I call “shotgun”

Today George Will is all about rights.  Rights are bad, you see:

If our vocabulary is composed exclusively of references to rights, a.k.a. entitlements, we are condemned to endless jostling among elbow-throwing individuals irritably determined to protect, or enlarge, the boundaries of their rights. Among such people, all political discourse tends to be distilled to what Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School calls "rights talk."

Witness the inability of people nowadays to recommend this or that health-care policy as merely wise or just. Each proposal must be invested with the dignity of a right. And since not all proposals are compatible, you have not merely differences of opinion but apocalyptic clashes of rights.

Rights talk is inherently aggressive, even imperial; it tends toward moral inflation and militates against accommodation. Rights talkers, with their inner monologues of preemptive resentments, work themselves into a simmering state of annoyed vigilance against any limits on their willfulness. To rights talkers, life — always and everywhere — is unbearably congested with insufferable people impertinently rights talking, and behaving, the way you and I, of course, have a real right to.

People think and speak about rights in a lot of different ways.  Some rights they see as fundamental human rights, like the right to non-human-sacrificing religious expression; some rights are less fundamental, like calling shotgun or dibs.  These are rights too, but people, normal people anyway, would be quick to tell you that they don't rise to the level of basic human rights.  In addition to these two categories of right, there are also–perhaps unfortunately–the enumerated rights of the constitution.  I say "unfortunately" because some native-born English-speaking Americans struggle with reading and so they tire out after the Second Amendment, they one that says they can keep "bear arms."  The Ninth Amendment, you see, admits that one has other rights that are not enumerated in the Constitution's listing of the previous eight or eighty.

So the concept of right, even as it is used in ordinary speech, has a lot of meanings.  One must be careful before one asserts that someone means the one rather than the other(s).  Now of course George Will doesn't care about this at all.  He never cares about honestly representing the views of people with whom he disagrees.  I can tell this because of the toss-off line about health care and rights.  He suggests that this unwarranted assertion of rights is the foundation of arguments pro or con.  By my reading of the arguments, this comes up not very often.  Even if it did come up very often, George Will ought to reference it. 

Instead, the argument for the absurdity of all of this rights talk regards speed bumps in an affluent DC suburb:

Recently Paul Schwartzman, a war correspondent for the Metro section of The Post, ventured into the combat zone that is the Chevy Chase neighborhood in the District of Columbia. It is not a neighborly place nowadays. Residents are at daggers drawn over . . . speed humps.

Chevy Chase is, Schwartzman says, "a community that views itself as the essence of worldly sophistication." Some cars there express their owner's unassuageable anger by displaying faded "Kerry/Edwards" and even "Gore/Lieberman" bumper stickers. Neighborhood zoning probably excludes Republicans, other than the few who are bused in for diversity.

Speed humps — the lumps on the pavement that force traffic to go slow — have, Schwartzman reports, precipitated "a not-so-civil war . . . among the lawyers, journalists, policymakers and wonks" of Chevy Chase — and Cleveland Park, another D.C. habitat for liberals. The problem is that a goal of liberal urbanists has been achieved: Families with young children are moving into such neighborhoods. They worry about fast-flowing traffic. Hence speed humps.

And street rage. Some people who think speed humps infringe their rights protest by honking when they drive over one. The purpose is to make life unpleasant for the people who live on the street and think they have a right to have the humps. One resident, whom Schwartzman identifies as the husband of a former campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, recently sat on his porch and videotaped an angry driver who honked 30 times. Other honkers "gave residents the finger as they drove by."

Can't liberals play nicely together? Not, evidently, when they are bristling, like furious porcupines, with spiky rights that demand respect because the rights-bearers' dignity is implicated in them.

Fortunately, it is a short drive from Chevy Chase to the mellow oasis of the River Road Whole Foods store, where comity can be rebuilt on the firm foundation of a shared reverence for heirloom tomatoes. And if you, you seething liberal, will put the pedal to the metal you can seize the store's last parking place. So damn the humps, full speed ahead.

Note that nothing in Schwartzman's account mentioned "rights."  A mind-reading Will interjected the notion of "rights" as an explanation for why people–liberal hypocritical people of course–are rude.

But even if they were asserting their rights–they're not wrong.  It is an interesting question, after all, as to who gets to determine what the street in front of your house looks like.  It's a question more interesting than calling "shotgun" but less interesting than flag-burning.

