To keep up on state politics in Georgia, I often tune in to my local NPR station’s politics podcast “Political Breakfast”. For two consecutive weeks (5/28/21 and 6/4/21), the show waded into the national debate over critical race theory (CRT), made salient to Georgia politics by our governor’s recent actions, and the show’s Republican communications operative Brian Robinson defended the Republican assault on CRT. As a liberal without many conservative friends, I find Robinson’s presence on the show generally helpful as he usually presents arguments for conservative positions that I don’t encounter elsewhere. This doesn’t mean that Robinson’s arguments are often good, but they do frequently reveal something about conservative positions that I’d miss if I didn’t tune in.
Robinson’s anti-CRT argument these past two weeks seems best reconstructed as follows:
- CRT teaches students that America is not the greatest country in the world.
- But America is the greatest country in the world.
- We shouldn’t teach theories or ideologies that misrepresent the world.
- Therefore, we shouldn’t teach CRT.
(Quick sidenote here – sometimes both Robinson and Theron Johnson, his opposite on the podcast, switched effortlessly between “CRT teaches students that America is not the greatest country in the world” and “CRT teaches students that America should be hated” when discussing this argument. I don’t think one of these claims generally follows from the other, and substituting one for the other generates an entirely different argument. I’m focusing on the above version here because I think Johnson effectively addressed the argument that CRT leads to hatred of America on the June 4th podcast, and its obvious flaws make it unworthy of serious consideration. I think there are many who might say the same about the argument I’m devoting this blog post to as well.)
The target that critics of this argument (and others like it) have tended to focus on is its first premise: that CRT teaches students that America is not the greatest country in the world. Many have pointed out that CRT doesn’t teach what conservatives claim it teaches, that the bogeyman they’ve constructed bears little resemblance to the CRT taught in (mostly graduate and law) schools. I don’t have much to add to this part of the conversation (though here’s a fine overview of CRT and the state of the political debate over it for those interested), and I agree that this premise is likely false.
However, I think going primarily after premise 1 is unlikely to succeed (if any strategy will) in addressing the conservative concerns that motivate Robinson’s argument. First, attacks on premise 1 require conservatives to make a good-faith effort to understand what CRT actually is, which many conservative politicians and Robinson himself have yet to show themselves willing to do. But perhaps more importantly, focusing on premise 1 threatens to turn the entire debate into a question of how to label the phenomenon that conservatives are concerned about. Conservatives’ concrete targets in arguments like Robinson’s are works like The New York Times’s 1619 project, not what academics call CRT. Pointing out to conservatives that CRT is a framework for legal analysis that isn’t taught outside of graduate and law schools will likely lead to one of the following responses: “Okay, fine, then give me something else to call the stuff I’m talking about,” or “The kind of worldview that CRT represents has percolated into the kind of work that we care about, so calling it CRT is fine.” Either way, conservatives won’t have to modify Robinson’s argument much to address these attacks on premise 1. I also think that, years from now, conservatives will trot out slightly tweaked versions of Robinson’s argument that modify that first premise and conclusion to address their straw man du jour. So I want to instead tackle premises 2 and to give (I hope) a more promising and lasting criticism of Robinson’s argument.
Let’s start with premise 3 (“We shouldn’t teach theories or ideologies that misrepresent the world”), in part because, while this premise is certainly false, attacking it likely isn’t a winning strategy for those opposed to Robinson’s argument either, and I’ll have less to say about it than I will about premise 2. Knowing a little about what’s taught in American high school physics classes today is sufficient to see the problems with premise 3 – it is simultaneously true that 1) Newtonian mechanics is the backbone of most high school physics curricula and 2) Newtonian mechanics is a literally false scientific theory, but no one takes 2 as grounds for trying to change 1. The reason conservative legislators aren’t trying to ban Newtonian mechanics from public school classrooms the same way that they’re trying to ban CRT (aside from the fact that it’s not politically expedient for them to do so) is that Newtonian mechanics is a usefully false scientific theory – it’s (relatively) mathematically simple, it introduces key mathematical and physical concepts that help students develop a deeper scientific understanding of the world around them, and it gets the motion of everyday middle-sized physical objects approximately correct. Approximation and idealization are key parts of scientific theorizing that require us to accept some convenient fictions as valuable, and the same is true for social theorizing. Even Robinson seemed to acknowledge the fact that any social theory is going to misrepresent the world in the June 4 podcast, stating that we have to pick and choose what we teach (and don’t) in history classes. So premise 3 is false – what conservatives need to argue is not only that CRT is false, but that it misrepresents the world in a deeply unhelpful way.
