Category Archives: Michael Gerson

Well, at least he tried

Former Bush '43 Speechwriter Michael Gerson, now tenured at the Washington Post, rarely favors readers with cogent arguments.  Today is somewhat of an exception, as he at least tries to do the right kind of thing.  In particular, he tries to field an objecion to his hackish point about hating and loving "Washington." 

The argument goes something like this.  Lately a lot of Obama types have been complaining about "Washington."  I put that in quotes because of course it's not really Washington the city or anything like that.  It's actually meant by those people to be the dirty business of making laws with a bunch of self-interested parties.  Everyone complains about that.  I remember a young George W. Bush promising to "change the tone" in Washington.  He didn't.  Nor did he ever intend to I'm sure. 

So it's really vacuous, I think, to even bother to point this out about anyone.  That doesn't stop Gerson. 

Not, presumably, for the actual place of schools and neighborhoods and monuments but for the conceptual Washington, the symbolic city. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, with typical delicacy, calls it "[expletive]-nutsville," a judgment that earthier Tea Party activists might share. Senior adviser David Axelrod has announced his spring departure. "I think he's not having fun," says a White House colleague. A recent profile claims that Axelrod's idealism was disappointed by "a ferociously stubborn, possibly irredeemable system." And Barack Obama himself constantly complains about the "politicking" and obstructionism of the capital city, where they "talk about me like a dog." Much of the White House senior staff seems to long for a purer, simpler, more wholesome kind of politics . . . in Chicago.

The tension here is obvious. Even while depicting Washington as a flawed, fractured, hopeless mess, the Obama administration has sought to increase the influence of Washington over America's economy and health-care system. In the Obama era, Washington helps run auto companies, oversees some corporate salaries, imposes an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, and seeks to rationalize the health-care system with a profusion of new boards, offices, agencies and commissions — estimates vary from 47 to 159 new bureaucratic entities.

In case however you're ready to say, "I think 'Washington' is used in two distinct senses here," Gerson is right on it:

Progressives would object that it is political Washington – the paralyzed structure of legislators and special interests — that is broken, not bureaucratic Washington, which needs more authority. But it is not easy to argue that citizens aggregated in a legislature are self-interested, corrupt and incompetent while citizens aggregated in a government agency are public-spirited, wise and effective. And it is not much of a communications strategy to feed disdain for politics while proposing an expanded role for government.

It's very refreshing to see the phrase "x would object" in this context.  A round of applause for him.  It seems like an honest attempt to engage with his interlocutor.  However, I think the progressive (or the conservative who could be caught in the same alleged rhetorical trap) would object to "Washington" being used in the second sense at all.

And it smacks of too much cleverness, I think, to suggest that one cannot avail onself of the usual tropes ("Washington sucks," for example, by which I mean, "my opponents in Washington"), without being guilty of some kind of logical or rhetorical inconsistency.  And besides, I think Obama and his team can rightly complain about some of the process ("death panels" anyone?). 

Having said that, Gerson does have a point.  No one likes a whiner–even when she or he has every right.  Well, let me rephrase.  No one likes a whiner, when they're a Democrat.

The ugly party

A brief follow up to yesterday's post on Michael Gerson.  He laments the harsh words used in private correspodence for (ugly) people.  If that wasn't dumb enough already (and hypocritical, as Aaron in comments points out–see here) what's funny is his vision of the alternative.  Here is how he describes it:

The alternative to the Ugly Party is the Grown-Up Party — less edgy and less hip. It is sometimes depicted on the left and on the right as an all-powerful media establishment, stifling creativity, freedom and dissent. The Grown-Up Party, in my experience, is more like a seminar at the Aspen Institute — presentation by David Broder, responses from E.J. Dionne Jr. and David Brooks — on the electoral implications of the energy debate. I am more comfortable in this party for a few reasons: because it is more responsible, more reliable and less likely to wish its opponents would die.

