Satire and Nihilism

Jim Geraghty at National Review Online has an interesting essay on the state of satire in American political culture.  He makes a contrast between satire in the good old days and the way it’s used today:

When everybody’s getting mocked, there’s not much consequence to the mockery…. The older notion of satire as a tool for addressing some wrongdoing or social ill may be falling apart before us. We don’t hold many of our national political or cultural leaders in high regard, and yet somehow they keep on with business as usual. Some of the egos attracted to political power have proven that no amount of ridicule can deter them.

So, to keep score:   old satire is taking a moral stand using irony as a means to speaking truth to power, new satire is irony for its own sake.  The new satire just heaps ridicule on everyone who’s earnest, so is incapable of communicating a coherent moral vision.

[T]here isn’t really room for a genuinely heroic or noble character in those (parodic) worlds. A storyline can’t include Mother Teresa or a Medal of Honor recipient. . .  unless, say, the protagonists had just claimed to be noble and virtuous, and the genuinely heroic figures appeared in order to make the protagonists appear pitiful by contrast. The true heroes of the real world aren’t particularly funny….

And so the new satire is simply (a) nihilistic, and (b) because it takes no substantive moral stand, can’t have any real critical bite.  Now, I think Geraghty is wrong about John Stewart’s political satire.  He does have a moral view.  But, regardless, if satire doesn’t have a critical bite and satirists are just nihilists, then why is it that satirists, according to Geraghty, only needle the Republicans?

As a close to the essay, Geraghty makes a move I find very interesting, and one I’ve been considering on and off for a while — the Poe phenomenon.  Given all the scandals and their silliness (Mark Sanford, Bob Menendez, Larry Craig, Anthony Weiner, Elliot Spitzer), the real stories of those in power sound very much like the silly send-ups of them.  Geraghty notes:

[I]n the exaggerated, ludicrous, comedic alternative universe depicted by the Onion, there is no Onion. In a real world that increasingly resembles the Onion’s satires, the Onion is superfluous.

Now, I think this is an overstatement.  I’m not sure that if Poe’s Law is true, satire is superfluous.  Satire, even if it’s the nihilistic contempt Geraghty’s worried about, is expressively different (even if not always received as different) from the events satired.  Satire is a meta-language, one that comments on and captures a reaction to the events satired.  Now, I don’t think it follows that satire is superflous, even if it’s nihilisic and difficult to tell from simple reportage, as it’s a different thing from what’s satirized.  But maybe Geraghty’s on the right track —  some forms of satire are simply self-indulgent post-adolescent pap. But that can be satired, too, and (if it’s well done) that’s not superfluous, is it?

Something of a hyperbolic flourish

Joe McCarthy and Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz, a newly-minted Senator out of Texas, has achieved some recent notoriety for his affinities with Joe McCarthy.

Here’s what Cruz had to say three years ago on the Harvard Law Faculty (from Jane Mayer at the New Yorker):

Cruz greeted the audience jovially, but soon launched an impassioned attack on President Obama, whom he described as “the most radical” President “ever to occupy the Oval Office.” (I was covering the conference and kept the notes.)

He then went on to assert that Obama, who attended Harvard Law School four years ahead of him, “would have made a perfect president of Harvard Law School.” The reason, said Cruz, was that, “There were fewer declared Republicans in the faculty when we were there than Communists! There was one Republican. But there were twelve who would say they were Marxists who believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government.”

That is a pretty straightforward claim.  Here’s how the Cruz camp replied:

A Cruz spokesperson defended the Senator’s claim. “It’s curious that the New Yorker would dredge up a three-year-old speech and call it ‘news,’” Catherine Frazier told TheBlaze late Friday. “Regardless, Senator Cruz’s substantive point was absolutely correct: in the mid-1990s, the Harvard Law School faculty included numerous self-described proponents of ‘critical legal studies’ — a school of thought explicitly derived from Marxism – and they far outnumbered Republicans.”

“His substantive point” was that there were twelve communists bent on overthrowing the US government.  For more hilarity, here’s some Harvard Law School Grad defending Cruz:

Now, it’s something of a hyperbolic flourish to describe armchair radicals of this sort as people “who believed in the Communists overthrowing the United States government.”

You don’t say.  And this is why we can’t have nice things.

RINOs are Hypocrites? Who knew?

Washington Post op-ed columnist Kathleen Parker recently made a case for a concerted effort from moderate Republicans to “take back the Republican Party.” (Here)  In fact, she calls for a “RINO rebellion.”  The trouble she sees is that taking over a party requires zeal, and RINOs are just sane people.  This yields a zinger:

First, sane people are too busy Being Normal to organize. No, “normal” is not a relative term. We all know what normal is, and it doesn’t involve carrying gigantic photos of aborted fetuses to political conventions.

That’s pretty funny.  (And, if I’m not mistaken, a step toward pro-choicing the Republicans?)  Regardless, this suggestion to draw the Republican party closer to the center has yielded some criticism.  Matt Purple over at the American Spectator is up to run the argument.  Purple’s main line of criticism is that all of Parker’s suggested changes are actually all standard conservative commitments.

Yes, if only there was a political movement calling for reasonable budgets, more privacy for the individual, upholding the rule of law, and concern for national security. She must imagine hordes of earthy Tea Partiers holding the Post in their gunpowder-stained fingers while recoiling and exclaiming, “Compassion for the disadvantaged?! This paper’s gone to the dogs!”   So Parker’s principles seem pretty similar to those of modern conservatives

Okay, that’s a nice point, I suppose.  Though there’s a difference between ‘reasonable budgets’ and ones that, say, slash the Department of Education or that eliminate the IRS.  It’s all what you’re counting as reasonable, I suppose.  But when Purple turns to candidates, things get weird.

