Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Catch of the Day

Goes to something old by Greg Marx, but he retweeted it today because it's (once again, alas, relevant). Back in  July, Marx collected a whole bunch of stuff that debunked or mocked Tom Friedman, but also expressed some concern:

Still, there’s a steep drop-off in the volume of responses from October; even Masket wrote that hesitated to comment on such “an easy target.”
Smart pundits of the world, don’t give up! The reluctance to repeat yourself is understandable, even admirable. But Tom Friedman is read by many, many people. And in his infatuation with the idea of the “radical center,” he is very, very mistaken. Do your part to improve public understanding of politics, defend American democracy, and grab some Internet bragging rights. The next time Friedman opines on the “radical center”—I’m guessing it won’t be later than the time Michele Bachmann wins the Iowa caucuses—take your best shot at proving him wrong.
It certainly is true that Friedman needs to be debunked and mocked. And there's yet another round today, thanks to his latest column -- in which, most notably, he complains about the poor conditions of a street in Washington and how that's proof that the political system has failed to do enough infrastructure work...which would be more convincing if, as David Weigel informs us, the street wasn't in bad shape because of a current construction project.

That's the debunking part. For the mocking, I'll turn to Ed Kilgore: "So like many self-conscious elitists whose idea of leadership is to herd the poor dumb masses along to their appointed destination in the great cattle drive of life, Friedman is a natural Bonapartist, and Bloomberg is the best available Napoleon."

I'll also toss in a link to Doug Mataconis, who as Marx notes has been on this beat for a while.

So I hope I've done my part here, but I admit it: Marx is right. It's just hard to bring myself to write yet another takedown of another silly column. So: great catch!


  1. What's happened to Tom Friedman is sad. To me, he was (and perhaps still is) one of the most astute commentators on Middle East issues. His columns after 9/11, in particular, were incisive and helped me (for one) make sense of a world turned upside down.

    But his disdain for Obama is inexplicable and frustrating. I say "disdain" even though he is generally mild in his criticism, because according to what Friedman says he believes, Obama should be his ideal candidate. And yet, here he is advocating a third-party bid that would pretty much ensure Obama's defeat in November.

    I don't think Friedman is trying to burnish his centrist credentials. I just think he has a personal dislike for Obama - and that trumps the fact that the two agree on almost every pressing policy issue. It's just mystifying, really.

  2. Check out Eschaton's blog for the ultmate takedown on Tommy boy. Somewhat NSFW (language) though:

  3. Rather like thwacking at David Brooks; why not just leave it to Chait, Ezra Klein, and sub rosa, Paul Krugman? (See Krugman's The Gullible Center

  4. Let me see if I have this straight: per Kilgore - "(Friedman's) idea of leadership is to herd the poor dumb masses along to their appointed destination in the great cattle drive of life"?

    Now, I too enjoyed the reveling in reviling of Friedman for spending a lot of time on the nonsequitur about DC-NY infrastructure, but curiously none of the critics picked up Friedman's point about the absurd theater of the Buffett tax: a lame measure that is fundamentally irrelevant in addressing our massive budget crisis.

    Which makes Kilgore's accusation against Friedman particularly arch: yes, its Tom Friedman who's taking the slobbering masses along for a ride, not Barack Obama, with his ridiculously oversold Buffett Tax, which may - if we're lucky - reduce our massive annual deficit by $5 billion, or 0.5%.

    This kerfuffle suggests that the reason why liberals like to declare themselves serious about the Deficit and Other Serious Matters is because people generally like to pat themselves on the back; that is, when they're not mocking Tom Friedman (for the part of his writing that doesn't put paid to their self-congratulation).

    1. @CSH -- that's a little unkind; you know the Buffett Rule is far, far from the sum of what liberals would like to do to address the deficit, and even far from the sum of what liberals would like to do to raise taxes on the richest. It's not like there's some liberal out there arguing for the Buffett Rule but also for extending all of the Bush tax cuts on purportedly liberal or purportedly deficit-sensitive grounds.

    2. @the classicist - I take your points; however, I think we'd all agree that the left spent substantially more than 0.5% of their 'deficit fighting attention/time/political capital' on the fruitless quest for the Buffett Rule.

      One can argue that liberals want to balance the budget, and further that the disproportionate time on what amounts to 1/200th of the journey (if it works!), is just an opening ploy...

      ...but we should remember that there are plenty of right-wing blogs that will make the same argument for Boehner & Co, allegedly intent on really starting to tackle the deficit any minute now, and thus the party whose time wasting foolishness offends you more is probably the one you don't vote for.

    3. CSH, the point of the Buffett rule (as Chait or somebody was explaining the other day) is this: The GOP agenda isn't deficit reduction, it's low taxes for the wealthy. This has become not merely a policy goal but a theology, i.e. Repubs have dug themselves in to the point where no big deficit-reducing measure can even be seriously discussed. Even Paul Ryan's budget is not a serious proposal to that end, it's a bunch of magic asterisks.

