The G-File

‘Debate Among Yourselves’

Dear Reader (and everyone else who’s to blame for our economic problems according to the White House),

Well, as the intestinal parasite said to the guy who gave gas station sushi one more try, “I’m back!”

The book is not done. But it is out of my hands for a few days, maybe even weeks, as the editors try to figure out what they’ve gotten themselves into (for the record, I’m pretty happy with it, and I think G-File fans will, for the most part, love it).

So in the meantime, I’m back to plaguing your inbox. Hopefully, this “news”letter will result in slightly less bowel-stewing. But you never know.


Debate Among Yourselves

By the time you read this, you’ll probably be so full of debate commentary you won’t want another bite, so let me keep it wafer-thin.

I thought it was really extremely entertaining, for a primary debate. Normally that would mean it was going to be slightly more entertaining than a rerun of Joanie Loves Chachi. But I don’t think it even needs to be graded on a curve. It was legitimately entertaining.

But after I’ve slept on it, I’m not sure that the relentless you-said-X-then-you-said-Y question format wasn’t overdone. I was trying to think through why that kind of question is so popular, and it seems to me that it’s not just the journalist’s natural desire for a “gotcha.” It’s also that, if you ask open questions, you get canned answers. Now, I don’t think canned answers are all bad. The debates are supposed to help voters understand the candidates’ positions. Is it so terrible that they be allowed to state them on their own terms? It’s not like the candidates don’t have their disagreements with each other, so you could still get some actual debating in the mix. But I think the questioners naturally dislike the idea that they don’t add value, so they try too hard to make each question matter.

Still, it was a much better debate than the usual fare and, as Ramesh notes here, and as I hammered on Twitter, it put the lie to the claim that Fox and the GOP work hand-in-hand.

As for winners and losers and all that stuff, I think there are two ways to score these kinds of things, “objectively” — i.e. on the merits, which can be awfully subjective — and politically.

(Okay, there I go again, betraying my Western rationalist logocentrism. There are actually an infinite number of ways to score such debates. Who used the most vowels? Pawlenty. Who most resembled a pagan trickster deity? Ron Paul. Which candidate seemed most likely to eat Grape Nuts at every meal? Mitt Romney. Who looked like the Merovingian from the Matrix movies? Jon Huntsman. Which candidate appeared most likely to survive a dystopian future where you had to stay one step ahead from cannibals? And so on.)

So, on the merits, I think Newt Gingrich was the best and — I can’t believe I’m saying this — Rick Santorum was a runner-up. They had a command of the issues as they saw them, and they made their arguments well for the most part. I think you could say the same of Ron Paul, save for a few cranky-old-man moments.

It really helps to know what you believe and why you believe it. I listen to Michele Bachmann and sometimes, while I’m sure she knows what she believes, I’m not always sure she knows why she believes it. I listen to Mitt Romney and to a lesser extent Tim Pawlenty, and I hear men who know what they’re supposed to believe and why, but I’m not sure they actually believe it.

Politically, the scoring is very different. Romney and Bachmann won, Pawlenty lost. Romney needed to get out of the debate undamaged, which he did successfully enough. Pawlenty needed to beat Bachmann and he failed. Bachmann needed to keep sucking up oxygen and appealing to her base in Iowa. She succeeded.

Of course, the clearest sign that objective scoring and political scoring are very different is the fact that most of the pros I know think Rick Perry won, and he wasn’t on the stage.


Categorical versus Ideological

Let’s circle back to the issue of knowing what you believe. I was embarrassed for the GOP last night. When they were asked if they’d take a deal where they’d get ten dollars in real cuts for every one dollar in increased tax revenues, each candidate raised his — or her — hand like some trained chimp asked if he wants a bowl of Cheerios. On the merits, that’s nuts. When I tweeted something to that effect last night, I got a lot of grief from people saying, “No, they were right. The Dems would never offer real cuts. Blah blah blah.”

Of course the Dems wouldn’t agree to such a thing. That’s why it’s an absurd question. So why give an absurd answer?

Honestly, without smuggling new facts into the hypothetical (“Pelosi would cheat!” “Reid would sneak in cowboy poet funding!”), you wouldn’t take that deal? Really? For every $50 billion in closed loopholes we’d get $500 billion in real cuts?

If you think Republicans shouldn’t budge on taxes hikes, that’s fine. I agree with you. But why come across as if you don’t care what the circumstances are? The correct position is not that tax increases are never necessary under any circumstances, but that they are unnecessary now.

Not even the most ardent supply-sider believes that raising taxes is never, ever warranted. Remember, it’s the Laffer curve. If taxes are zero, you need to raise taxes to get any revenues at all.

I understand that the candidates were forced into a choice of a yes-or-no with a raised hand, but the point remains the same.

Having nearly finished a book that is in part a rousing defense of ideology, I’d like to throw out an important distinction. There’s a difference between ideological thinking and categorical thinking. Conservative ideology is mostly a checklist of presumptions and principled biases. Conservatives are strongly against stealing, but given a horrendous enough hypothetical (your kids are starving, you need the antidote to save your poisoned wife, etc.), the conservative will concede that there are times when the presumption against stealing gives way to higher concerns.