The grown up party isn't engaged in the same kind of discussion as the "ugly party."  For all its faults, the ugly party is at least doing what one ought to be doing in politics–i.e., arguing about stuff.  Some of them may be doing it badly, and I suppose that this is the point of our whole web empire here at TheNonSequitur, but at least they're doing it.  By contrast, by Gerson's description, the grown up party isn't really doing argument–they're doing analysis.  The electoral implications of the engery policy debate might be interesting, but they don't resolve what the policy ought to be.  As Gerson has it, that is a question for the Ugly party, and I say, therefore, I think I want to be a member of the Ugly party. 

Go do unto yourself*

If we had a category called "what substance has he or she been smoking or taking?" I would suggest that we put this column by Michael Gerson in it.  For in it he complains about the uglification of recent American political discourse–a worthy aim–but, where's he been at? one might wonder.  He writes:

My political friendships and sympathies are increasingly determined not by ideology but by methodology. One of the most significant divisions in American public life is not between the Democrats and the Republicans; it is between the Ugly Party and the Grown-Up Party.

This distinction came to mind in the case of Washington Post blogger David Weigel, who resigned last week after the leak of messages he wrote disparaging figures he covered. Weigel is, by most accounts, a bright, hardworking young man whose private communications should have been kept private. But the tone of the e-mails he posted on a liberal e-mail list is instructive. When Rush Limbaugh went to the hospital with chest pain, Weigel wrote, "I hope he fails." Matt Drudge is an "amoral shut-in" who should "set himself on fire." Opponents are referred to as "ratf — -ers" and "[expletive] moronic."

This type of discourse is an odd combination between the snideness of the cool, mean kids in high school and the pettiness of Richard Nixon rambling on his tapes. Weigel did not intend his words to be public. But they display the defining characteristic of ugly politics – the dehumanization of political opponents.

Gerson says twice that Weigel's private sentiments should not have been made public.  Why were they?  Well, I blame ugly politics, a politics that tries to make everything about people's character and private life and not about what they do or say publicly.  Anyway, he then bafflingly suggests that these private words "display the defining characteristics of ugly politics."  Well, not really, I would say the defining characteristic of ugly politics is saying those things in a public forum to achieve a political effect.  Venting to your alleged friends does not count.

A more foundational characteristic of ugly politics, I think, is twisting facts or distorting words for poltiical advantage.  Here is what Weigel is alleged to have said (via the Daily Caller):

“There’s also the fact that neither the pundits, nor possibly the Republicans, will be punished for their crazy outbursts of racism. Newt Gingrich is an amoral blowhard who resigned in disgrace, and Pat Buchanan is an anti-Semite who was drummed out of the movement by William F. Buckley. Both are now polluting my inbox and TV with their bellowing and minority-bashing. They’re never going to go away or be deprived of their soapboxes,” Weigel wrote.

Of Matt Drudge, Weigel remarked,  “It’s really a disgrace that an amoral shut-in like Drudge maintains the influence he does on the news cycle while gay-baiting, lying, and flubbing facts to this degree.”

In April, Weigel wrote that the problem with the mainstream media is “this need to give equal/extra time to ‘real American’ views, no matter how fucking moronic, which just so happen to be the views of the conglomerates that run the media and/or buy up ads.”

When Obama’s “green jobs czar” Van Jones resigned after it was revealed he signed a 9/11 “truther” petition, alleging the government may have conspired to allow terrorists to kill 3,000 civilians, Weigel highlighted the alleged racism of Glenn Beck – Jones’s top critic.

Notice that Weigel is complaining primarily (and again privately) about the ugly crap that gets cast as serious political discourse.  This demonstrates again, however, that however ugly Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Pat Buchanan, etc., get, the rules of our discourse prohibit you from pointing that out.  For if you do, even in private, you're fired.

*The actual quote is "Go fuck yourself" and Dick Cheney said it (to Patrick Leahy on the floor of the Senate). 

Frankenquotations

Former George W.Bush speechwriter ("axis of evil….") and some kind of fervent Christian Michael Gerson alleges that Al Franken, former writer for Saturday NIght Live and current Senator from Minnesota, is not to be taken seriously.  He writes:

One problem with a political landslide of the kind that Republicans now contemplate in November is that it may also sweep into office various ideologues who become embarrassments — candidates such as J.D. Hayworth and Rand Paul. Democrats are familiar with this possibility, because they have Sen. Al Franken.