      SO, if you want actual deficit/debt reduction on a big scale -- and Obama made clear last year that he did, seriously alarming progressives with what he was prepared to negotiate away -- you must break the grip of that theology first. The Buffett Rule is a step toward doing that, a political maneuver to get Republicans on record protecting billionaires so as to clarify this issues for voters, in the hope that they will elect more Democrats, which will also scare the remaining Republicans into rethinking their orthodoxy. At that point some sort of sensible compromise with bigger effects on the deficit might become possible again.

      So, it's not that the Buffett Rule is a kick-the-can maneuver from people who are putting off getting serious. Again, Obama tried to seize the can last year, and Boehner's people not only kicked it but aimed it right at his face. The Rule is a case of setting up a congressional vote as part of a larger political strategy. You still object to that?

    4. It's also okay just to notice that when members of the House and Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses advocate positions, they are generally driven by more and by more gravely conflicting impulses than drive professional and amateur political writers. And that's how you get the spectacle of liberals/conservatives decrying [given Democratic/Republican initiative] as a quarter of a quarter-measure, while conservatives/liberals decry [given Democratic/Republican initiative] as not even beginning to face the issue, and probably harming the serious attempts to face the issue that [somebody???] would otherwise be proceeding with!

      Not that I want to fall into the "my side has no representation in Washington" "no my side has no representation in Washington" thing ...

    5. [posted this earlier, but the system seems to have dropped it, probably in recognition that the classicist's simultaneous posting was more worthy.....]

      CSH, the point of the Buffett rule (as Chait or somebody was explaining the other day) is this: The GOP agenda isn't deficit reduction, it's low taxes for the wealthy. This has become not merely a policy goal but a theology, i.e. Repubs have dug themselves in to the point where no big deficit-reducing measure can even be seriously discussed. Even Paul Ryan's budget is not a serious proposal to that end, it's a bunch of magic asterisks.

      SO, if you want actual deficit/debt reduction on a big scale -- and Obama made clear last year that he did, seriously alarming progressives with what he was prepared to negotiate away -- you must break the grip of that theology first. The Buffett Rule is a step toward doing that, a political maneuver to get Republicans on record protecting billionaires so as to clarify this issues for voters, in the hope that they will elect more Democrats, which will also scare the remaining Republicans into rethinking their orthodoxy. At that point some sort of sensible compromise with bigger effects on the deficit might become possible again.

      So, it's not that the Buffett Rule is a kick-the-can maneuver from people who are putting off getting serious. Again, Obama tried to seize the can last year, and Boehner's people not only kicked it but aimed it right at his face. The Rule is a case of setting up a congressional vote as part of a larger political strategy. You still object to that?

    6. So, it's not that the Buffett Rule is a kick-the-can maneuver from people who are putting off getting serious

      Perhaps. Remember this link, I think it was from ModeratePoli, showing that Buffett's 2010 AGI was $39.8 M? Because much of it was in long-term capital gains or dividends, his blended rate was 17.9%. We can mechanically put a plug at the bottom of Buffett's tax return to get his effective rate to 30%, which would have been worth $5 M in 2010. The richest guy in America: $5 million extra dollars.

      All the richest guys in America: $5 Billion. Well - maybe. If you were Warren Buffett (and not proud of your rule), how would your consumption habits change with the rule? Might you recognize less in capital gains? Or use your influence to receive less dividends? So the 'real' effect of the Buffett Rule is probably quite a bit less than $5 B, which itself is a pittance.

      So I agree that this is part of a larger political strategy, but I think its a misread to assume that there's some grander effort to milk popular alignment with taxing the rich to solve the revenue problem. The Democrats are more likely just trying to demagogue seats.

      Because, really, the takeaway from the incredibly inconsequential impact of the Buffett Rule is that the "tax the rich" meme, while good for Democrats to gin up the base, does almost nothing to solve the country's revenue problem (unless you jack up rates high enough to invoke for-real Laffer Curve effects). The problem is that there are way too many middle-class schmucks like yours truly paying way too little in tax.

      So - would you argue that the Democrats are setting themselves up for a larger political strategy, a "getting real" conversation with the vast, if shrinking, middle class that they're not chipping in enough? Anything else, as the Buffett Rule painfully shows, is basically political theater and manipulation.

    7. I expect that different Democrats would come down different ways on that question, CSH. Some may be interested only in winning seats, some only in soaking the rich. But I think the most far-sighted of them (and I would hope / think that includes Obama) are treating this as a necessary wrecking operation, with the thing to be wrecked being the complete intransigence of the GOP on taxes. As 2011 demonstrated, that's the prerequisite to building anything better, whether that new structure is just a more progressive tax code (a worthy goal in itself, IMHO, even if it still left a deficit) or a "Grand Bargain" that includes cuts in middle-class entitlements.

    8. The Buffett Rule is not, at its core, a deficit-reduction measure (though it will reduce the deficit). It is a tax fairness measure; one that an overwhelming majority of Americans support.

      So when I hear people like CSH complaining that the Buffett Rule is "lame", "irrelevant", and "ridiculously oversold", I just have to laugh.

      That's what it sounds like when you've just gotten soundly beaten in a political battle.

      In any case, you can take the Buffett Rule entirely out of the picture and the Democrats would still clearly be the best choice for a voter mainly interested in deficit reduction. (See deficit reduction acts of 1990 and 1993, almost universally condemned by Republicans; unpaid-for tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, primarily supported by Republicans; see also the GOP's deafening silence on the issue of skyrocketing medical costs.)