He who denied it supplied it

I have a kind of a general rule here I stick by most of the time: the people worthy of criticism are people who can plausibly be said to have some effect on the opinions of a non-ideological set of people.  However right wing George Will is, many people (except Kramer) find him "intelligent"; so his arguments and factual assertions to them are well grounded and worth considering.  In a similar fashion, many conservative or moderate readers, will think Thomas Friedman and Richard Cohen represent decisive liberal voices.  So, when those two jokers come out in favor of the latest Mid-East policy disaster, then people who oppose it must be really crazy.  

I generally avoid (not always however!) ridiculously ideological venues such as the Wall Street Journal or the National Revue, I mean "Review."  I'm sure they have some role in the debate, but they get picked apart by other more competent people than me, and their arguments are mostly directed at inflaming the passions of the converted.

Just for fun, however, let's examine the following bit of ridiculousness from Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal.  A propos of Obama's "socialism" he writes:

Don't expect "Capitalism" to make the White House theater.

The movie is largely a paean to plaintiffs lawyers and unions, who alas depend on evil capitalism for their incomes. Still, it's been noted that "Capitalism" slams Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd for being one of the unseemliest friends of Angelo Mozilo, the former CEO of Countrywide Financial, the famous subprime toxic waste site.

In fact, Mr. Moore holds up to ridicule a Who's Who of notable Democrats for selling out to the bankers: Tim Geithner, Larry Summers and Robert Rubin. At this point in Mr. Moore's narrative, all hope is lost, sinking beneath satanic capitalism.

But something happened, the movie says, that no one saw coming. "Change is what's happening." We are introduced to the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama (whose post-election supervisory link to the unseemly Geithner and Summers goes unremarked).

Of all the issues raised in the two-year campaign, Mr. Moore picks one, the famous charge that will not die: "Obama is a socialist."

Unlike the president, Mr. Moore doesn't duck. "The more they called Obama a socialist," he says, "the more he rose in the polls."

Michael Moore is a progressive saint. If he believes Barack Obama is a socialist camouflaged inside a Brioni suit, so must many of his fellow progressives.

This matters because the president's confused ideological identity has become an impediment to passing his agenda.

He says his health-care bill is not a Trojan horse for a Canadian-style single-payer system, but then feels forced to appear on five Sunday talk shows to prove otherwise; or he plants white-coated docs like plastic flamingos on the White House lawn.

On the first September anniversary of the end of Wall Street as we know it, Mr. Obama stood in the Federal Hall on Wall Street to say, "I've always been a strong believer in the power of the free market." Only a therapist could explain why some people say, "I've always been . . ."

You get a little of the ad hominem tu quoque in their at the opening (with a bit of false dichotomy–either capitalism or socialism are the only apparent choices), and some strange Michael Moore says "socialist" so ergo ipso fatso it must be true that many Obama supporters think he is (therefore Obama must be. . .).  The real silliness of this argument, however, consists in the claim that answering straw men attacks on your position means they are true.

That's a kind of double sophistry: you call someone a name, and then claim you're justified if the person bothers to tell you that you're calling her a name.  Why would she respond if it weren't true?

Straw man factory

Quote of the day:

In a heated and sometimes vitriolic debate Monday night, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) repeatedly called out former Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey for lying about health care reform. He said debating her was like "debating a pyromaniac in a straw man factory," prompting intense and immediate reaction from the audience.

I'm not sure what that means, but you can watch the video here.

Personal pronouns

George Will has written some pretty jerky things in the time we've been reading him–usually straw men or just plain lies.  This time he gets really personal with Obama.  Here's a taste:

Both Obamas gave heartfelt speeches about . . . themselves. Although the working of the committee's mind is murky, it could reasonably have rejected Chicago's bid for the 2016 Games on aesthetic grounds — unless narcissism has suddenly become an Olympic sport.

In the 41 sentences of her remarks, Michelle Obama used some form of the personal pronouns "I" or "me" 44 times. Her husband was, comparatively, a shrinking violet, using those pronouns only 26 times in 48 sentences. Still, 70 times in 89 sentences conveyed the message that somehow their fascinating selves were what made, or should have made, Chicago's case compelling.

I actually found myself downtown for the announcement: lots of emblematic scenes of Chicago 2016 signs on the ground or in the trash.  Then of course the strange cheering from people that the Olympics were not awarded to Chicago–such is their dislike of Obama.

Imagine for a moment "Crawford Texas 2016."  I think you'd hear a little autobiography from our former President–even though he didn't grow up there and he doesn't live there anymore.  So Chicago, my adopted home town, is a great place, even if I still root for the Tigers, Lions, and Red Wings. 

The President, who still lives here, sort of, and the First Lady, is was born and raised here, are naturally going to make a personal pitch.  I don't think, considering their relationship to this place, there was really any other choice.

