Tooning out

Hard to believe that we could find an op-ed dumber than George Will’s today (but we did). Will argues that conservatives are happier than liberals, as a recent Pew study holds. Will, never much for careful thinking, alleges that this shows his brand of a conservativism leads to happiness (and he argues this by fiat; the study doesn’t make the distinction he alleges it makes. If recent events–and recent op-eds of Will’s–are any indication, conservative Republicans are likely to be less “conservative” in Will’s semi-libertarian sense than liberals). But he at least was trying to be funny.

The sad thing is that Alan Dershowitz and Bill Bennett (yes, the gambler) were not. In a Post editorial, they argue that the American press has been inconsistent since the beginning of the war on terrorism. On the one hand, they have no problem printing images detrimental–in the minds of some of the Fox News variety–to our war on terrorism, yet at the same time they will not print images deemed offensive by some significant number of Muslims.

>Since the war on terrorism began, the mainstream press has had no problem printing stories and pictures that challenged the administration and, in the view of some, compromised our war and peace efforts. The manifold images of abuse at Abu Ghraib come to mind — images that struck at our effort to win support from Arab governments and peoples, and that pierced the heart of the Muslim world as well as the U.S. military.

But Bennett and Dershowitz confuse photographic reporting of events most Americans should be ashamed of (not to mention the print reporting of abuses of presidential power) with the gratuitous printing of cartoon images of the Prophet Mohamed, for the sheer non-newsworthy joy freedom exercising. Any numbskull can see that this is a difference of logical category. The images of Abu Ghraib are offensive for two primary reasons. First, the events depicted actually took place. Second, the actual abuse, depicted in the photos, aimed to humiliate the prisoners as Arab Muslim men. Our conduct, in other words, is offensive. Such events, depicted in photos, undermined our efforts to win support from Arab governments because they events, depicted in photos, took place.

The cartoons of Mohamed don’t depict any actual events, but were inspired merely by the very prohibition of representing the Prophet. For this reason, they can hardly be compared to the images of Abu Ghraib. The proper contrast–attempted later in the piece–is between cartoons of a similar type.

>What has happened? To put it simply, radical Islamists have won a war of intimidation. They have cowed the major news media from showing these cartoons. The mainstream press has capitulated to the Islamists — their threats more than their sensibilities. One did not see Catholics claiming the right to mayhem in the wake of the republished depiction of the Virgin Mary covered in cow dung, any more than one saw a rejuvenated Jewish Defense League take to the street or blow up an office when Ariel Sharon was depicted as Hitler or when the Israeli army was depicted as murdering the baby Jesus.

Cartoons of Sharon, or even representations of the Virgin Mary, are not properly comparable. There is no explicit prohibition of representing either of them (which the original publication of the cartoons purposely tried to flaunt). Context is everything.

Robin Hood

Try to guess who wrote the following:

>Sims’s idea reminds Democrats that a commitment to active government is not simply about redistributing wealth.

In case you thought it was the author of this:

>He annoys the establishment because he, unlike it, believes things. He believes that the establishment is proof of a conservative axiom: Any political group or institution that is not ideologically conservative will become, over time, liberal. That is so because, in the absence of a principled adherence to limited government, careerism — the political idea of the unthoughtful — will cause incumbents to use public spending to purchase job security.

You’d have been almost right. Despite their ideological differences, each seems to embrace the same shallow caricature relentlessly broadcasted by the pith and vinegar right wing argument army. The first, in case you you’re still wondering, is E.J.Dionne–liberal columnist. The second, of course, is none other than Dionne’s *Post* colleague George Will.

Dionne finds it refreshing, even instructive to *Democrats* (not just to those who have swallowed the Republican talking point whole), that there exists a Democrat who does not merely steal from the rich to give to the (undeserving) poor.

Such hokum one might expect of Will. If for him purchasing job security is identical with being liberal, then Tom DeLay, and all of the other criminally indicted and soon to be indicted of the party he so frequently shills for are liberals. Rather than embracing such shallow caricatures, Dionne ought to use his space in the *Post* to call Will and others out on such obvious dishonest and malicious equivocations.

That Dionne adopts such empty talking points as this merely underscores the spinelessness of most of the liberal commentariat.


Yesterday I almost wrote a post on E.J.Dionne’s column. Outside of Paul Krugman (whose locked up behind the wall of Times Select), it was the first vigorously argumentative piece by a “progressive” commentator in recent memory. And of course by that I mean it advanced an argumentative thesis rather than a blandly centrist explanatory one. For all of their faults–and those are many–conservative commentators at least give the appearance of an argument.