  5. About the Friedman column, the most amazing thing is his idea that Bloomberg not only wouldn't have to win, he wouldn't even have to stay in the election all the way, just through the debates. Is Friedman aware that these occur in October? The date of the last one is already penciled in for Oct. 22, with election day Nov. 6, fifteen days later. Is Friedman imagining a world in which a third-party candidate spends a lot of time and money campaigning, attends the debates, then announces in the last two weeks that he was never really running for real and is now dropping out of the race? That would make Ross Perot look like a paragon of constancy and sanity.

    Really, you can be that stupid and win a Pulitzer Prize? Where can I apply for mine??

  6. Two other thoughts:

    1) I secretly like the fact that Jeff's comments sometimes get eaten by the mean old spam machine. I like that because it happens to me too, and I usually figure that the blog has had it with me, but if the same thing happens to Jeff, that can't possibly be the reason.

    2) I wonder if we did a search, for all the blogs with any sort of political slant, and the times they brought up a "false equivalence" meme, and responded by saying "No, the media was not nearly hard enough on my side". Of the thousands of times the false equivalence meme has been broached in the blogosphere, how many were of the "too generous to my side" variety? I'm guessing the over-under on this is about...3.

    This got me thinking: we all have friends (or maybe in some cases, its unfortunately us) who are in a marriage or relationship surrounded by dysfunctional families or friends. When our friends complain about their partner's family, we probably put on our amateur therapist hat and suggest that maybe a better way to go about things is to take care of your own dysfunction, keep it from impacting the relationship, and your partner will follow suit.

    Sometimes such advice is heeded, and works well, and sometimes not, which is usually disastrous. The ubiquity of the political complaint about false equivalence messing with my side is like the friend in the bad relationship who endlessly complains about their partner's family/friends, without addressing their own side.

    Is it any wonder that our polity is just as toxic and dysfunctional as those personal relationships?

    1. CSH, I assure you that the spam machine has nothing against you. One thing you have to say for our new technologies, they're very democratic in the way they manage to frustrate absolutely everyone regardless of race, class, religion or creed.

      On your point about false equivalence, here's a question, and I'm honestly interested in what you think about it: When would it be justified to say that the broad political debate really had been tilted, and that one side's complaints about it really were more justified than the others? What would be the visible indicators that we had reached that point? For instance -- and here I don't believe I'm running afoul of Godwin's Law, because I'm posing it as a question -- the politics of Germany in the early '30s really were seriously out of whack. I'm sure there were Tom Friedmans then (maybe even named "Friedman") who insisted that the Social Democrats and the Nazis were equally to blame, and that the correct position must necessarily lie somewhere between the two. We can now see that view as nutty; the responsibility of patriots at that moment was to forget about splitting the difference and just denounce the Nazis as the dangerous extremists they were. But how do we know when we're at such a point?

    2. Jeff, thanks for the comment. My basic position is probably suffused with the kind of pie-eyed idealism with which conservatives tar liberals, but I feel that people and tribes should police themselves; that in a world of honor honorable people would focus on limiting their own contribution to these toxic phenomena. Naive, sure, but really a version of internal controls, which is about the only cultural/political bailiwick on which I'd hang my hat.

      That said, there's a line, and the Nazis were surely on the wrong side of it. Where is the line? It seems blithe and too clever by half, but there's a bit of the Potter Stewart quote about obscenity here: (you think) you know it when you see it.

      And maybe interregnum Germany doesn't fit the internal controls model all that well. Maybe the chaos of the lost WWI, the ruinous reparations, and everything else, made it hard for folks to be self-policing. My world view pretty clearly only works in a relatively stable society; I'm willing to admit that a different approach (i.e. the not-generally-CSH-preferred approach) is appropriate for a society like post-WWI, pre-WWII Germany.

      Even if we can't see it with Potter-Stewart-esque clarity, we are probably not in 1930s Germany level of ideological danger right now - I don't think. So where is the falsity in a proposed equivalence in the contemporary United States?

      A poll of this audience would say "The falsity is that the Democrats are equally as bad". IMO, the conclusion really depends on how much credibility/influence one places on the thin patina of objectivity in Fox News/right-wing radio. If you think that is "real news" (in the eyes of decision makers), then the blame surely shifts right. If, on the other hand, that entire phenomenon is little more than a wink and a nod to the disaffected masses, mostly in the central US, then the falsity of the equivalence is a fair bit more murky. I could be talked into the "right is worse", but I think that requires some assumptions about the seriousness of right-wing partisan media, and in any event I'm not sure they're so much worse that I'd relax my basic idealistic hope for self-policing from all political players.