Brain death

A guest op-eder in the Washington Post asks: "Is Conservatism Brain-Dead?"  My immediate response is–so what if it is–it must be kept alive by heroic measures.  To be honest, my immediate response was: "Does that hyphen go there, I think not."  In any case, upon reading the article, I'm struck by the standard employed to determine brain death:

The best-selling conservative books these days tend to be red-meat titles such as Michelle Malkin's "Culture of Corruption," Glenn Beck's new "Arguing with Idiots" and all of Ann Coulter's well-calculated provocations that the left falls for like Pavlov's dogs. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these books. Politics is not conducted by Socratic seminar, and Henry Adams's dictum that politics is the systematic organization of hatreds should remind us that partisan passions are an essential and necessary function of democratic life. The right has always produced, and always will produce, potboilers.

Conspicuously missing, however, are the intellectual works. The bestseller list used to be crowded with the likes of Friedman's "Free to Choose," George Gilder's "Wealth and Poverty," Paul Johnson's "Modern Times," Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind," Charles Murray's "Losing Ground" and "The Bell Curve," and Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History and the Last Man." There are still conservative intellectuals attempting to produce important work, but some publishers have been cutting back on serious conservative titles because they don't sell. (I have my own entry in the list: a two-volume political history titled "The Age of Reagan." But I never expected the books to sell well; at 750 pages each, you can hurt yourself picking them up.)

About the only recent successful title that harkens back to the older intellectual style is Jonah Goldberg's "Liberal Fascism," which argues that modern liberalism has much more in common with European fascism than conservatism has ever had. But because it deployed the incendiary f-word, the book was perceived as a mood-of-the-moment populist work, even though I predict that it will have a long shelf life as a serious work. Had Goldberg called the book "Aspects of Illiberal Policymaking: 1914 to the Present," it might have been received differently by its critics. And sold about 200 copies.

Jonah Goldberg?  Really?

Those Hollywood Liberals

Eugene Robinson, columnist for the Washington Post, complains today that maybe the conservative culture warrior types have a point about those Hollywood liberals.  Some them, so it seems, seems to have come to the defense of Roman Polanski, the Polish director (of the Pianist, among other films) whose his wife (Sharon Tate) was murdered by the Manson gang and who some years later pleaded guilty to sex with a drugged and drunken 13-year old.  Prior to sentencing, Polanski fled the country, and has since been living in Europe (pretty well, by all accounts).  Unfortunately for him, this week he was picked up by the Swiss Police.

Robinson, I think, ought to look closer to home for people with lax morals.  Here is his own colleague Richard Cohen, on the Polanski case:

It ought not to matter that Polanski is a Holocaust survivor. (His mother died at Auschwitz.) After all, countless others survived the Holocaust without committing crimes of any sort, especially ones involving moral depravity.

It ought not to matter, either, that in 1969 Polanski’s wife, the actress Sharon Tate, was horrifically murdered by the Manson family when she was eight months pregnant. This, too, does not excuse moral depravity, although it gives one pause. It ought to give one pause. (Polanski underwent a 42-day psychiatric examination following his 1977 arrest.)

And it ought not to matter that Polanski is a gifted artist. In fact, it ought to be held against him. He seduced — if that can possibly be the word — the 13-year-old Samantha Geimer with all the power and authority of a 44-year-old movie director who could make her famous. If this did not impress the girl, it must have impressed her mother. She permitted what was supposed to be a photo shoot.

There are two extenuating circumstances in Polanski’s case. The first is time. It has, after all, been over 30 years and Polanski, now 76, has been clean all that time — no crimes alleged, no crimes convicted. More importantly, his victim pleads his case. Geimer says, more or less, enough is enough. She does not excuse what Polanski did and does not forgive what he has done, but it is time for us all to move on. “He made a terrible mistake, but he’s paid for it,” she said some years back.

Time does not minimize the crime, which in its details is creepy, but jail would no longer serve a purpose. The victim and the victimizer are united — they both want clemency. The girl is now a woman, and the man is old, spending his dotage making fools of his champions, who cannot distinguish between sexual freedom and sexual assault. Let Polanski go — but first let me at him.

