Childish Things

Michael Gerson, George W. Bush's former speechwriter, reflects on the meaning of the inauguration.  First, he sees a double standard in comparing the hypothetical (liberal!!) media coverage of John McCain and George W.Bush versus the actual media coverage of Barack Obama.

This inaugural week included a massive achievement in American racial history, an outpouring of civic participation and a gracious executive transition on both sides. But amid the celebration one could detect double standards all around.

If the outcome had been different in November, would John McCain's inaugural coverage have been quite as worshipful as President Obama's — during which the "shiver" up the leg of journalists finally became full-fledged convulsions? Why were the biblical references in Obama's inaugural speech not considered a coded assault on the Constitution, as George W. Bush's were sometimes viewed? And I can only imagine the cascades of hilarity and derision that would have come had Bush messed up the inaugural oath, no matter the cause.

But a sense of victimhood is not attractive from any political perspective. And so, in honor of the "era of responsibility," I put aside such childish things.

The comparison is absolute crap, to put it mildly.  Gerson ought to go back to the coverage of most of Bush's tenure in office for a nauseatingly sycophantic and incurious media, eager to repeat the lamest of his lines, to faun over his heroic landing on an aircraft carrier, his plain-spoken, I-want-to-have-a-beer-with-him (but not that effete, fat, ambitious exaggerator Al Gore) qualities. 

It would have been far less childish of Gerson had he simply not mentioned this things at all.

Now on to Gerson's other childishness.

Any American with a sense of history should feel that sense of awe. Minorities of every background must feel it most deeply. As the father of multiracial children, I feel it deeply enough.

But there was a second, less sympathetic, Obama enthusiasm at work. In a Newsweek essay, Michael Hirsh mentioned Obama's racial achievement. But he went on to say that "there's something else that I'm even happier about — positively giddy. . . . What Obama's election means, above all, is that brains are back." Hirsh declared that the Obama era means the defeat of "yahooism" and "jingoism" and "flag-pin shallowness" and "religious zealotry" and "anti-intellectualism." Obama is a "guy who keeps religion in its proper place — in the pew."

I only wish what Hirsch said were true!  The "flag-pin shallowness" and the other things, however, are in part at least media-driven narratives that won't go away anytime soon.  But aside from that Gerson cannot possibly be serious, the candidate for Vice President on the Republican side openly questioned whether Obama, with his effete university pedigree and tenuous association with a former domestic terrorist (and radical African American preacher), loved America, or was from "real America."  Notice that this wasn't the fringe crazies on Fox News, or Rush Limbaugh, it was the candidate whom Obama defeated in the Presidential election. 

Anyway, Gerson will have forgotten this, because he'll seize upon the remark about religion and accuse Hirsch of arrogance.   

There is much to unpack here. Can it be that Hirsh is "even happier" about the advance of liberal arrogance than he is about the advance of racial justice? And would the civil rights movement have come at all if African American religion had stayed "in the pew"? But suffice it to say that some wish to interpret the Obama victory as a big push in the culture war — as an opportunity to attack their intellectual and cultural "inferiors."

Cheering that the era of Joe the Plumber, John McCain's ignorant and confused campaign prop does not make one guilty of "liberal arrogance."  Nor does cheering the arrival of a President with the pedigree of an intellectual.  Most of all, however, rejoicing at the political marginalization of the narrow-minded Christian zealots does not have anything to do with the civil rights movement.  To be against, in other words, one particularly virulent and ignorant brand of Christian fundamentalism having a role in shaping government policy does not mean one is against religion having any role at all in the private and public lives of citizens.  Those are really different claims–and "in the pew" is obviously a metaphor only the lack of charity or ignorant yahooism would interpret literally (and then radically misapply).  

This line, given the either-orness of the last administration is the kicker:

Most of us have witnessed this attitude, usually in college. The kids who employed contempt instead of argument, who shouted down speakers they didn't agree with, who thought anyone who contradicted them had a lower IQ, who talked of "reason" while exhibiting little of it. They were often not the brightest of bulbs. Most people recover from this childish affliction. Some do not.

You have got to be kidding me.  The People who employ contempt instead of argument and shout down people they don't agree with–or openly question their sanity, patriotism, honesty, sexuality, faith, and so forth–are not obviously the same people who praise the arrival of an intellectual President, who only nights before his inauguration sits down for a discussion with the opposition's leading "intellectuals."

11 thoughts on “Childish Things”

  1. The weird thing seems to be that if one judges that Obama is smarter/more intellectual/more curious/interesting than Bush, and that Obama is tending to appoint experts rather than political hacks, then one is “contemptuous” and “arrogant.”