      If the spam filter keeps this comment, I've another thought, a particular recent experience that I think illustrates my position well -

    3. @Jeff: your question is totally related to what I was teaching today! Well, it being philosophy class, we were on a more general level. But we were talking about how to distinguish generalizations that will help us make good predictions (like "the sun rises every day, so the sun will rise tomorrow") from generalizations that lead us to bad predictions (like "the farmer feeds the chickens every morning, so the farmer will feed the chickens tomorrow," which will not be true the morning before the farmer scoops them all up and packs them off to the slaughterhouse). So how do we tell which generalization will be the most helpful, when the same situation can be generalized in an infinite number of ways: as "politicians always xyz, so Teddy Roosevelt will xyz in 1912"; or as "members of the Bull Moose Party always uvx, so Teddy will uvx"; or "former Republican officeholders always ... " or "members of American political dynasties" or "fathers of daughters" or "people who shoot left-handed" (or right-handed, it doesn't matter) &c. Similarly -- how do we judge when it is that restriction into repression and aggression into mayhem and so forth.

      Unfortunately the answer is that it's impossible to decide in a principled way so long as the future event has not taken place.

    4. So on Palm Sunday, reading the Passion for the umpteenth time, a new thought occurred to me regarding the blame attributed to the Jewish chief priests and elders for the death of Christ. The thought was new in being outside the ones you usually hear, like Pilate putting thousands of Jews to death without being 'tricked' by the Sanhedrin, or the fact that the cited misdeeds of the chief priests were mostly banal, or that John 3:16 requires someone to facilitate Jesus' death (to save all of us sinners). No, this Palm Sunday I was thinking about the Masada.

      As you probably know, Jeff, the synoptic gospels were written sometime around 70-73 AD. That's contemporaneous with the First Jewish-Roman War, the disastrous outcome of which played a major role in the Jewish Diaspora. It couldn't have been known at the time, but considering the Jews didn't recover a homeland until 1947, you could argue that the First Jewish-Roman War was the most catastrophic political event in - well, in history.

      And so, if the Jewish people were allowed a rebuttal to their leaders' reported misdeeds in the synoptic gospels, they might very well have pointed to Herod's rock Masada, perhaps still stained with the blood of their leaders, and told their interlocutors to shove it, since the Jews had clearly already "given at the office". That would have been true in 73 AD; its a million times more true today, considering all the horrors that have been justified by those (tasteless, because of the outcome of the First Jewish-Roman War) anti-semitic passages in the synoptic gospels.

      The "false equivalence" comes in when someone like Mel Gibson makes a movie that ignores all the contextualizing factors to the synoptic gospels. You could argue that Jewish folks should remind us Christians of the Masada-factor in the synoptic gospels more often, considering the price they paid both then, and then repeatedly over the centuries.

      But see, I think we know that's wrong. I think we know that the rush of hepped-up emotion from participating in The Passion, on the part of we Christians, is the problem. The onus is on us to self-police; we have tended to be very bad at it (how many of us even know what that war was, much less its relevance to this conversation?). But that doesn't mean it isn't our responsibility as Christians, at least that's how I see the world.

    5. Nazis, farmers, chickens, philosophy, Potter Stewart, chief priests, Pilate, Masada and Mel Gibson, all in one subthread! Is this a great blog or what?! I wonder whether Thomas Friedman is really worthy of this quality of discussion.

      Anyway, I guess my current thoughts -- and I'm still open to different views on this -- are these:

      1. If there's really no principled way of distinguishing the cases, as the classicist suggests, then it seems to me that one has to follow one's best instincts, and if that means arguing that the current situation is not in equilibrium and that one side is being unscrupulous and taking advantage of the other side's attempt to be responsible, then so be it. No, it's not Germany in the early '30s, but it may nonetheless be an unlevel playing field -- and I have long argued that the best mechanism for leveling the field is deterrence: if both sides know that demagoguery is likely to be met with equal and opposite demagoguery, then demagoguery becomes a less attractive option. This is what the Friedmans of the world will never understand.

      2. The problem I have with most conservative thinking is that "self-policing" is an ideal, not a program. What happens if one side doesn't self-police? It's the same with other issues where I part ways with the right: Yes, it would be great if private charity stepped in to take care of the poor. But what if it doesn't? It would make sense for enlightened employers to offer good health insurance and pensions. But what if they don't? It would be swell if banks and other businesses recognized, as Alan Greenspan assumed they would, that being responsible is in their larger self-interest. But what if they don't? This actually has long seemed to me to be the central contradiction of conservatism as we know and love it: It tends to be hugely skeptical of some groups and some approaches, on the grounds that humanity is fallen and human nature depraved, etc. (an insight that conservatives claim to have patented), and yet amazingly forgiving and trusting of other groups. The Soviets won't behave without 30,000 nukes pointed at them; the poor will seize any chance to chisel the welfare system; black kids in hoodies are probably up to no good, etc. But bankers? Employers? The cops? The military and CIA? The powers-that-be generally, and their political arm, the GOP? Why, they're the good guys! No need to put any checks or restrictions on them. They can be trusted to "self-police."

      But what if they don't?

    6. I do wish I had the time to participate in the discussion threads...

      I'll toss in just one thing: I know very little about political culture elsewhere, but the Friedman thing is very much in keeping with US anti-party sentiment. And not seen as anti-democratic by most people, even if it is to me and the other anti-Goo Goos. But we're very much in the minority.

      AFAIK, it's a peculiarly US thing, so I'm not sure there were Friedman types in other nations at other times.