To understand just how vacuous the moderate stance has become, consider their embrace of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. John Avlon praised the Garden State firebrand as a “Northeast Republican” with a “moderate record.” Joe Scarborough defended his accomplishments.… Conservatives can’t even support sequestration without drawing condemnation from the center-right. But Christie cuts funding for AIDS patients and he’s the moderate Moses leading the GOP out of the electoral desert. Again, it’s pure air.

First, to make this point, Purple had to look to other moderate Republicans to find Chris Christie as the candidate of choice. Now, you can’t make a hypocrisy charge stick when the inconsistency is that between different people.  That’s not hypocrisy of the RINOs, that’s just that they disagree.  Second, I’m unsure whether the moderate line was right with Christie in the first place — if he’s such a moderate, then why did Ann Coulter endorse him?  My thought was that hailing him as a moderate was strategic packaging, not accurate description.

Finally, even were all these charges right, I have no idea what kind of point this hypocrisy charge scores with the RINOs.  If it’s that the ‘moderate’ candidate they chose wasn’t all that moderate, then shouldn’t the RINOs just say back:  Well, that’s as moderate as we can get in this party. We’d actually prefer John Huntsman. 

Civility for jerks

Mallard Fillmore’s got a nice way to capture the civility problem — with a straw man followed by a  tu quoque!


If President Obama charged the Republicans with wanting to kill the elderly and starve the poor, I don’t remember it.  In fact, the only kill the elderly lines I remember were the old ‘death panel’ charges a few years back. (This, then, is more likely a hollow man.) So a hyperbolic line of argument to begin, but doubling down with the fallacies is… well… uncivil?

A few months back Rob Talisse and I took a shot at making the case that civility wasn’t a matter of being nice and calm, but a matter of having well-run argument.  That sometimes requires goodwill, but more importantly civility is a matter of being able to argue appropriately when everyone in the conversation hates everyone else.

Slippery slopes to vagueness

The basic form of the slippery slope argument is that you concede that some policy x (lowercase) is prima facie acceptable, but that it sets a precedent for progressively stronger versions of that policy.  Ultimately, the strongest version of the policy, call it X (uppercase), at the extreme, will seem acceptable.  But X is clearly not.  The reasoning then goes that to stem the tide of precedent to X, we must not take that first step to accept x.  For a slippery slope argument to be acceptable, the slope must be genuinely slippery.  That is, there must be a relevant relation between x and X (namely, that x is not just a  preconditon for X, but that it must make X more acceptable), there must be no places where other considerations prevent the intermediary moves, and so on.  In cases where those desiderata fail, the slope isn’t slippery.  It’s more a bumpy staircase.

Some slippery slope arguments take the form of sorites (or vagueness) lines of reasoning.  And sorite reasoning is good only when there is a restricted range of considerations.  When there are other variables, vagueness arguments stink.

Here’s Ron Ross, over at the American Spectator, on President Obama’s recent proposal to raise the minimum wage.

When I taught economics, when possible I liked to use the “Socratic method,” which is essentially teaching by asking questions. The Socratic method helps the student deduce the answer by using what he already knows.

Most people, especially college freshmen and sophomores, feel that minimum wage laws are beneficial. When discussing the topic I would ask, “If a minimum wage of $8 is better than one of $5, why skimp? Why not make the minimum wage $10, or $20, or $30?” Passing minimum wage laws is relatively easy. If eliminating poverty is that easy, why not go all the way? Why be so miserly? It’s not your money you’re spending. Go big or go home!

He takes it that this is a full-on reductio of minimum wage proposals.  Ross’s argument is classic sorite version of slippery slope.  Here’s how I’d reformulate it:

P1. (Fact of case evaluation): $5 an hour isn’t enough.

P2. (Principle of tolerance): If a wage isn’t enough, then if we add 1 cent an hour to the wage, the new wage still isn’t enough.

Once we accept P2, the pile quickly accumulates.  Iterate modus ponens 500 times, 5,000 times on the inputs and products of P1 and P2, and you end up with Ross’s conclusion. (On the assumption that P1 and P2 are true, all those MP iterations will be sound.)  Go big or go home.

As I take it, Ross’s conclusion is that we should, to prevent the pile, reject P1.  But I think liberals, to prevent the pile, reject P2.  That’s what the concept of living wage is supposed to be — that there is an economically determinable line one passes where the one cent an hour makes a difference between having enough to pay all the bills (and perhaps save a small amount) and not.   And that’s why they want to raise the minimum wage.  Running a vagueness argument misses the point.  Not surprised that Ross ran it on his college undergrads.  They must not have taken a good logic class yet.


You keep using that word

An Illinois State Senator who voted against legalizing gay marriage in Illinois had this to say on the matter (via TPM):

To redefine marriage is discriminatory towards those who hold the sincerely held religious belief that it is a sacred institution between a man & a woman.

What a dolt.


We’ve had discussions of the use of persuasive comparison with the Ad Hitlerum and Godwin’s Law here at the NS a few times.  (Just a sample from John HERE and from me HERE).  Here’s a stealthier version (hence, sneakyGodwin), one that uses invocations of the Holocaust to make the analogy.  Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC) invoked Martin Niemöller’s famous line about the temptations of ignoring Nazi oppression:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist…

Foxx, as reported by IHE, in defending for-profit colleges from govermental regulation:

” ‘They came for the for-profits, and I didn’t speak up…’ ” Foxx said. “Nobody really spoke up like they should have.”

The trouble, as with all the Godwins, is that government regulation of an industry isn’t akin to sending people to the camps.  The objective of the regulation is to keep people from amassing debilitating debt to these colleges. But, you know, sometimes it’s worth a shot to appropriate the vocabulary of resistance to oppression.