Ideology and disinterestedness: a response to Judge Richard G. Kopf

The Honorable Richard G. Kopf, a federal district court judge, sees “a commonality” among Joseph Goebbels, Paul Krugman, and Antonin Scalia. Goebbels was Hitler’s main propagandist and a proponent of the Holocaust. Krugman is a macroeconomist and a New York Times columnist. Justice Scalia is a jurist best known for advocating originalism in constitutional law and textualism in statutory interpretation. 

While these three men might seem to have little in common, Judge Kopf sees things differently. He sees all three as “expert propagandists and ardent ideologues.” Goebbels was an ardent and articulate proponent of anti-Semitism. Krugman is an ardent and articulate proponent of neo-Keynesianism. Justice Scalia is an ardent and articulate proponent of a particular brand of statutory interpretation. 

What these three have in common, then, isn’t the substance of their beliefs, but the way in which they express and hold those beliefs. They express their beliefs effectively and hold them strongly. And, according to Judge Kopf, these shared qualities make all three men “propagandists” and “ideologues.”

But if these qualities make you an ideologue and propagandist, the labels “ideologue” and “propagandist” aren’t very useful. Under Judge Kopf’s definition, those labels fit both Martin Luther King, Jr. and George Wallace, both Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Stephens, both George Orwell and Joseph Goebbels. The only people who would escape those labels are those who do not care—and who can’t even express their indifference very well. 

Now, to be fair, Judge Kopf does seem to be implying that people like Goebbels, Krugman, and Scalia are not intellectually honest—that they will cling to what he calls their “ideological claptrap” no matter the evidence and no matter the consequences. But he seems to support this conclusion simply by pointing to their eloquence and passion. Eloquence and passion do not necessarily betoken—and they are certainly not the same as—stubborn bias or lack of intellectual scruple. And, conversely, indifference is not the same as impartiality. The best—and perhaps the only—way to determine whether someone is biased and dishonest is by actually addressing the merits of his views. The strength with which a view is held tells you nothing about whether that view is correct.

At bottom, Judge Kopf is confusing indifference (the condition of a bored student) with disinterestedness (the condition of a good judge). A disinterested judge has no vested interest in what he undertakes to judge, so that his final judgment is simply the result of what he sees, hears, and feels to be the merits of the case. But a disinterested judge, after hearing the merits, can still come to a strongly held view. After all, Judge Kopf himself has a strong—one might even say an eccentric—view about Goebbels, Krugman, and Scalia, but presumably he would like to claim that he’s disinterested. 

Let’s not fetishize indifference. Let’s actually address the merits of a view—even if that view is vigorously expressed and strongly held. And, while I’m at it, one more suggestion: Let’s stay away from gratuitous Nazi analogies.