    7. The US certainly has been especially prone to this kind of thinking, but there are precursors and analogues elsewhere; what leaps to mind are Plato's Guardians, an early Friedmanesque protest of elites against the messiness of democratic politics. (Right? Classicist? Help me out here.)

    8. Jeff, I'm not sure that conservatives - generally - favor free passes for the institutions listed at the end of your 11:14 PM post. To the extent the culture has degenerated into bitter warfare, conservatives may not put those institutions in scope as often, but that may as much be because their opponents are attacking them (i.e. the enemy of my enemy is my friend) as it is ideology. I'm fairly certain tacit defense of large institutions isn't ideology on the part of the Right.

      In fact, I'm pretty confident that most conservatives are probably Hayek Conservatives, in the sense that Hayek favored free-markets as the first alternative, and collective action where free markets fail. The second part of that isn't frequently remembered about Hayek, and probably doesn't come across your AM airwaves, but that's a conversation for another awesome Plain Blog thread.

      And we start splitting hairs a bit; there are many modern liberals who are also Hayek Conservatives. The essential ideological difference probably comes down to how readily one reverts from Hayek Choice 1 (free markets) to Choice 2 (collective action).

      If self-policing is hopeless, we should get to Hayek's less-preferred alternative of collective action early and often. I agree that self-policing has a spotty track record, its easy to find myriad failures of self-policing, if that's what one wishes to see.

      A huge issue, here, is language. The words you use guide your thoughts. For example, is reactionary right-wing media "real media" (and thus in scope of a false equivalence charge), or is it a profitable gimmick? You can describe it either way; I'll bet if a person tells me their ideology I can pretty accurately guess how they'll describe such media, and more importantly, how their milieu will describe it. And those words will reinforce their ideas. Is self-policing impossible? Quite literally: if you say so.

      We had a substitute pastor in church last Sunday. She is a nearby retiree. Last Sunday's lesson was the story of Doubting Thomas, in her sermon she defended Thomas and observed that the story was a bit of a downer the week after the pomp and circumstance of Easter. And anyway, she added, Thomas gets an unnecessarily bad rap; heck, no less a personage than Peter may have contributed to Jesus' death with his denials, but Peter gets off essentially scot-free, while Thomas, who only wanted the confirmation the other disciples received, is an object of some ridicule.

      Wait, what, substitute lady? Peter was not a heroic figure in the Passion? Oh, uh, yeah, that's right. Good point! We don't usually listen closely to the substitute Pastor, but we can. We should.

      No self-policing? If you don't want to see it. You should have been at my church last Sunday.

    9. CSH, a good reply to that very thoughtful reply would turn this thread into War and Peace, but here's my best effort at something quick:

      1. I don't mean self-policing is hopeless. Obviously we need to rely on it most of the time, because enforcement resources are always limited. But I think liberals are comfortable with the idea that regulations, oversight agencies, and occasional prosecutions aimed at the powerful, including big market players, have an essential role in "ordered liberty." Self-described conservatives are usually heard arguing that the big guys can self-police, and that actually imposing behavior on them creates futility, perversity and/or jeopardy (to use A.O. Hirschman's very helpful triad).

      2. Those claims are part of the rightist critique of most liberal reforms, i.e. that they represent arrogant, utopian, Jacobin-style "social engineering." Of course, there have indeed been utopian social engineering schemes (e.g. the Jacobins'), but come on..... When everything from bike lines to Obamacare gets tarred as "utopian," it becomes pretty clear that this is not the real concern; the real concern is --

      3. Not upsetting existing arrangements of privilege and power. It stands to reason that conservatism, insofar as it's "conserving," i.e. being skeptical toward the new, is bound at least to include not just subtle readings of Hayek or Adam Smith, but some basic, temperamental willingness to trust that those who are currently on top are probably there for good reason, and are probably therefore good and trustworthy people. Liberals are more comfortable with the idea that being on top is as likely to reflect structural injustices, inherited advantages, or unattractive character traits like heedless ambition. (That is, liberals are more likely to apply alleged conservative insights about human nature to the privileged as well as the down'n'out.)

      4. On the equivalence issue, I think the smarter analysts who argue that there's currently an asymmetry don't primarily emphasize right-wing media (although some do include that), but rather the willingness of elected GOP officials and party leaders to sound like Limbaugh at times (and to kiss his ring), as vs. Democrats' insistence on continuing to play by the rules of Tip O'Neill's or Everett Dirksen's era -- plus the fact that the Rachel Maddows and the Keith Olbermanns have nothing like Limbaugh's power to terrify the political players on their own side.

      5. The points about Peter and Thomas are interesting, and I hope we can discuss all that further at some point. It might interest you that the great literary critic Erich Auerbach wrote in his magisterial classic Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, the book in whose long shadow I do my own humble professional work, that the story of Peter's denial was a turning point in the way reality could be imagined in our culture. I'll leave it at that for now, though, since there's a lot to the argument; Mimesis itself is almost as long as War and Peace.

    10. Jeff, thanks for the link and good comment; I too would enjoy discussing these matters further.

      I suppose this is obvious, but while I enjoy making claims about "what conservatives think" (who wouldn't?), the mere fact of spending this much time in a forum without pushback (in terms of speaking for conservatives) obviously calls into question how proper a spokesman I really am.