In the months since his election, the author of "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot," who has referred to opponents as "human filth" and who once accused Ronald Reagan of supporting the torture and rape of nuns, has tried to control his bile addiction, at least in public. Speaking last week to the American Constitution Society, he relapsed.

Most of the traditional elements of a Franken rant were employed against Chief Justice John Roberts and conservatives on the Supreme Court. The attack on motives: The "Roberts court has consistently and intentionally protected and promoted the interests of the powerful over those of individual Americans." The silly hyperbole: "What individual rights are so basic and so important that they should be protected above a corporation's right to profit? And their preferred answer is: None. Zero." The sloppy, malicious mixed metaphor: The Roberts court is putting not a "thumb" but "a fist with brass knuckles" on the "scale" of justice. Franken was clearly summoning all his remaining resources of senatorial dignity not to say something like Roberts is a "lying liar who lies along with his lying lackeys for his lying corporate lying masters."

You would never suspect from Franken's speech that the Roberts court, in key cases, has sided with employees who allege discrimination and against corporations. It is never enough for Franken's opponents to be misguided or mistaken; they must want women to be sexually harassed in underpaid jobs while their children die of lead poisoning.

In all fairness, which is a kind of Christian attitude by the way–or so the nuns taught me–"Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot" is ironic satire, about a fellow whose main mode of argument is the abusive ad hominem.  The same goes for the "human filth" remark about the vitriolic Karl Rove.  Now Reagan, in all honesty, did support regimes that raped and tortured nuns (I mean communists).  Now the point of bringing all of this up of course is to discredit Franken without considering Franken's particular argument (in this case).  It's the tactic of a big fat idiot, or human filth, to denigrate our discourse in this manner.  THAT LAST SENTENCE WAS SATIRE.  What's worse, however, is that Gerson has run out of misunderstandings to blame on Franken, so he resorts to making stuff up.  You can watch Franken's comments for yourself here
 
Franken doesn't say the "lying liars" quotation above.  That's pure invention.  If Franken had such a habit of bile, you'd think Gerson wouldn't need to resort to making crap up.  But he continues–and attributes more false intentions to Franken.  It is never enough for Gerson that his opponent is wrong or misguided, but apparently he must have some kind of warped personality and (as this dreary pieces goes on to fail more and more) and be a big fat idiot.  But maybe I'll talk about that tomorrow.

The pleasure of putting other people in the wrong

Some of you may remember the recent case of Mark Souder.  He was the latest in a string of Republican social conservatives to go down in a sex scandal (with a female staffer).  Pardon the pun, but it turns out one of our favorite deep thinkers, Michael Gerson, worked for him way back when.  Aside from cheating on his wife, turns out Souder's a nice guy or something, which leads Gerson to meditate on the meaning of morality:

Moral conservatives need to admit that political character is more complex than marital fidelity and that less sensual vices also can be disturbing. "The sins of the flesh are bad," said C.S. Lewis, "but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither."

I think I agree with this stuff.  There is a lot more to morality than what one does with one's private parts.  And indeed, the "pleasure of putting other people in the wrong" is up there for me in the list of bad things. 

Gerson continues:

Yet moral liberals have something to learn as well. The failure of human beings to meet their own ideals does not disprove or discredit those ideals. The fact that some are cowards does not make courage a myth. The fact that some are faithless does not make fidelity a joke. All moral standards create the possibility of hypocrisy. But I would rather live among those who recognize standards and fail to meet them than among those who mock all standards as lies. In the end, hypocrisy is preferable to decadence.

I don't think anyone (serious) fits the description of "moral liberal" here.  The failure of self-righteous jerks like Gerson's former boss does not mean the values those self-righteous jerks hold are empty.  That's like a logical fallacy or something (play along at home–name that fallacy).  And I think attributing such sloppy thinking to non-existent opponents is a kind of "putting people in the wrong."  Moreover, it's just dishonest arguing.

