Menace 2 society

Sebastian Mallaby takes a stand against all of the Obama-Wright crap up with which the American people have had to put in recent days.  His basic position is that the accusations against Obama are logically incoherent–he's an effete snob who goes to a firebrand's church, for instance.  While we're all for pointing out logical incoherence, such accusations are only incoherent if they're believed by the same person at the same time.  I'd venture to guess that some believe Obama is some kind of Harvard snob, perhaps because some other Harvard types in the media won't shut up about it, while others believe Obama is some kind super left-wing radical.  Nonetheless, for those who repeat all of the conventional wisdom about Obama, Mallaby's piece may be instructive.

We're put off–unfortunately–by his closing analysis.  He writes:

The real character issue, in this campaign as in others, comes down to one thing: Does a candidate have the guts to espouse positions that are not politically expedient? Here there are serious questions about Obama, who pledges to pull out of Iraq no matter what, and who promises both to increase spending and not to raise taxes on anybody making less than $200,000 to $250,000 a year, ensuring the perpetuation of crippling federal deficits. For that matter, there are serious questions about Hillary Clinton, who proposes an irresponsible gas-tax holiday, and about John McCain, who couples gas pandering with a flip-flop on the Bush tax cuts, which he once (correctly) viewed as unaffordable. But these genuine character issues have been shunted aside by the spectacle of Obama's falling-out with his preacher.

After complaining–almost correctly–that we're awash in irrelevant character issues, Mallaby makes policy questions character issues.  Perhaps these candidates really believe the things they're saying about the gas tax, Bush tax cuts, and so on.  If that's the case, then it's not a character issue at all–at least in the sense Mallaby is alleging.  It's a policy question. 

But even if it's a character issue, it's not a very important one.  Politicians take stands they don't entirely endorse all of the time.  It's their job.  The important thing is that they not take stands that they don't believe in and which are folly.  

I voted for Kodos

George, "The Case for Bush" Will complains today about unconstitutional assertions of executive power.  Now you tell us, his loyal readers ought to think.  While saying a lot of things that are likely to be true–something of an issue for him of late–he makes the following assertion about claims of executive power:

When in 1952 Truman, to forestall a strike, cited his "inherent" presidential powers during wartime to seize the steel mills, the Supreme Court rebuked him. In a letter here that he evidently never sent to Justice William Douglas, Truman said, "I don't see how a Court made up of so-called 'liberals' could do what that Court did to me." Attention, conservatives: Truman correctly identified a grandiose presidency with the theory and practice of liberalism.

Hold on a second.  Could it be that Truman was wrong about liberalism and the judges were right?  Aside from that, it ought to be noted that Truman had the courtesy not to send the letter or challenge their jurisdiction.  

Life isn’t fair

Deep thinking on the issue of race, poverty and justice from a former CEO.  Here is the quick and uncharitable summary: life is unfair to people unjustly deprived of opportunities, but they don't have to go around complaining about it–that only makes it worse. 

Life isn't fair for people of any skin color. And sadly, in America today, many blacks face barriers such as economic insecurity, scarce jobs and poor schools, which create even higher hurdles for them to overcome. There is no cure-all for this inequity. But the effect that Jeremiah Wright has on Barack Obama's presidential campaign is far less important than the effect of the terrible message that Wright and others like him send to their congregations.

Positive thinking isn't going to solve America's race problems. But vitriol will only ensure that our nation's racial divide is sustained. We need to listen to the messages being sent in our communities and ask whether they encourage progress. A positive mind-set is at least a start toward success.

This has an almost Daily Show-like quality to it.  The vitriol of Wright (and people like Wright–you know, those people) is so bad that it distracts us from the real problem their vitriol is pointing out–you know, the fact that:

Sadly, in America today, many blacks face barriers such as economic insecurity, scarce jobs and poor schools, which create even higher hurdles for them to overcome.

If only someone could point out that injustice in a rhetorically effective way–then people would notice that attempts to resolve it, such as the following, have failed to address the core problems:

This challenge has not gone unnoticed. Each year the federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars — specifically, more than $10,000 per poor person for welfare, Medicaid, the earned-income tax credit, job training and food stamps. Put another way, taxpayers are doing their share. 

