You’ve Got to Give Him Points for Consistency

by Jonah Goldberg

Dear Reader (and the folks in Gary Johnson’s campaign who overslept and missed this G-File),

In Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic convention, he said:

In Washington, they call this the “Ownership Society,” but what it really means is that you’re on your own. Out of work? Tough luck, you’re on your own. No health care? The market will fix it. You’re on your own. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, even if you don’t have boots. You are on your own.

A few days ago, President Obama explained that if Republicans win:

The one thing that we absolutely know for sure is that if we don’t work even harder than we did in 2008, then we’re going to have a government that tells the American people, “you are on your own.”

Give him points for consistency.

Take away points for everything else.

First of all, this reminds me of a story one of my best friends loves to tell. He went to one of those blue-bloody old-line boarding schools in New England. Exeter, Andover, Arkham Asylum, or something — I can never keep those places straight. Regardless, in 1984, Jesse Jackson visited my friend’s school as part of his presidential campaign.

Jackson, either completely unaware of where he was or clueless about what he was doing there, gave the same self-esteem-boosting spiel he gives in poor inner-city schools. The only problem: These kids were overwhelmingly rich, white, and overflowing with self-esteem. They didn’t need Jesse Jackson to come and incite them into a frenzy of self-congratulation and chants of “I am somebody! I am somebody!”

But they loved pretending.

So the sons of Fortune 500 CEOs, ambassadors, senators, and various scions of privilege got caught up in the call-and-response. Repeat after me, “I am somebody,” Jackson insisted, and the progeny of the top 0.1 percent responded, “I am somebody!” Not as self-affirmation but as factual confirmation, like “No, really, I am somebody!”

Anyway, telling a room full of rich Democratic donors in San Francisco that the only thing separating them from a Hobbesian state of nature is Barack Obama’s reelection is almost funnier, because at least the boarding school kids understood the irony.

Second, there’s a tendency on the right to see this kind of ideological consistency as more proof that Obama’s always been a left-winger. I think that’s all true. But it misses other contributing conclusions and modes of analysis. Such as:

a. He’s arrogant — he thinks that once he’s gotten an idea or a formulation, there’s no need to ever change it.

b. He’s dogmatic.

c. He’s a really bad politician who is far less flexible and nimble than a president needs to be. See Ponnuru.

Third, philosophically, Obama’s vision is 100 percent catawampus (that’s right, catawampus) from the traditional American understanding of government. He sees civil society as a vacuum where, absent the federal government, we are autarkic, anarchistic individuals left to fend for ourselves, drinking puddle water and using cat fat for Chap Stick (“Nice Book of Eli reference” — The Couch). If the federal government won’t do it — whatever it is — then we are all on our own. But that is not how the vast majority of Americans live. Nor do we define our understanding of communal, cooperative life purely through the prism of the federal government. If the federal government won’t organize a bake sale at my kid’s school, we are indeed “on our own,” but we are not alone.

 

What’s Democracy Got to Do With It?

Yesterday I heard a fascinating, albeit too brief, interview on NPR with Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in the field of decision-making. His book sounds really interesting, but I want to focus on something I learned from the interview.

A recent study out of the National Academy of Sciences found that Israeli parole judges are more likely to grant parole in cases they heard immediately after taking a meal break. “Presumably they are hungry, but certainly they are tired, they’re depleted,” Kahneman explained. “When you’re depleted, you tend to fall back on default actions, and the default action in that case is apparently to deny parole. So yes, people are strongly influenced by the level of glucose in the brain.”

For the sake of argument, I will assume he’s reading the study correctly and the study is as careful as he claims (I have no reason to assume otherwise).

What I found intriguing was Robert Siegel’s follow-up question:

I mean, the implication of a study like that is here, democratic society is based on people at all different levels making decisions and if we assume that they’re as driven by the glucose content of their bloodstream at that moment or other odd biases that they bring to factors, it undermines all the underpinning of a democratic society.

I understand what Siegel’s getting at and I think it’s intended as a perfectly reasonable question. But it does reveal a certain bias that runs through much of our thinking about democracy. We tend to hold our democratic system to a very strange standard. Yes, these findings should be troubling in the sense that they highlight how we are all far more dependent on our chemical impulses and wiring than we’d like to admit.

But why should it be particularly threatening to democratic society? It seems to me these findings underscore why democratic societies are superior to other systems.

If prisoners are in for a rough time if the parole board skipped lunch in a democratic society like Israel, imagine how much worse off inmates in Saudi Arabia, or China, or North Korea would be in a Star Chamber full of empty stomachs. Would you like your fate decided by a peckish Politburo — “the smoked salmon is late, liquidate them all!” — or by a branch of government accountable to the people and the press? A hungry president is second-guessed by a well-fed Congress and press corps constantly grazing on free food. A hungry despot, potentate, or monarch makes a decision and that’s it. You’re screwed.