But it gets worse.  Gerson seems to think that there is a stark choice–live among the inconsistent, but strident proponent of that old-time morality, or be a moral relativist.  He'd be first of alll hard-pressed to find moral relativists of the type he suggests anywhere.  Second, granted their existence somewheres, it doesn't follow that they are the only reasonable alternative to moral hypocrties.  That would indeed be a logical fallacy.  Can you guess which? 

h/t Alicublog

Are you my life-choice supervisor?

The "you're not the boss of me" objection goes like this: pick some not unreasonable but not universally liked behavioral prescription, object to it by saying, "you're not the boss of me."  Trust me, it's how you have a mature, well-informed, and honest debate about, say, public health. 

Some so-called Medical Doctors have suggested that eating certain kinds of foods (Super-sized Salted Salty-O's, for example) will turn you into a health care nightmare.  But this is America.  To ruin your own health, out of ignorance, seems to be some kind right.  You have a right not to have someone inform you about the relevant facts of your life choices.  Or so argues Michael Gerson:

Following the passage of Democratic health-care reform legislation, President Obama assured the country that it was a "middle-of-the-road, centrist approach" instead of an intrusive, government power grab. But the government seems incapable of resisting the nannying impulse that undermines this claim.

So health reform includes a 10 percent tax on the use of indoor tanning beds. (Someone needs to stop this slow-motion Chernobyl.) The law also requires fast-food restaurants to post their calorie counts at the drive-through window, lest anyone be under the impression that a Big Mac is health food.

Recently, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) called for a ban on chewing tobacco in major league baseball. A lawyer for the players' association said, "We can go back to the players and say, 'Congress feels strongly about this. You ought to think about it. Look what's happened on other issues Congress felt strongly about.' " And concerned scientists raised the prospect of legal limits on the salt content of processed foods. There is safety in blandness.

Most symbolically, this year's White House Easter Egg Roll pointedly did not include the distribution of teeth-rotting, obesity-inducing candy. "Every goodie bag," according to one account, "was stuffed with pre-screened fruit, and the grounds were filled with exercise stations." One can only imagine the joy on young faces when they got their apple and their workout.

I can hardly be called a libertarian. Legalizing drugs is a foolish idea because addiction robs people of liberty. Restaurant smoking bans have improved my life and my appetite. But freedom implies some leeway for personal risk and minor, pleasurable foolishness. Democrats in particular seem to be afflicted with Mary Poppins Syndrome: They will not rest until Americans are practically perfect in every way.

I think informing people about the undeniable realities of their food choices–a Big Mac contains 576 calories–could hardly be called an attempt to make Americans perfect in every way.  Rather, some might argue (me for instance), that industries such as BIG COLA and BIG BURGER want to make people ignorant of the consequences of their choices.  Even a libertarian–a consistent one-would have to admit that it's a good thing to know what your food contains. 

But no–such efforts amount to nagging:

This tendency has added relevance because of the passage of health-care reform. When the provision of health insurance to every American becomes a direct responsibility of government, nearly every health matter becomes a public matter. Why not regulate tanning at beaches? Wouldn't mandatory, subsidized sunscreen save billions in health costs? Why not a jelly doughnuts tax? Why not make saturated fat a controlled substance? Shouldn't children on tricycles be required to wear safety helmets?

For some of us, the problem is not the tyranny but the nagging. As the public role in health care expands dramatically, health-care controversies become politicized. The health enthusiasms of a president, an influential congressman or an interest group can become public policy or public pressure. After all: "Look what's happened on other issues Congress felt strongly about." 

Such things always have politicized.  And when people advocate consumers be provided with more information, we get the same, childish argument.  No, no one is the boss of Michael Gerson–he can have a Big Mac whenever he wants.  