Where could we find such a person to draw attention to this injustice?


In the blind squirrels and nuts category, here's Michael Gerson today:

In the past few weeks, Barack Obama has learned the political perils of condescension.

His Philadelphia speech on race was filled with it. People who don't share Obama's views were not refuted, they were explained.

Lower-income whites, he argued, "feel their dreams slipping away," and so they turn to resentment against busing and affirmative action, "anger over welfare" and "fears of crime." And Obama not only understands these angry and manipulated souls, he defends them. They should not, after all, be labeled as "misguided" or "racist."

This is the same argument, expressed more bluntly at a San Francisco fundraiser, that Obama made about bitter, small-town Americans who cling to guns and religion. He does not even admit the possibility that these folks might have actual convictions on issues such as affirmative action, welfare, crime, gun ownership or the meaning of the universe. The only thing more insulting than being attacked is being explained.

He's right about this (and we've complained about this a bunch).  And he would have been even more right had he said that his page at the Post is fully of explanations rather than arguments (rather than take a few words out of context from Obama).  But then Gerson inexplicably (hee hee) writes:

But black liberation theology takes this argument a large step further — or perhaps backward. The Rev. Wright's intellectual mentor, professor James Cone of Union Theological Seminary, retreats from the universality of Christianity. "Black theology," says Cone, "refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer, and we had better kill him." And again: "Black theology will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy." And again: "In the New Testament, Jesus is not for all, but for the oppressed, the poor and unwanted of society, and against oppressors."

This emphasis on the structural evil of white America has natural political consequences — encouraging a belief that American politics is defined by its crimes, a tendency to accept anti-government conspiracy theories about AIDS and drugs, a disturbing openness to anti-American dictators such as Castro and Gaddafi. It explains Wright's description of the Sept. 11 attacks as a "wake-up call" to "white America."

What would explain Gerson's condescending explanation of Reverend Wright?  Maybe the impulse to condescension is irresistible. 

Media metric

One might make a distinction between two approaches to argument analysis.  One approach looks at the assembly of facts asserted and wonders whether they ought to be candidates for assent.  The other approach, the rhetorical approach, measures an argument's effectiveness at producing beliefs, actions, policies, etc., independently of its mastery of "logic" or "facts" or anything else.  It's actually quite easy to determine whether arguments are successful on this approach, as you simply measure their effectiveness by the methods of quantitative sociology. 

One frequently relied upon rhetorical metric is the press (there are others–polling for instance).  Take the political press–find out what they're talking about, and you have a pretty good idea who is winning what argument (especially come election time).  This quick and dirty heuristic, however, grants the political press (a rather small group not representative of anything or elected by anyone) a lot of power in determining whether candidates are up to snuff.  And it also has the effect of making pettiness the center of the democratic process (hold the laughs).  To my mind, if you're going to measure the rhetorical effectiveness of "arguments," then at least pick a better measure than what the political press is yammering about. Here for instance is the view of a letter writer for the New York Times:

Recent articles help to clarify Barack Obama’s weakness not so much as a candidate but more basically as a potential functioning president.

Mr. Obama has been powerless to moderate the controversial views of his former pastor and, according to his campaign, Mr. Obama can now do nothing to deter the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. from his divisive course.

Mr. Obama has chosen to separate himself from Mr. Wright, but even this decisive if belated action undercuts and perhaps illustrates the limitations of his claimed ability to bring us together. 

That fact that two things are getting talked about together is enough for this letter writer to suppose some kind of meaningful causal connection: after all, people wouldn't be talking about Obama and Wright if Obama were a better candidate, would they?  Obama ought to be able to shut the process down, and his failure to do that is evidence of his weakness as a candidate (the press can't shut up about it, after all). 

This reminds of an episode of Nightline on the Swift Boat business.  The moderator (or whatever you call him), asked entirely self-referential questions about the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.  He reveled in the curiousity and the interest that people in the press, like him, were talking about the Swift Boat story.  He wasn't talking about whether it was true, but only what it meant.  And the fact itself that he was talking about it meant something, didn't it?  He wouldn't be talking about it if it weren't important.