I don’t think pushing on premise 3 is the best way to address Robinson’s argument, though, because I think most people will see an attack on premise 3 as conceding that CRT is a false theory in a way that other theories we teach our children aren’t (something I am not willing to concede). This strategy also has the same problems as attacking premise 1: if CRT is complicated and hard to understand, how can we expect people to do a good job evaluating the claim that CRT viciously (or virtuously) misrepresents the world? And, by tweaking premises 1 and 3 to focus not on false theories but unhelpfully false theories, Robinson’s argument may be saved. So my focus in this post is on premise 2: the claim that “America is the greatest country in the world.” I understand why liberals (including Johnson) haven’t wanted to push conservatives on this particular premise: doing so may make them look unpatriotic and may lead others to question their love of both their country and their fellow citizens. But I think challenging premise 2 is essential for defusing the threat of Robinson’s argument and others like it, and I think it presents a broader strategy that liberals need to take in responding to the language conservatives and right-wing media have weaponized so effectively in recent years.
I’m certainly not the first person to push back on the claim “America is the greatest country in the world” – Aaron Sorkin’s done it, a Texas entrepreneur’s done it, and so have an increasing number of young Americans. But the criticisms of this claim typically attempt to show that it’s false, that, by many measures, other countries are better than the US. This is not the primary tactic I want to deploy. Instead, my concern with the claim that America is the greatest country in the world is that, in most contexts in which it’s made, it’s meaningless; or, to be more specific, it’s ambiguous, admitting many different interpretations, some of which are hard to support, some of which are irrelevant to the purposes at hand, and some of which are demonstrably false.
When I claim that “X is the greatest Y”, I think there are at least 5 different ways of understanding what it is I’m expressing:
A) “I like X a lot, more than any other Y.”
B) “There is an objective list of qualities that make Ys great, and X scores better with respect to each item on this list than any other Y.”
C) “There is an objective list of qualities that make Ys great and an objective way to weigh these qualities against each other, and, in aggregate, X scores better, given this list and weightings, than any other Y.”
D) “There is no way that X could be improved.”
E) “X is the most powerful Y,” “X is the largest Y,” etc.
Perhaps there are other ways of understanding what “greatest” means that I haven’t captured here (if there are, I hope someone brings them to my attention), but I think this list is a decent start. So in Robinson’s argument, what does he mean when he says that “America is the greatest country in the world?” We can begin by ruling out, I think, the disparate options I’ve lumped together under D and E. If E is how we are to understand “greatest” in premise 2, we must apply the same meaning to “greatest” in premise 1, resulting in an indefensible argument; CRT, both in reality and in the conservative imagination, doesn’t imply anything about America’s size or power that would make this premise believable. And conservatives who accept premise 2 on the reading D gives us would have to accept that any piece of legislation, executive action, or judicial ruling (whether conservative or not) fails to improve the country. I doubt you’d find many conservatives (especially conservative politicians or conservative communications professionals who served in the Deal administration, as Robinson did) willing to argue that there are literally no conceivable improvements one could make to America. So let’s tackle A-C to see which, if any of them, seems a good candidate for what Robinson’s argument requires “greatest” to mean.
Definition A seems a good starting point as it captures the emotional appeal of Robinson’s argument – we all love America and don’t want to be accused of failing to be patriotic, right? This is also the definition that best justifies the slip from Robinson’s argument as I’ve articulated it and the “hating America” variant I mentioned earlier. But to understand “greatest” as just expressing something about our feelings leads to two problems for Robinson’s argument. The first comes in premise 1: even if CRT does critique American institutions, this criticism does not require our hatred of American institutions as an inevitable consequence. Famous Americans have historically linked their criticism of America to their love of country, such as James Baldwin in his famous “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” And anyone with a sibling or other family member that they both love intensely and complain about constantly knows that there’s no reason criticism can’t come from a place of love. So definition A makes premise 1 dubious.
But perhaps more importantly, definition A makes the argument invalid in a way that will require us to change premise 3. On definition A, then tension between premises 1 and 2 isn’t that CRT teaches something as true (per premise 1) that is objectively false (per premise 2) but that CRT encourages attitudes in others that conflict with our attitudes. To make our argument valid once more, we have to replace premise 3 with something like “We shouldn’t teach theories or ideologies that encourage attitudes that conflict with my personal feelings.” There are all sorts of reasons to be skeptical of this modified premise, from the historical (couldn’t a modified premise 3 have been used to justify teaching explicitly racist things to white southern schoolchildren in the 1800s or anti-Semitic things to German schoolchildren during World War II?) to the more contemporary (I feel ambivalent about art history, but I also think that art history courses ought to encourage students to love art history). Since definition A saddles Robinson’s argument with as dubious a premise as our modified premise 3, I’d think a lot of conservatives should want to reject definition A, or that they should at least be interested in alternatives.