One hundred and twenty percent

The Washington Post has become the go-to newspaper for climate change skeptics.  They have twice published pieces by (!) Sarah Palin, and they continue to justify running the factually and logically challenged work of George Will on the same subject.  On the latter, rarely does one see an objection in print–either in the form of letters to the editor, interventions of other columnists, or the contribution of the public editor.  On the former, however, we get this:

Now, the American public is again being subjected to those kinds of denials, this time about global climate change. While former Alaska governor Sarah Palin wrote in her Dec. 9 op-ed that she did not deny the "reality of some changes in climate," she distorted the clear scientific evidence that Earth's climate is changing, largely as a result of human behaviors. She also badly confused the concepts of daily weather changes and long-term climate trends when she wrote that "while we recognize the occurrence of these natural, cyclical environmental trends, we can't say with assurance that man's activities cause weather changes." Her statement inaccurately suggests that short-term weather fluctuations must be consistent with long-term climate patterns. And it is the long-term patterns that are a cause for concern. 

Today, two more climate-critical, for a lack of a better term, pieces.  One by Krauthammer (it's the new socialism!) and another by Michael Gerson.  Gerson, however, affirms that climate change is real, but he blames the private behavior of some scientists for all the skepticism.  He makes his case on two grounds: (1) the trust one must have in a former Bush administration speech writer and (2) a recent Rasmussen poll. 

Climate scientists are clearly accustomed to deference. Theirs is a community coddled by global elites, extensively funded by governments, celebrated by Hollywood and honored with international prizes.

But outside the Copenhagen bubble, the field of climate science is deep in a crisis of professional credibility, which many scientists seem too insular to recognize. Fifty-nine percent of Americans now believe it is at least somewhat likely that some scientists have falsified research to prop up claims about global warming. If the practices at East Anglia are dismissed as "scientists at work," skepticism will rise as surely as temperatures.

Now Gerson must not read a lot of news, because that Rasmussen poll had a funny problem.  Following the link in his own article to the very number he cites, one finds this:

Fifty-nine percent (59%) of Americans say it’s at least somewhat likely that some scientists have falsified research data to support their own theories and beliefs about global warming. Thirty-five percent (35%) say it’s Very Likely. Just 26% say it’s not very or not at all likely that some scientists falsified data.

59 + 35 + 26 = 120 percent.

Which hunt

Michael Gerson has an odd sense of time.  Read the the following paragraph closely:

Holder launched his tenure by showing disdain for the work of career federal prosecutors when it fit his ideological predispositions. In 2004, a task force from the Eastern District of Virginia investigated allegations of misconduct against the CIA and found insufficient evidence of criminal conduct or intent. Holder ignored the views of these respected prosecutors and appointed his own special prosecutor, appeasing a political constituency that wanted the CIA to be hounded and punished. As a result, morale at a front-line agency in the war on terrorism has plunged. What possible reason could a bright, ambitious intelligence professional have to pursue a career in counterterrorism when the attorney general of the United States is stubbornly intent on exposing and undermining his colleagues?

In 2004 George W.Bush had not yet begun his second term of office.  That was five years ago.  Something seemed odd to me about this argument, so I googled it.  If you Google the phrase "2004 task force Eastern District" you get an article from the Weekly Standard on Holder's "witch hunt".

Without many added premises about how the 2004 inquiry resolves any future allegations of torture, Gerson cannot possibly expect us to draw the conclusion that Holder is "intent on exposing and undermining his colleagues."  If crimes were committed subsequent to 2004, then that is another matter.  It's not an insult to suggest that his colleagues failed to stop future crimes.

A time to gloat

Today's Washington Post features two articles about how bad Health Care reform is for us all from guest columnists, an article about awesome natural gas, and two of the regulars (Krauthammer and Gerson) gloating about the recent victories in the historically momentous off-off year governor elections in Virginia and New Jersey.  For Krauthammer, these victories show how Obama has not eliminated the need for elections:

In the aftermath of last year's Obama sweep, we heard endlessly about its fundamental, revolutionary, transformational nature. How it was ushering in an FDR-like realignment for the 21st century in which new demographics — most prominently, rising minorities and the young — would bury the GOP far into the future. One book proclaimed "The Death of Conservatism," while the more modest merely predicted the terminal decline of the Republican Party into a regional party of the Deep South or a rump party of marginalized angry white men.  