      Two quick thoughts:

      First, there's no doubt that the Koch Brothers and their ilk are a problem. But is it because of right-wing ideology per se or because rich people like to accrue power and influence things, with a polity - (from both parties, unfortunately) - disinterested in mitigating their influence? Since the WJC years, the left has gone from being the party of trade unions to international trade; that's very good for sales of Koch Industries' Georgia-Pacific toilet paper - indeed, arguably a whole lot more valuable to that company than a lifetime's worth of cant on the Rush Limbaugh show.

      Indeed, from my perch the Great Society is as disenfranchising as creeping income inequality. Am I the only one who notices that old people don't speak out in America anymore? I may be perceiving this incorrectly, but it seems like prior societies often paid heed to the wise council of their elders. Maybe we just have so many old people today that they don't stand out?

      I believe an equally plausible explanation is that the Great Society silences little people. The idea is this: if you rely on government largesse for your sustenance, are you going to risk being perceived sticking your finger in The Man's eye? Like everything, this is a moot point, but it isn't obvious to me that the accrual of excess power is a particularly right-wing problem in the 21st century.

      Speaking of Limbaugh: a little while ago that guy made a fairly boilerplate conservative argument, namely, that its not the responsibility of society to cover the inexplicably expensive birth control costs of a Georgetown University Law Student. In a weird variation on McLuhan's famous edict, the medium became the message, as the manner in which Limbaugh made (an otherwise noncontroversial right-wing point) has just about undone the guy; considering that he's a billionaire, the personal cost of his "style" may run into the nine figures.

      Returning once more to Potter Stewart; its a moot point about whether current non-equivalence is nearing crisis mode. It would seem weird if that were true, in spite of the most influential contributor to such non-equivalence being so badly damaged by lack of appropriate style - especially a lack that, while offensive to everyone, is probably a little bit moreso to the other side.

    11. CSH, it wasn't the boilerplate part of Limbaugh's remarks that got him into trouble. It was the seeming attack on a private citizen, plus the colorful elaboration. The boilerplate, which involved confusing private insurance benefits with public subsidies, merely demonstrated that wild ignorance of actual policy has become routine on the right.

      If you want the non-equivalence equivalent, compare the '07 controversy after ran an ad rhyming General "Petraeus" with "Betray Us." (That was their colorful elaboration.) A couple dozen Democratic Senators voted to condemn the ad, even though Petraeus isn't a private citizen and the point about him was legitimate if arguable (i.e. that he was allowing his command to be politicized). When GOP Senators or party leaders line up to go after Limbaugh over Sandra Fluke -- or anything -- then call me and we'll talk about equivalence.

      On your other points, I don't think older people as a group are politically silenced, certainly, since they're a key voting bloc to which both sides pander. But if you mean they're not listened to for their individual wisdom and such, well, that's modernity for you -- and in fact, it's been a complaint about the US from the beginning, since Americans have always associated themselves and their ccountry with youth / the future / vim and vigor. I mean, this isn't China.

      Here's where I'll agree with you, though: The 20th century was not especially kind to those who held wealth and power when it began. (Sorry 'bout that, Kaiser W!) It was one century in an ongoing multi-century project whose overall trend has been democratization and the dispossession of old aristocracies. In many ways, and with many fits and starts, power was distributed downward during the 20thC. At the same time, overall power increased, especially America's, which means the power of those at the top may be absolutely greater today even if it's relatively (somewhat) less. I don't know: Is it better to be John D. Rockefeller in 1900, operating in the social Darwinist but minor-power US of that time, or the Koch Brother in 20xx, basically owning a major political party in a massively techno-amped hyperpower?

    12. First, Limbaugh: while the Right may not have had the official Senate condemnation, Limbaugh's sacrifice of so many pounds of flesh is due, at least in part, to the fact that none on the right will defend his method of disagreement with Fluke's reco. Its certainly possible that those liberal senators censuring "really meant it", while conservatives distancing themselves from Limbaugh are closet misogynists distancing themselves for utilitarian purposes.

      While that's possible, our overarching discussion is whether the current equivalence imbalance brings us near the dreaded Nazi line. In that context the motive of those distancing themselves from Limbaugh or is basically irrelevant; the very existence of multipartisan distancing from extremism is a pretty telling indication that we're probably still a fair distance away from that line.

      And second, I love the observation about diffusion of power over the last century, which indirectly led me to a huge insight. More on that in a minute. I thought about it not from the perspective of the industrialist but rather the worker, and I came to a similar conclusion: even though labor's natural political allies (the Democrats) have pretty much left them behind for the siren song of globalization, I'd rather be organized labor today, in the dying throes of the union era, then labor 120 years ago, facing the Pinkertons at Homestead.

      And the insight. I think conservatives, generally, would be aligned with the distributing down of power that you mention. Most of us probably recognize that, net of all the hospitals and libraries, there's something suboptimal about the accumulation of Andrew Carnegie-levels of wealth. But while something like the Sherman Act passed pretty much unanimously, modern conservatives, being what they are, would probably have opposed it as just more of that liberal (Jacobin!) social engineering.

