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The Arena Fallacy
Why David Sirota is wrong
As a rule, I don’t like to spend much time relitigating what happens on Twitter. It’s a medium that is both highly overrated and genuinely important, in that it is in no way a reflection of popular public opinion—my feed, at least, is largely affluent and liberal—but does exert tangible influence on society through the sheer number of journalists, activists, and academics who congregate there daily. I’ve been actively avoiding spats of late, though they manage to happen. A few days ago, I quote-tweeted the journalist, former Bernie Sanders speechwriter, and Oscar nominee David Sirota to express a difference of opinion. Sirota, in turn, blocked me on the site.
Sirota has since deleted the tweet, but the sentiment expressed is one I’ve seen before and one Sirota has espoused in the past. “If you haven’t ever once deigned to work on or volunteer for a campaign or organizing effort — if you haven’t once bothered to get off your ass to knock a single door — then I don’t want to see your tweets about what should and shouldn’t be done to fix American politics,” Sirota argued. It’s a compelling idea and one, in some sense, I can personally understand. After years in the journalism world, I ran for office myself in 2018, doing the kind of work Sirota celebrates. I knocked on thousands of doors, organized hundreds of volunteers, and raised more than a hundred thousand dollars. I was in the thick of things in an exciting year. It was an intoxicating experience.
Sirota, though, is quite wrong. You can express worthy opinions—in tweets, even!—about the future of American politics without volunteering or working in politics. Having done both, I believe this firmly. Sirota and I hold leftist views on most political issues and would agree, I imagine, on a vast majority of policy debates. I am columnist at Jacobin, the great socialist magazine, where he remains an editor-at-large. For whatever reason, Sirota believes his political service entitles him to far more of a say in the future of America than the great number of people in media and beyond that have never knocked doors, written speeches, or raised money.
I call this the Arena Fallacy. There is a famous speech from Teddy Roosevelt that usually gets batted about whenever someone somewhere decides, at long last, to run for office. I certainly heard it four years ago. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better,” Roosevelt said in 1910, not long after he left the White House. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds…”
Indeed, how can one truly argue with such a rhetorical gambit? We all love doers, not the nattering critics. Sirota, who has spent several decades in journalism, fathoms himself in the arena, his face bloodied, his opinions infused with the wisdom of his time as an advocate and paid political operative. He is not entirely wrong; it is good to have experience in different realms of life when doing journalism and commentary. Running for office lent me insights into the hurdles politicians face. Overseeing a viable campaign is incredibly hard. Giving a quote instead of hunting for one is a special kind of challenge. Asking strangers for money over the telephone might be the hardest thing of all.
Sirota, however, manages to disqualify the great majority of people in American life who have nothing to do with professional politics and never will. He’s not merely insulting his leftist colleagues who may write on politics but never do it—has every Jacobin staffer put in the proper number of volunteer hours?—but is also, inadvertently, taking aim at the great modern thinkers he would, in any other context, be championing. Has Noam Chomsky knocked on any doors of late? Has Cornel West been anyone’s speechwriter? Has Eric Foner or Zeynep Tufekci manned the phones? There is no advocacy means test to pass.
The critic plays an essential role in a democratic society. The critic observes, analyzes, and sifts through noise. The critic is not detached—no one can ever be—but is able, through a studied distance, to make an assessment of reality that is often more worthy or true than whatever the so-called Arena Man—too deep in the thicket of political work to properly conceive what is happening around him—comes up with. Sirota, for example, would not be the best authority on what went wrong with the Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign. How did a wildly popular 2016 insurgency go backwards four years later? Sirota has thoughts and I’ll listen to them; I’ll also need to hear from others who are not unduly biased from being so close to the subject matter.
Sirota’s notion is anti-populist. Imagine limiting opining on the “fixes” of American politics to only those who’ve been part of the industry or follow it closely enough to write postcards or canvass for a chosen candidate. Sirota’s contention cancels out the 90 percent or so of Americans who won’t donate to a campaign or engage with politics in a tangible way beyond voting. Sanders himself, in both presidential bids, drew support from these kinds of people—those who felt something was wrong with America, understood why, but had never been motivated to engage. If a Sanders supporter coming out of Kean or Des Moines walked up to Sirota in 2015 and began telling him why he felt the political system was broken, would Sirota wave him away, informing him he’d first have to stuff envelopes or knock 20 doors to formulate a worthwhile opinion?
I don’t mean to be disingenuous here. Sirota is fuming at media talking heads and Twitter pundits who never did politics like him. These people can be quite annoying and I’ve clashed with them myself. These clashes, though, have been predicated on a disagreement over ideas or approach; I’ve never tried to indict someone else’s experience. If you spent 20 years as a carpenter and decided to launch a newsletter on politics a month ago, you can contribute to the discourse. You can debate issues, think seriously about them, and share them as widely as you choose. Anyone angry at the role of the critic usually does not enjoy scrutiny themselves. That is what existence can look like in a quasi-healthy republic. No one need satisfy Sirota to critique the future of this country.