He forgot to mention the "booze" and the "drugs."  And here's another Post columnist Anne Applebaum:

Here are some of the facts: Polanski's crime — statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl — was committed in 1977. The girl, now 45, has said more than once that she forgives him, that she can live with the memory, that she does not want him to be put back in court or in jail, and that a new trial will hurt her husband and children. There is evidence of judicial misconduct in the original trial. There is evidence that Polanski did not know her real age. Polanski, who panicked and fled the U.S. during that trial, has been pursued by this case for 30 years, during which time he has never returned to America, has never returned to the United Kingdom., has avoided many other countries, and has never been convicted of anything else. He did commit a crime, but he has paid for the crime in many, many ways: In notoriety, in lawyers' fees, in professional stigma. He could not return to Los Angeles to receive his recent Oscar. He cannot visit Hollywood to direct or cast a film.

"Professional stigma" is but a few short words away from "Oscar."  My question at this point is whether there is some kind of prohibition keeping one Post writer from criticizing another.  One would expect, after all, that friends and colleagues (Hollywood liberals!) would rally around Polanski; they run in the same circles, have worked with him and known him.  Their defense of him ought to be seen through that lens.  Justifying such behavior, however, as a newspaper columnist seems rather more worthy of condemnation.

Argumentum ad Novi Eboraci Tempora

That would be "ad New York Times" I suppose.  I take as a matter or religious faith that global warming is a scientific issue, and that arguments concerning its reality or unreality should start and end there.  So when one frames the argument about global warming either in response to a Newsweek headline many years ago, or a New York Times article quoted out of context, I think that person is either not particularly well informed about how scientists work (they don't publish their work in the newspaper) or is just plain dishonest.  So George Will today frames his argument against the existence of a well-supported phenomenon by attacking the New York Times, as well as various context free quotes, meant–the quotes–to set up a pretty silly ad hominem.  

He writes:

Plateau in Temperatures

Adds Difficulty to Task

Of Reaching a Solution

— New York Times, Sept. 23

 

In this headline on a New York Times story about the difficulties confronting people alarmed about global warming, note the word "plateau." It dismisses the unpleasant — to some people — fact that global warming is maddeningly (to the same people) slow to vindicate their apocalyptic warnings about it.

The "difficulty" — the "intricate challenge," the Times says — is "building momentum" for carbon reduction "when global temperatures have been relatively stable for a decade and may even drop in the next few years." That was in the Times's first paragraph.

Whenever this guy quotes stuff, you'd better go read the original.  Here's what it says:

The plateau in temperatures has been seized upon by skeptics as evidence that the threat of global warming is overblown. And some climate experts worry that it could hamper treaty negotiations and slow the progress of legislation to curb carbon dioxide emissions in the United States.

Scientists say the pattern of the last decade — after a precipitous rise in average global temperatures in the 1990s — is a result of cyclical variations in ocean conditions and has no bearing on the long-term warming effects of greenhouse gases building up in the atmosphere.

The part about the scientists is where the argument ought to be.  Will instead insists that the real discussion is the political question of how to keep non-scientists from wrongly concluding, as Will has in this very piece, that the leveling off of temperatures means it's all a crock.  That's the point of the argument.  Will cites this piece extensively, and he seems to have no notion of what it's about.  Here's what he says:

The Times reported that "scientists" — all of them? — say the 11 years of temperature stability has "no bearing," none, on long-term warming. Some scientists say "cool stretches are inevitable." Others say there may be growth of Arctic sea ice, but the growth will be "temporary." According to the Times, however, "scientists" say that "trying to communicate such scientific nuances to the public — and to policymakers — can be frustrating." 

The quoted bits give the impression of some kind of fudging on the Times' part (like the black and white and weird voice in political commercials).  In any case, as I understand it, the basic point is this: The globe has heated up seriously for a quite a while.  Recently it has leveled off, but it still remains much hotter, so to speak, than before.  This is not unlike a guy with a really bad fever, experiencing a bit of dip, say a dip to 102.  He's still got a fever. 

Anyway, now for the ad hominem part:

The Times says "a short-term trend gives ammunition to skeptics of climate change." Actually, what makes skeptics skeptical is the accumulating evidence that theories predicting catastrophe from man-made climate change are impervious to evidence. The theories are unfalsifiable, at least in the "short run." And the "short run" is defined as however many decades must pass until the evidence begins to fit the hypotheses.

The Post recently reported the theory of a University of Virginia professor emeritus who thinks that, many millennia ago, primitive agriculture — burning forests, creating methane-emitting rice paddies, etc. — produced enough greenhouse gases to warm the planet at least a degree. The theory is interesting. Even more interesting is the reaction to it by people such as the Columbia University professor who says it makes him "really upset" because it might encourage opponents of legislation combating global warming.

This professor emeritus fellow is the only scientist Will cites in favor of his skeptical stance.  Nonetheless, the worry among scientists, justifiable as this piece indicates, is that people with no expertise will misunderstand the significance of the data.