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There is a lot to talk about

The cover of the most recent issue of America magazine.

Between the Lines / By Peter McDermott

New leftwing star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was absolutely right to spurn the recent advances of rightwing pundit Ben Shapiro. Of course, she could have entirely ignored his offer (“to make it worth her while”) of $10,000 for her campaign coffers to debate him. But there was something impertinent and unseemly about the approach that provoked Ocasio-Cortez to stand up for herself. Her tweet said: “Just like catcalling, I don’t owe a response to unsolicited requests from men with bad intentions. And also like catcalling, for some reason they feel entitled to one.”

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Part of Shapiro’s response was to say that he’d never catcalled a woman in his life. He seemed to have missed the word “like” in the tweet’s second sentence. If she likened the effect of his intervention to being shoved by the biggest bully on the first day in a new school or hearing the mean girl passing judgment with a stage whisper, would he say “I never bullied anyone at school or acted like a mean girl”?

Ocasio-Cortez’s key phrase here was “bad intentions,” which Shapiro demonstrably did have. From the very first moment of her primary win, he could barely conceal his contempt. On a Fox News interview in late June he referred to her dismissively as “this...this person” and said she belonged to the “howling at the moon” wing of the Democratic Party. That’s all fine, in that one could easily get past it. What’s hard to get past is the intro to the segment, and its premise, a comparison of President Obama’s alleged “you didn’t build that” philosophy with the current White House occupant’s regulation-busting approach to the growth of capitalism, accompanied by appropriate sound-bites from both men. The “you didn’t build that” moment showed Fox News at its most Pravda-esque. Six years on, it’s still being dragged out, and that Shapiro could be an accessory to such morally bankrupt propaganda shows up those bad intentions in stark relief.

Shapiro is a sometime critic of Trump, and so he probably has to work that little bit harder these days for his easy money. Still, let’s face it, $10,000 is a paltry sum. Perhaps a more seasoned politician (not that he’d likely pick on one) would have played him along for a while. How would Shapiro respond if Ocasio-Cortez upped the price-tag to $100,000, stipulating that it be given to an organization like New York’s City Harvest that not only feeds the needy but also raises awareness about the issue of food security, which affects a significant percentage of working families in the world’s greatest city?

I don’t know a lot about Shapiro’s style, but it’s clear that it’s not in any way comparable to William F. Buckley Jr.’s teasing out the issues on “Firing Line.” Buckley was interested in engaging with his guests. He was confident enough in his own philosophy to explore the position of the other person (although in another forum Gore Vidal famously got under his skin – see “Best of Enemies” on Netflix). The MO of the Hannitys of this world, in contrast, is not to let you complete a sentence and generally to talk over you. And it took a certain amount of experience in life – maybe even a particular kind of fortitude – to stand up to a haranguing from Bill O’Reilly. Joan Walsh, now of CNN and the Nation, lived to tell the tale, although she could have done without the hate mail afterwards. She has written that it was the “only time I was genuinely afraid for my own safety, and my daughter’s.”

It’s not as if there isn’t a lot to discuss in terms of values, philosophies and policies. There is. But the model offered by America magazine should be the way to go. Its current editor, Fr Matt Malone -- who would make the perfect good guy in a movie in which Bill O’Reilly was the villain -- has written: “Given the hyperpartisan, polarized politics in both the church and the world, and given that most people no longer have the inclination or resources to read widely, our task is to host a conversation, in one place, that includes a variety of opinions.”

The Jesuit weekly's issue dated Aug. 20, 2018 has a highly intelligent essay by regular contributor Stephanie Slade arguing that adherence to libertarian ideals is not incompatible with the promotion of the common good. People to her left would profoundly disagree (and we can return to that in another column soon), but many of them would much prefer it if American political debate were more at Slade's level and less at Shapiro’s.