Definitions B and C are close enough to each other that I can tackle them together. Both rest on the idea that there is some objective list of factors that make someone or something great. You can see this understanding of greatness on display in debates over which athlete is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) which inevitably devolve into questions about which factors belong on the list: is the greatest athlete the one whose team won the most championships, or the one who scored the most points per game? Do we just look at the stats of the athlete when they were in their prime, or do we include stats from athletes after their performance begins to decline? There are analogous debates we might have when talking about whether a country is “the greatest” – do factors like “life expectancy” and “health care outcomes” show up on the list, and if so, where do they rank next to factors like “GDP” and “wealth inequality?” Do we consider only how well countries have scored recently, or do we consider historical trends? There is a lot of work to be done here just to generate the criteria by which we assess which country is “the greatest,” and Robinson (and conservatives like him) haven’t done that work.
But even if we do end up with an excellent, objective list of things that make a country great, we might still define “greatest” in two different ways: first, we could follow B and declare a country “greatest” only if it scored better with respect to every single one of these factors than any other country. I don’t think this is a great strategy for those in the “America is the greatest country in the world” camp – for instance, the US currently ranks as the 14th happiest country in the world, its infant mortality rate is higher than in many similar countries, and income inequality in the US is higher than in the rest of the G7 nations. Conservatives who like Robinson’s argument then need to argue that happiness, low infant mortality, and income inequality aren’t things that show up on their objective list and accept that America loses its “greatest country” status if it ever slips below another country in any of the factors conservatives do care about. The best option here seems to be to retreat to definition C and acknowledge that there are tradeoffs in governing. Definition C assumes that there is some objective list of things that make a country great that we have to balance against each other, and that what makes a country the greatest is that it achieves the optimal balance of these factors. For instance, the US would score better on economic inequality by seizing and redistributing all of the nation’s wealth, but this drastic change could drive down other economic indicators that show up on our objective list (perhaps GDP), and so, depending on the weight we assign to each factor on the objective list, a country could score lower than other countries in one (or many) area(s) and still count as “the greatest” overall.
But with definition C, we now find ourselves having to justify both what items we include on our objective list and how we compare them to other items on the list. This has become a deeply complicated and time-consuming philosophical project, and it’s clearly not one I have time or space to undertake thoroughly in what remains of this already-too-long blog post. But this is also not a task that I need to undertake as it falls to the defender of Robinson’s argument to articulate. What’s more, the argument’s defender must defend the objective list and each item’s relative ranking while simultaneously showing how CRT misrepresents that final list. And, as if that’s not enough, they must go on to show that the kind of misrepresentation that CRT engages in is unique to CRT (and thus not the sort of thing that works of history they approve of commit) and egregious in a way that makes it unfit for educational purposes. Maybe the project I’ve just outlined can be undertaken and undertaken well, but I’ll just comment that I haven’t seen anyone even seriously attempt it to date.
So each of the definitions for “greatest” I’ve articulated here comes with its own problems, and each pushes the debate in a different direction. My problem, when I encounter arguments like Robinson’s, is that I have no clue which definition he wants to use and so no idea how to respond to what he, specifically, is saying. His use seems to fit A most closely, but C seems more likely to avoid the obvious problems I mention with A. So what’s a charitable interpreter to do? I think the only recourse available is simply to ask the speaker to define their terms more clearly or else admit that they’re employing a meaningless platitude. Forcing conservatives to explain the meaning of the terms they employ helps to rob those terms of their emotional appeal – an audience member who likes the sound of “America is the greatest country in the world” might be less willing to accept the claim that “There is no way we could conceivably improve America” or “America scores highest in every measurable category we should care about.” And clarifying terms may also help conservatives better articulate their concerns; when their arguments traffic in meaningless or ambiguous terms like “cancel culture,” “fake news,” and “woke,” it’s easy for liberals to dismiss the conservative use of these terms as meaning “anything that conservatives don’t like.”
I don’t imagine that many conservatives will take kindly to being asked to define their terms more clearly, especially as vague and ambiguous language can be extremely politically expedient. These terms are frequently used in ways that qualify as Frankfurtian bullshit – speakers don’t care about whether or not what they’re saying is factually accurate or literally true, preferring, in this case, to say things that will produce their intended emotional effect regardless of whether or not they’re true or even meaningful. They can also serve political interests by encouraging people to commit fallacies of equivocation that might be beneficial to one particular political party. Imagine, for instance, a person who loves America and so agrees that “America is the greatest country in the world” per definition A. If that person doesn’t keep that definition squarely in mind, they might be convinced that “Policies that would change our country are wrong because America is the greatest country in the world,” which only follows from definition D, not definition A. It is only through forcing those who employ politically loaded terms to define them that we can save others (and maybe even ourselves) from committing this sort of fallacy.
I am not a political communications expert, so I don’t know how effective repeatedly asking conservatives who employ loose language like “America is the greatest country in the world” or even “critical race theory” to define their terms would ultimately be at preventing people from accepting bad arguments for bad positions. I’m also under no illusions that people like Johnson and Robinson will read, much less take on board, the points I’ve made here. But I don’t know of any other way to rob weaponized political language of its power aside from calling it out and asking those who use it, repeatedly, what it really means. Maybe, if we do it enough, someone will eventually convince me that America really is, in some meaningful sense, the greatest country in the world.