A straw man or a hollow man?  I can't think that anyone seriously would have predicted no republican would ever win any race ever again.  Many in fact won on that election night in 2008, it's just that Democrats secured large majorities in both houses of congress and won the presidency.  I'll go with hollow man here: no one held the view Krauthammer is attacking.

He should be allowed to have his fun about the great myth of Obama.  He continues:

The irony of 2009 is that the anti-Democratic tide overshot the norm — deeply blue New Jersey, for example, elected a Republican governor for the first time in 12 years — because Democrats so thoroughly misread 2008 and the mandate they assumed it bestowed. Obama saw himself as anointed by a watershed victory to remake American life. Not letting the cup pass from his lips, he declared to Congress only five weeks after his swearing-in his "New Foundation" for America — from remaking the one-sixth of the American economy that is health care to massive government regulation of the economic lifeblood that is energy.

Moreover, the same conventional wisdom that proclaimed the dawning of a new age last November dismissed the inevitable popular reaction to Obama's hubristic expansion of government, taxation, spending and debt — the tea party demonstrators, the town hall protesters — as a raging rabble of resentful reactionaries, AstroTurf-phony and Fox News-deranged.

Some rump. Just last month Gallup found that conservatives outnumber liberals by 2 to 1 (40 percent to 20 percent) and even outnumber moderates (at 36 percent). So on Tuesday, the "rump" rebelled. It's the natural reaction of a center-right country to a governing party seeking to rush through a left-wing agenda using temporary majorities created by the one-shot election of 2008. The misreading of that election — and of the mandate it allegedly bestowed — is the fundamental cause of the Democratic debacle of 2009.

Before Charles gets too heated about the death of the Obama mandate, he–and everyone else by the way Democrats included–should consider the following result from Tuesday's election:

House Democrats are adding two new members to their team Thursday and Friday, just hours before a crucial floor vote on health care reform.

One of those guys–Bill Owens–did defeat an authentic Fox-News-deranged guy.  To put this another way, Tuesday's election put Obama two votes closer to enacting his Maoist agenda; it's not the time for gloating. 

The radio is the radio of its time

A variation on Godwin's law has it that a discussion thread is finished and a debater has lost when he turns to inappropriate Nazi comparisons.  Enter Michael Gerson.  Today he writes an entire meditation on the following argument:

1.  The Nazis exploited advanced communication technologies (bullhorns, leaflets, radio, etc.) for their own evil purposes;

2.  The internet is an advanced communication technology;

3.  Ergo, the internet is a tool of Nazism.

Or something like that (they also used books, newspapers, and other media as well folks).  Here's a sample:

But it was radio that proved the most powerful tool. The Nazis worked with radio manufacturers to provide Germans with free or low-cost "people's receivers." This new technology was disorienting, taking the public sphere, for the first time, into private places — homes, schools and factories. "If you tuned in," says Steve Luckert, curator of the exhibit, "you heard strangers' voices all the time. The style had a heavy emphasis on emotion, tapping into a mass psychology. You were bombarded by information that you were unable to verify or critically evaluate. It was the Internet of its time." 

I think it's funny that he mentions the radio while blaming the internet for factually-challenged, hyperbolic, demagogic rhetoric, when, we have in fact the radio–and of course television, to blame for that.

Anyway.  Here is the justification for the comparison:

This comparison to the Internet is apt. The Nazis would have found much to admire in the adaptation of their message on neo-Nazi, white supremacist and Holocaust-denial Web sites. 

The comparison is apt because there are actual neo-Nazis using the internet!  This justification misses the point of the original comparison.  The point is that the internet is Nazi-like (but not necessarily Nazi in content).  The Nazi content cited by Gerson as evidence of Nazi-likeness of the medium doesn't establish, however, that the internet itself is Nazi-like.  The Nazis printed books as well.  At most this establishes the bland theory that the internet is a communication medium, which can be used and accessed by many people.  That fact, I think, is not very surprising.