May 17, 2006

An editor at The New Republic on how to write an op-ed.
Skill Set, Adam B. Kushner, May 16, 2006

An editor at The New Republic on how to write an op-ed.

By Adam B. Kushner

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel would have made an excellent opinion journalist. Of course, the Romantic idealist philosopher didn’t spend much time waxing quarrelsome for the local paper – though he was briefly a newspaper editor. But Hegel articulated a theory of history that is, today, the basis for every good opinion piece.

In The Phenomenology of Spirit – a piece of turgid writing if ever there was one – Hegel explains that history occurs in epochs and that each one is, in some way, a reaction against the one that preceded it. (In hindsight, it’s easy to see how Romantics like Hegel were themselves reacting against the flaws of Enlightenment reasoning.) He believed that an epoch provided a kind of thesis, followed by its opposite, an antithesis, and succeeded finally by a synthesis, whereupon the cycle began again. Really, it’s an update of the ancient Socratic dialectic, but it gives us a rubric to argue ideas.

The best opinion pieces take this Hegelian structure. They start with a thesis, or a premise. Say you want to argue that the United States government should establish universal healthcare. Now we have the first step, and we can lay down the contours of the argument: (a) the very existence of Medicare and Medicaid suggests we believe health care is a right, not a privilege. (b) Many millions of Americans are currently uninsured. (c) Without insurance protection, we obviate the social safety net and subject Americans to sudden, destabilizing life forces. (This isn’t meant to be comprehensive; I’m just showing the structure.) Here is where you show your primary evidence – the number of uninsured, studies that show how they fare in life, et cetera. Of course, none of this means that the top of the piece, the lede (special journalist spelling), can’t begin with an anecdote, a news peg, or some other interesting window into the subject; just don’t open with “I was walking home the other day and it struck me that…”

It’s not good enough merely to argue for your own rightness. Any intellectually honest contention also grapples with its own shortcomings. Not every idea is perfect (or, at the very least, not every idea seems perfect), and, as an idea’s champion, you need to deal with that. That means facing the antithesis head-on. So what’s the case against universal health care? Spell it out in print: (a) Health care is not a right; we live in a country of individuals who should be, in the end, responsible for taking care of themselves rather than depending on the government. (b) We can’t afford to pay for single-payer health care, since government insurance already takes up some incredible (and growing) proportion of the federal budget. (c) Private insurance creates competition and drives prices down.

Some of these are potent challenges to the premise, and they need to be dealt with directly. If, in writing your own op-ed, you can’t think of what the antitheses might be, ask a conservative friend or look up research studies and op-eds on the subject from conservative think tanks and journals. Do research; pick up the phone and get a quote from a prominent thinker (even a conservative one) on the subject; scour the Internet. The status quo you’re fighting against may often be wrong, but generally there is some rationale to explain its existence.

Now, armed with challenges to your thesis, you’re ready to create a final synthesis, a conclusion that counteracts the counterarguments and returns you once again to the rightness of your premise. In the case, respectively: (a) Cite the popularity of – and general American support for – New Deal entitlements that were designed to collectivize American society. (b) Show that increasing costs are due to medical advances, that other countries can afford to do this (even if it means paying more in taxes), and that Medicare already is far more efficient than private insurers, which siphon off large profit margins for staffs and shareholders. (c) Turn the conservative market obsession on its head by exposing how the Republicans in hock to health industries won’t even let the government – their biggest client – use its buying power to negotiate better prices, and suggest that the complexity of health insurance discourages buyers from shopping comparatively, so private insurance prices, even now, are artificially high.

If you can’t rebut everything from the antithesis, there’s something wrong with your idea. Perhaps it’s minor: You might acknowledge, in a synthetic conclusion that, due to the cost, one plan for distributing universal health care is better than another. But if you can’t convincingly refute a philosophical or reportorial challenge to your thesis, you shouldn’t write it, because, if you do, you won’t persuade any readers except those already inclined to agree with you. Finally, you can end the piece either with a clever kicker or turn of phrase that drives home the point (though these are notoriously difficult to pull off) or by returning to the lede, coming full circle. It’s exactly what Hegel would have wanted.

 

Adam B. Kushner is assistant managing editor of The New Republic and a columnist for the DC Examiner.

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