This is a more important point than it sounds. This study proves something conservatives have always known: Men are fallible and flawed, hewn from the crooked timber of humanity. That is why democracy is necessary, but it is also why constitutional rules, checks and balances, and redundancies are necessary, too. There’s no guarantee that there will be no mistakes. The only guarantee is that our system will be somewhat more likely to catch the mistakes and offer a chance to remedy them, all the while trying harder to respect our individual rights. That’s pretty good, no?

It seems to me the progressive mind is routinely shocked by the news that even the most well-intentioned experts will be wrong because they’re still human beings. Worse, their response to the news is to assume this illuminates a flaw in our system, when in reality our system is the only one that takes this problem into account.

 

Oh, and There’s That Thing About Plotting Mass Murder

Shortly after that piece, I heard a story by NPR’s Dina Temple-Ralston, about the trial of Tarek Mehanna on terrorism charges. It was not NPR’s finest work.    I hadn’t followed this case at all, so for the first 90 percent of the story I was actually pretty sympathetic to the defense’s argument.      Here’s the beginning of the transcript:

MELISSA BLOCK, host: From NPR News, this is “All Things Considered.” I’m Melissa Block.

Opening statements began today in the trial of a Massachusetts man who stands accused, among other things, of distributing al-Qaida propaganda on his blog. Prosecutors told a jury that 29-year-old Tarek Mehanna was an online operative for al-Qaida. The defense insists Mehanna was just a young American venting about the Iraq War, speech that is protected by the First Amendment.

Here’s NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: To hear prosecutors tell it, Tarek Mehanna supported al-Qaida when he translated one of its handbooks from Arabic into English. He also put English subtitles on a speech by and posted it online. Of course, lots of news organizations do more or less the same thing.

DAVID NEVIN: CNN probably still has on its website an al-Qaida instructional video.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That’s attorney David Nevin. He’s talking about that video that’s aired repeatedly over the years of al-Qaida operatives swinging on monkey bars and running through an obstacle course at a training camp.

And so the story went for next couple minutes. Sounds like an idiotic, anti-American blogger saying indefensible things about al-Qaeda on his website. It sounded repugnant and perhaps even technically illegal, but probably not worth a criminal trial and trampling on the First Amendment. At least that’s what I was thinking.

Ralston finds time to discuss Mehanna’s celebrity status with Occupy Boston and the fact that there are both hip-hop and rap songs written about the case (again: not just hip-hop songs but hip-hop and rap songs!). She even squeezes in the vital information that a flash mob showed up to dance to one of the songs, which then got airtime on taxpayer-subsidized radio.  
Alas, Ralston couldn’t find a prosecutor to talk to. But she did mention in the last few seconds of the broadcast:

Now, Mehanna isn’t just on trial just because of his blog.Prosecutors also say that he had conspired to shoot up a local shopping mall. And they told jurors that they will play wiretap tapes that will reveal the details of that plot. Mehanna is also accused of lying to the FBI. That means even if he wins the day on First Amendment grounds, there are other charges that could be harder to beat.

That’s helpful information, don’t you think? Plus, I can’t quite convey the subtle sound of disappointment in her voice as she admits he still might go to jail, even if he wins the First Amendment case.

She also neglected to mention that he’s accused of going to Yemen for terrorist training – also something that puts his blogging in a slightly more sinister light. The AP writes,

Prosecutors say Tarek Mehanna, of Sudbury, traveled to Yemen to seek training in a terrorist camp and conspired with others to kill U.S. soldiers in Iraq. When that failed, he began translating and distributing text and videos over the Internet in an attempt to inspire others to engage in violent jihad, according to an indictment.

Now of course, he hasn’t been convicted yet. But given the charges, the whole free-speech angle is, at best, an interesting legal footnote. It’s not the story. Except maybe to Dina Temple-Ralston and those flash mobs.

 

Various & Sundry

I love the story that Gary Johnson missed filing for the New Hampshire primary (actually, he had to race to NH and file in person because they missed the deadline for filing by proxy). Maybe they can make the campaign theme song “Because I Got High“?

Herman Cain’sgonzo ads have already been pretty well parsed. But one thing that hasn’t gotten enough attention is the clip of Cain at the end turning from that window and giving that delayed and then protracted smile. Greg Gutfeld and the folks at Red Eye (I was on Tuesday night) pointed out to me this YouTube comment, which I can’t get out of my head: ”I imagine Herman Cain is closing the curtains behind him at that shady motel, turning slowly, and making that creepy smile at a scared prostitute on the bed.”

Halloween is upon us. It remains my daughter’s favorite holiday and so every year we get more and more caught up in it. This is us last year.

She insists that we go as zombies again this year — but with a twist. So the Fair Jessica and Lil’ Lucy will both be zombie cheerleaders and I will be a zombie football player. Alas, last year we found a great, inexpensive makeup lady, to help us. This year we might be on our own. I’ll let you know how it turns out. Meanwhile, here’s a cheerier picture of my lass as Pippi Longstocking.

I’ll be on Special Report tonight.

I’ll be speaking at Furman University in South Carolina on Tuesday. Come on down — or up — if you’re in the area.

I’ll be speaking at the Americans for Prosperity National Summit on Friday

And here’s my column today.

The G-File

By Jonah Goldberg