would not expect a political/intellectual history of, say, Alger Hiss, to demonstrate that communism is misguided. Nor would one require an intellectual history of a major religious figure or movement to argue that God does, or does not, exist.
But Stanley does evaluate the consequences of key aspects of Obama’s radicalism. For example, Obama worked with ACORN and others who were dedicated to forcing financial institutions to make loans and extend credit to low-income, and therefore high risk, individuals. Stanley discusses the ruinous consequences of this ideologically driven poilcy. Similarly, Obama worked with Bill Ayers to use funds intended to improve school quality for leftist ideological purposes. Stanley shows that school quality did not improve.
Stanley doesn’t bother to take on Reverend Wright’s belief system, but I don’t blame him.
Even assuming, however, that Stanley’s book should have spent more time assessing the merits of the ideas and actions Stanley thinks make Obama a socialist, this would not be an argument against using labels. Rather, it would be an argument in favor of coupling the usage of labels with more policy analysis.
David’s second point is that, in his opinion, Radical-in-Chief fails to demonstrate that Obama is a socialist. Reasonable people can disagree on this score, but it must be noted that David’s rendering of the evidence presented by Stanley is superficial and unfair.
Stanley has demonstated this, I think, so I’ll focus on two other points. First, once again, David’s argument doesn’t support his campaign against the use of labels; instead it reflects his disagreement with the aptness of the label Stanley has selected.
Second, Stanley’s book makes a valuable contribution even if he got the label wrong. The book’s contribution is that it analyzes, more comprehensively than any other work I’m aware of, Obama’s past intellectual and political activity. Stanley (and I) think the facts presented justify the label “socialism;” others reasonably disagree.
In any event, Radical-in-Chief advances the inquiry in two ways: (1) by presenting new facts and (2) by spurring debate about what these facts add up to. The first of these purposes could have been accomplished without using labels, but the second — which also entails a debate about what it means to be a socialist — could not have been.
There is a school of philosophical thought — to which I’m sympathetic — holding that labels ultimately aren’t very important. As my jurisprudence professor used to say, “state the similarities, state the differences, and then you’re done.” Stanely could have stopped after listing the ways in which Obama’s political and intellectual history is consistent with socialism and the ways in which it is not.
But not many people write this way. And even if Stanley had chosen to, he still would have had to put the label “socialism” on the table. And it would have been quite obvious that, in Stanley’s view, the similarities significantly outweigh the differences.


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