      And so conservatives, modern conservatives, being a bit slow, er conservative, need liberals to be liberal to help bring about the conditions (e.g. the Sherman Act) that become the traditions we conservatively embrace.

      So perhaps the problem with 21st century politics is not the intransigence and foolishness of a Boehner or Cantor; heck, they're just being conservatives, after all. Maybe the problem is liberals, who subsequent to the WJC globalization/triangulation/Wall Street era, are really just wanna-be conservatives in sheep's clothing.

      Maybe conservatives, in order to be good conservatives, first need liberals to be good liberals?

    13. CSH, I don't really disagree with anything here. (Consensus successfully achieved again!) I agree that the motives of the politicians reacting to Limbaugh, MoveOn, etc. are not the issue, and also that whatever the current level of equivalence, we're not 1932 Weimar (yet). So OK.

      I also heartily agree that it's the conservative-liberal interaction -- the tag-teaming or whatever image we might use for it -- that pushes things forward toward new equilibria that can then hold stable for a while. All-push gives you Robespierre, and all-stability gives you Marie Antoinette, and neither of those is good. And, don't get me started on the Democrats' surrender to neoliberal corporatism. No, they have not been especially good liberals, and I would agree that they have thereby encouraged some of the more unfortunate developments on the right.

      Big picture, I think what's needed is to continue that great project I mentioned, the one that 20th century, for all its glaring flaws, did ultimately advance. I think at some point there needs to be a global New Deal, doing for the poorer parts of the world what FDR did for the Tennessee Valley or George C. Marshall did for postwar Western Europe. I would call that the great project of the 21st century, and I hope to live long enough at least to see the first inklings of it.

    14. I think at some point there needs to be a global New Deal

      Not this Jeff?. This is a great coda to this conversation, since it fits the discussion perfectly.

      We conservatives are uncomfortable/nervous/whatever with the efforts of Sachs, Bono et al, but probably nothing could be better for Koch Industries' Georgia-Pacific than the prescriptions in The End of Poverty being led by the developed West (thus providing those companies a halo among newly-empowered Third World consumers).

      That would be so positive for the interests of early 21st century conservatives that in time the efforts of guys like Sachs and Bono would make them conservative icons. Our conservative fear - lord knows we have many! - is that the empowering of the world's D+E consumers will be associated with pushback against our MNCs, but cmon, that's not gonna happen, we still have the brands that rule.

      So, yes, liberals, give us the Global New Deal, we really really want it, we will sing its praises for years after the fact, but we don't know how to embrace it on the front end, because we're conservatives, after all.

    15. Oh, what a thread I've missed! Working on a book review of an ambitious mess wasn't really worth it ... But two quick points, and a question, if you guys are still checking:

      (1) @Jeff -- in the Republic Plato is grappling with the contrast between wild, sophisticated, democratic/oligarchic/plutocratic, anything-goes Athens (really! There was a saying "en Athenais panta kala" ~= in Athens anything goes; and in the Republic Plato says democracy is so attractive because its rule is "do what you will") and harsh, hierarchical, anti-humanist, uncultured, exclusionary Sparta, which had of course, a generation earlier when Plato was a young man, ended by winning the Peloponnesian Wars and wrecking the Athenian empire. So I'd place it next to the successive panics of the last twenty-odd years that tried to explain Japanese and Chinese economic success by reference to "more hierarchical, less flexible" cultures and so on. That is indeed an anti-democratic argument, and a kind of argument for unity and conformity, but I wouldn't pick it out as anti-party per se.

      (2a) @CSH: if there's one thing consumers of liberal media have learned since the beginning of Tea Party protests, it's that recipients of government largesse almost never single themselves out as recipients of government largesse. Older people especially seem to think that every penny is theirs by right.

      (2b) CSH, don't you think elderly people are less visible as a bloc because older age has been normalized to such a high degree? Among white-collar professionals someone working until seventy or even later is rarely picked out as elderly. In politics more than anywhere else, you can be 63 and retired and suddenly decide to run for the Senate and be an instant frontrunner, or an 80- and 90-year-old long-term Senator and keep getting reelected, or a Supreme Court Justice nearing 90 who's in a lot of ways much more powerful than at 60.

      (3) @CSH: pity a poor non-Christian who's read the Gospels but isn't steeped in the traditions, and who didn't get your story of the substitute preacher.

      (that one's the question, not (2b), contra appearances)

    16. Yes -- Athens has no parties (and no representation), so it can't really have anti-party ideas.

    17. @the classicist - sorry about a bit of inside baseball. I respond to your query with a bit more trepidation than normal, since I haven't read Auerbach's classic, and thus it might be more obvious than normal that I know not of what I speak.

      Caveats aside, if you've been there for The Passion at the churches I've attended over the years, you may have noticed something curious when the congregation gets to the part about the rooster crowing, thus fulfilling the prophecy that Peter would deny Jesus three times.

      In response to this development, Peter weeps bitterly; in church that's often accompanied by an overwrought dose of Shatner-as-Kirk-esque emotional vetting. For a lesser figure Peter's treachery would be met with some scorn, but because Peter pretty much only competes with Paul for Best Supporting Actor in the Church Triumphant, his inexcusable behavior is largely seen as a tragedy.