    This would seem to be a perfect case of an ad hominem. Rather than engage the question whether it is true that

    “Hirsh declared that the Obama era means the defeat of “yahooism” and “jingoism” and “flag-pin shallowness” and “religious zealotry” and “anti-intellectualism.”

    Gerson belittles anyone who might make this judgment.

    Of course, contempt is not an argument, but neither is Gerson’s ad hominem flailings.

    It seems unlikely that Obama’s election will really be an end to jingoism etc. And this does seem like rather loaded and unfortunate language. The whole assertion seems hypoerbolic. But, can’t we be happy that we have a President who knows who the leader of Pakistan is?

  2. I’d agree, Colin. This has sort of a weird, ad hominem-circumstantial feel about it. But it’s also plied by some dichotomous  reasoning as well: either one chooses ideological kin, or one chooses arrogant geeks.

  3. jcasey,

    If there were a fallacy called “argument from poor authority” where because someone has been completely bias and unreliable in the past you dismiss anything they say on the grounds of it being from a poor source, then you have certainly fallen into it.  The abolitionist movement was very much championed by Christian activism, and you clearly are trying to interpret the implication that “religion should stay in the pews,” in the most non-offensive way possible, despite what it obviously means.  Also, even though the source may be a puppet speaker for some intellectually bankrupt conservatives.  The assertion that there is a belief among many liberals (especially college students) that there are only ignorant conservatives and intelligent liberals deserves to be weighed on it’s own merits, not the source (I happen to agree that this false dicotomy is alive and well at universities.)

  4. Well, Andrew, (1) there is a fallacy called “argumentum ad verecundiam” that is, appeal to unqualified authority.  Obvious bias, when it matters, disqualifies one as an authority–don’t go asking a tobacco executive about the harmful effects of smoking.  I don’t think, by the way, I was making that accusation here.   I alleged I believe that at least two of Gerson’s assertions were patently false and the other one a really silly straw man.

    (2)  No one can plausibly deny that the abolitionist movement or the civil rights movement (which is what we’re talking about here) had religious champions.  But these religious organizations were not instruments of government, but rather separate entitities, challenging current government policy. 

    (3) You can always find someone who fits the caricature you want to draw.  There are obviously many liberals who have shallow, poorly reasoned views.  There are many who have silly and wrong views about conservatives.  That will likely always be the case.  But I would suggest that the owner of a bi-weekly spot on the Washington Post concern himself with serious arguments.   I would also urge that when he concerns himself with serious arguments, that he not rip quotes out of context and then draw distorted conclusions from them.

    (4)  Finally, just because someone holds a view like the one Gerson criticizes does not mean it’s fair to impute it to someone who doesn’t hold it.  That’s lying.  And lying is unchristian.

  5. 1) Oh, “argumentum ad verecundiam” can be used both positively and negatively…  I didn’t know that.  I had simply assumed it only applied to positive authority.  So it’s like transference.  Good to know.

    2) Are you implying that government institutions control the religious right?

    3) Good point.  Even if it were true, that’s not the place for it.

    4) Understanding something to be typically true and assuming it to be the case about an individual are two different things.  Just as one can know that statistically, most of the citizens of a Nicaragua are very poor, but not assume that an individual is poor simply because they are from Nicaragua.  Besides, I didn’t make any implication about any particular person, that is unless you thought I was implying it about you in my post, in which case let me assure you that I wasn’t.

  6. re 2: no I’m implying that certain very narrow religious views held by members of government were used to shape policy in ways which were obviously wrong (and in some cases violations of religious liberty).  This does not mean of course that religious people should not act on their beliefs as private citizens.

    re 4: I’m saying that even though there are silly liberals of the sort described by Gerson, (1) One of them wasn’t the person he was talking about; and (2) it’s dishonest of him to suggest as much.

  7. Have you actually read Michael Hirsh’s article?  It’s two pages of ideological masterbation.

  8. Yes, I have, and I think Hirsch makes some compelling points.  I don’t know what ideological mast* means.  Perhaps it means he makes arguments you don’t agree with.  Nonetheless, the point of the original post here was that Gerson’s representation of Hirsch’s argument was dishonest.  It was.  And it was even more silly that Gerson went quote-picking on an argument written in November to characterize an event last week.  Stay current Michael.

  9. mast* was probably what the filter set the word to because the word I used could be considered vulgar and translates to “to pleasure one’s self.”

  10. You’re right.  It was.  We were having a disagreement, but it was civil, and I made a classless empty retort.  Apologies don’t count for much online, but I am sorry.

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