Today, for instance, in the Chicago Tribune, we find the following in the context of an argument on appeasing Iran from Hoover Institute fellow Victor Davis Hanson:

> Likewise, the moral high ground today supposedly was to refer both the Iraqi and Iranian problems to the UN. But considering the oil-for-food scandals and Saddam Hussein’s constant violations of UN resolutions, it is unlikely that the Iranian theocracy has much fear that the UN Security Council will thwart its uranium enrichment.

This is a factual and a logical morass. In the first place, despite Saddam’s earnest desires, the UN successfully thwarted his plans for weapons of mass destruction. We know this because there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There were “program related activities”, perhaps meetings whose subject was how neat it would have been to have had purchased more of them or hid them better. But there were no weapons. All courtesy of the United Nations.

The oil-for-food program, however shameful, concerns another matter altogether; it did not have to do in the first instance with the successful containment and inspection regime. It had to do with mitigating the consequences of a severe embargo. Corrupt it was, but it did not have as its goal, as Hanson confusedly suggests, the removal from power or the domestic weakening of Saddam (and so by analogy here creating fear in the hearts of the Iranian theocrats). Rather, it was well known that all such activities merely strengthened Saddam and enriched corrupt UN officials as well as others (Americans included).

So, dear Professor, if you’re going to make fun of the UN for a being corrupt and ineffective entity, make sure not to pick out one of their successes as evidence of that fact.

Missed opportunity

After recounting the several independently sufficient reasons the current administration’s wiretap program violated the law, George Will comes to the following inexplicable conclusion:

>But 53 months [after September 11th], Congress should make all necessary actions lawful by authorizing the president to take those actions, with suitable supervision. It should do so with language that does not stigmatize what he has been doing, but that implicitly refutes the doctrine that the authorization is superfluous.

The obvious conclusion to be drawn from Will’s own premises, however, seems to be another one. To this point the President has been engaged in a pattern of illegal activity (of, by the way, dubious use as intelligence). Such illegal activity, for the reasons Will has detailed, ought to be stigmatized by Congress. Second, a legal structure for that type of intelligence gathering already exists (the President can even get a warrant *after* surveillance). Furthermore, the current “monarchical” (that’s Will’s word) administration shouldn’t be rewarded for its clueless and lawless attempts at protecting the American people by undermining civil liberties. Finally, the Republican Congress can be trusted even less than their constitutionally challenged leader.

Had Will meant to argue *for* the President’s action, then perhaps he should have outlined reasons he of all Presidents should be trusted with even greater authority than the law now allows. None of the reasons he has outlined indicate this.

Cartoon liberalism

Stanley Fish, professor of law at Florida International University, illustrates a logical confusion as fundamental and pervasive as it is difficult to identify. In short, Professor Fish confuses the way a belief is held by some people with the logical character of that belief. Take the following, for instance.

>Mr. Rose may think of himself, as most journalists do, as being neutral with respect to religion — he is not speaking as a Jew or a Christian or an atheist — but in fact he is an adherent of the religion of letting it all hang out, the religion we call liberalism.

>The first tenet of the liberal religion is that everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously. This is managed by the familiar distinction — implied in the First Amendment’s religion clause — between the public and private spheres. It is in the private sphere — the personal spaces of the heart, the home and the house of worship — that one’s religious views are allowed full sway and dictate behavior.

Here Fish is speaking of the attitude of Westerners to the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published recently in Denmark. There seem to be two basic confusions. First, Fish confuses the *political* neutrality of liberalism toward different kinds of metaphysical or theological claims with the *psychological* neutrality of individuals who affirm one or other (and there are many indeed) variation on liberalism. Individuals who embrace one or other of the liberal views caricatured by Professor Fish may do so as if it were a religion, but that doesn’t mean that the view is a religion–a religion, that is, of the sort characterized by liberalism.

Second, Fish employs the surprisingly amateur anti-liberal device of calling any recommendation for action, qua recommendation for action, a moral claim.

>This is itself a morality — the morality of a withdrawal from morality in any strong, insistent form. It is certainly different from the morality of those for whom the Danish cartoons are blasphemy and monstrously evil. And the difference, I think, is to the credit of the Muslim protesters and to the discredit of the liberal editors.

It’s vacuous to assert that all systems involving beliefs and actions are of the same logical order. If all action-inducing claims are moral claims, then none of them are. Liberals, of all stripes, consider this distinction between controversial moral claims and political structures to be the aim of their many and varied arguments for the superiority of their view. They may be wrong. But they’re wrong on the merits of their arguments, not because, as Fish alleges, they don’t have an argument.