      Its been my experience - well, my not-having-read-Mimesis experience - that we don't tend to hold Peter accountable, perhaps because of the emotional investment we have in his leadership. But maybe I'm just not paying close enough attention. I hope so, since I like the take of the substitute lady; let's hold our heroes responsible even as we place them on their pedestal.

    18. [if anyone checks a post that's moved off the front page ... ]

      @CSH -- fwiw I haven't read Mimesis, either, despite Jeff's best efforts. I have, however, read War & Peace -- but that was ten years ago.

      I guess I'm not even sure what you mean by "if you've been there for The Passion"; I have attended a Passion Play once (in Cambridge), and a religious, in church performance of Bach's St. ... um ... John, I think (the less-famous one?) (in Oxford) -- is either of those like what you mean, or do you read the story aloud, or what?

      Yeah, I've always wondered about that about Peter. Well, I learned in day school. about David and Bathsheba and Uriah in a way that made it less lustful conspiracy to commit murder that ends with a baby dying and more tragic error from which the hero learns a lesson (because of the baby dying and the prophet Nathan interpreting fables for David). That's as much an incomplete view taken defensively or protectively as the denying Peter thing.

    19. What a great subthread - just to quickly answer your question, I spent a couple decades as a Catholic, then I married the daughter of a Lutheran minister (and that was that, which is really all for the best, but I digress). I can't speak for Christendom broadly, but at least the Catholics and Lutherans devote a portion of Palm Sunday to a responsive reading of Christ's Passion, with (in my obviously humble opinion) status accorded to the characters relative to their role in the church more than in the events of the Passion.

      So when we get to the part about the rooster crowing, its been my experience that the church tends to render the revelation of Peter's treachery with heartbroken anguish at our hero laid low, much more so than the disdain he deserved. (Except for the substitute pastor on Sunday, who gave Peter what for).

    20. (Of course, last Sunday wasn't Palm Sunday, but I suppose that was obvious....)

    21. Ah, we're still here. OK, first, about "anti-party ideas" and the original point of this post, another precursor to Friedman (and one influential with America's founders) was Lord Bolingbroke's "Ideal of the Patriot King." Early 18th century; basically, as soon as parties as we know them began to form, there were people longing for a Michael Bloomberg.

      CSH, on the global New Deal, somehow I had not pictured Bono as FDR. (I guess the shades are an affectation kind of like the cigarette holder, though, come to think of it.) But yes, him, Sachs, Amartya Sen -- apparently Gordon Brown has been talking up the concept too -- the GND would include efforts like theirs, plus a strengthening of labor rights around the world, the particular concern of Harold Meyerson (from whom I first heard the phrase "GND" if memory serves).

      About Mimesis, I should clarify, because I appear to have given everyone who hasn't read it some kind of complex. It is not about the spiritual enrichment one gets from stories like Peter's denial; the go-to commentators on that are still your pastor, substitute pastor, priest, bishop, rabbi, imam or High Lama, as you prefer. The book is an analysis of how different ways of narrating events assume and reflect different sets of assumptions about reality. What's brilliant about it is how much of an author's / period's / culture's worldview Auerbach can wring out of a close reading of just a few paragraphs from whichever work he's analyzing; and what's magisterial is that he does this for the whole range of Western lit from Homer to Virginia Woolf. (And he wrote the thing while a refugee in wartime Istanbul; his preface apologizes for the fact that he didn't have access to his library, although he seems to have had a pretty good library in his head.)

      The first chapter is widely anthologized and I'm pretty sure is available on the web. It's called "Odysseus' Scar" and is a comparison between a short passage in the Odyssey and the story of Isaac's near-sacrifice in Genesis, presenting these as two basically different views of reality. Amazing. I think his discussion of Dante might be floating around on the web too; he considered Dante another key turning point. His point about Peter just gets a brief treatment, not a whole chapter, but basically it's about how the actions of ordinary, no-name people come to be invested with immense meaning. We take this for granted in modern literature, but Auerbach is at pains to show how it was the gradual development of centuries.

      And finally, again, Tom Friedman, you SO don't deserve the commentary you've been generating here.....

  7. It gets tiring rolling the boulder that is Friedman back into place on the trash heap.

    He contradicts himself so often that it's useless when he's perfectly lucid, because you can't trust him not to say something stupid and contrary tomorrow: Instead, you can count on it.

  8. Don't know if anyone will see this, but one other data point occurred to me today possibly pointing to the US being still a far distance from a crisis of non-equivalence:

    Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, recently fired John Derbyshire for an incendiary column in response to the Trayvon Martin "rules". Lowry may have been inherently offended by the column; for example, when the Lowry family visits an unfamiliar beach, it may never occur to them to apply Derb's decision rules. OTOH, perhaps Lowry was bowing to pressure.

    If you prefer the 'bowing to pressure' explanation, then without knowing what the pressure is, we can be fairly confident said pressure is working against a right-tilted non-equivalence catastrophe. Oh, and that the pressure must be fairly strong.

    1. I agree, CSH, this is a relevant data point against non-equivalence. Here's hoping for more of them. :-)


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