The reporting media’s feverish desire for fairness and balance and its consequent abdication of its role as checker of facts seems to have spread to the op-ed pages. The ones who suffer most from this malady are those most often numbered among the “liberal” commentators. Unlike their more ideologically driven colleagues (who feel no such scruple), liberal commentators–and we use the term “liberal” only because that’s what people tend to call them–often argue against both advertised sides of an issue. In many, perhaps even most, contexts this would be a positive thing; it challenges the silly notion that for any argument there are only two parties. Sometimes, however, this urge for balance becomes an end in itself. This is what we have in yesterday’s column by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof:
If they're intellectually consistent, Democrats will speak out not only against the Swift Boat Veterans but also against Mr. Kerry's demagoguery on trade, like his suggestion that outsourcing is the result of Mr. Bush's economic policies. Trade demagoguery may not be as felonious as an assault on a war hero's character, but it harms America by undermining support for free trade.
Naturally what interests us about this passage is the mention of intellectual consistency. Ironically, this passage contains none. For the following two things are too different to warrant comparison in terms of consistency:
- the Kerry campaign’s suggestion that Bush’s economic policies lead to outsourcing;
- “a felonious assault on a war hero’s character.”
We might examine this puzzling comparison from two points of view, for it is almost (but not quite) equally inapplicable to both Kerry and Bush. Let’s look at how it is unfair to Kerry first. First, Kristof says that the Kerry campaign has leveled the charges. Second, the charges concern the effects of the policies of the current administration. Third, these charges are alleged to “harm America” by “undermining support for free trade.” Whether “outsourcing” and “support for free trade” can somehow be seen to entail each other is another matter, for what Kristof charges is not that the charges of the Kerry campaign are false, but that America may be harmed by failing to support free trade. So the Kerry campaign has challenged the Bush administration’s economic policies with the potential result of harming a feature of America’s economic system. On the other hand, this comparison is somewhat unfair to Bush since supporters of Bush have falsely claimed that John Kerry the person is a liar. The Bush campaign has not made the charges (though the President has refused to repudiate them specifically, but that’s besides the point here). But the balance of Kristof’s analysis tilts against Kerry, for Kristof alleges that legitimate questions about the effectiveness of economic policies of his opponent stand on equal footing with spurious assaults on Kerry’s honesty and service to his country. On the strength of this ridiculous analysis, Kristof concludes:
I'm afraid that the dishonesty of politics has infected all of us if we're so partisan that we're willing to point out only the sins of the other side. Intellectual consistency requires a tough look first at one's own shortcomings. So Republicans should be denouncing the smear against Mr. Kerry's war record, and Democrats should be denouncing their candidate's protectionist tone on trade.
Speaking of intellectual consistency, this is even more muddled than the previous paragraph. Kristof claims that the “dishonesty” of politics infects each side. But how are the smears against Kerry’s character of the same class as the Kerry campaign’s “protectionist” tone on trade? The first certainly is a matter of honesty (again, for those who leveled the charges, and perhaps for the campaign that refuses to issue a specific condemnation of them), the second is just a matter of honest political disagreement. In the end, a more readily available comparison suggests itself. Kristof might charge Kerry supporters with attacking the honesty and character of President Bush. In that case, even though the cases may still be too different to compare (for one of these charges seems to be true), at least Kristof would have gotten the basic comparison right.