The important thing to remember is that just because you’ve made an exception to the rule doesn’t mean the rule is invalidated. Stealing still belongs in the category of behaviors that are wrong, bad, evil. It’s just that, given the right circumstances, it can become the lesser evil. Liberals see this as hypocrisy. And maybe it is. But hypocrisy is not the worst thing in the world. The liberal relativist would prefer we simply get rid of inconvenient categories like good and evil, and judge everything by its consequences. The conservative believes it is better to maintain the authority of the principle but be reasonable, or humane, about its application. In other words, conservative ideology is an arrangement of competing categories or principles.

Categorical thinking recognizes no such competition. It reduces every question to an iron cage of easy universalities. You find categorical thinkers everywhere. People who want to make some small issue of principle into a matter of world-shattering importance. Not every moment calls for Thomas More. Sometimes the river Kwai can do without a new bridge, even if that reflects poorly on the British can-do spirit.

Conservatives aren’t categorically against change, for instance. We simply believe that change is not a good in and of itself and therefore it can be just as important to oppose change as to champion it. ”When it is not necessary to change,” Lord Falkland famously said, “it is necessary not to change.” 

Similarly, when it is not necessary to raise taxes, it is necessary not to raise taxes.

The problem with the way the Republicans deal with such things is they think they’re sounding resolute when in reality they sound unreasonable to a lot of people for no good reason. If a ten-to-one spending-cut-to-tax-increase ratio is unacceptable, how about 100 to one? A thousand to one?

Better to say, “Look, of course I would consider a deal like that, but keep two things in mind: 1) It will never happen because of the Democrats’ addiction to spending, and 2) the question seems intended to pry open the door on raising taxes, which is not the answer to our woes, but part of the problem.”


Life’s a Riot

Today’s column is on the riots in England. I think it’s a fascinating topic, which might be why I begin the column by saying, “Riots are fascinating things.” One of the most interesting things about them is how people react to them. There are few topics that can separate people ideologically as efficiently. If I ask you what you think about, say, communism, your answer will tell me a lot about what you think (and what you know). And if you begin your answer with something along the lines of “It’s complicated,” odds are you’re a liberal or some other species of leftist. This is not to say that communism isn’t a complicated subject in terms of its history, its varied manifestations, and all that. But when you start out with the “it’s complicated” business, more often than not you’re about to front load some apologies for something that deserves no apologies.

The same goes for riots. If you begin a sentence saying that nothing excuses wanton mob violence and theft, but refuse to come to a full-stop with a period or, better yet, an exclamation point, you know that there’s a “but” coming that will invalidate all of the platitudes that came before it. When someone says, “There’s no excuse for violence, but . . . ,” that “but” is a Pandora’s box of leftist banshees that have left human wreckage in their wake for millennia.

Ultimately, the Left’s weakness for riots stems, I believe, from two things: statist paternalism and power-worship. It’s an amazingly reactionary sentiment when you think about it. The lower classes are savages who need the benign power of the state to keep them from acting on their savage instincts. When the state doesn’t nurture and civilize them, the urban masses revert to their animal natures. The Left doesn’t condone the violence, of course, they just say the violence is to be expected when conservatives cut social spending. Or as I put it in my column, “In other words, the cuts don’t justify the violence, but the threat of violence justifies avoiding cuts.” On a cynical level, when the lower classes rise up and wreak havoc, the self-appointed spokesmen for society’s “victims” see an opportunity to press their advantage. They hold up the mob like a Medusa’s Head, to petrify the bourgeoisie into making ever more concessions.  

As for power worship, there’s always been something about the power of crowds that seduces the leftist mind (see Liberal Fascism). There’s also something about the “authenticity” of street thugs that’s intoxicating to liberals and way too many young people generally, particularly if there’s a racial component thrown in. (If the Black Panthers were white, everyone would instantly recognize them as indistinguishable from neo-Nazis.) How else to explain how so many middle class and even upper class criminals got caught up in this authentic expression of lumpenproletarian rage?  

Anyway, it all brought to mind this poem from Hilaire Belloc:    

We sit by and  watch the Barbarian, we tolerate him; in  the long stretches of peace we are not  afraid. We are tickled by his irreverence,  his comic inversion of our old certitudes  and our fixed creeds refreshes us; we  laugh. But as we laugh, we are watched  by large and awful faces from beyond:  and on these faces there is no smile.


Various & Sundry  

I just recorded a session of Bloggingheads with Robert Wright (it’s not up yet). You can tell I had just written the Goldberg File because I repeat many of the same points.

Please come on down, up, or sideways to the Steamboat Institute’s big conference next week. I’m speaking. Would love to see you and have a drink, though I will be solo-parenting my daughter so I can’t over-promise on the drinking front.

Speaking of my daughter, I leave Monday for a big semi-cross-country adventure with her. The two of us are going to drive out to Colorado and then zig-zag our way back, trying to hit as many amusement parks, water parks, and state fairs as possible. Any suggestions for the trip, please let me know. She’s a very adventurous lass (and recently picked up a taste for whitewater rafting!). I’ll report how it’s going in the Corner and/or on Twitter.

Oh, and speaking of conferences, if you’re in the NYC area, Commentary’s putting on a humdinger. Here’s the info. And here’s your homework.


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