Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Semi-Fisking Michael Kinsley
KINSLEY'S HAD HIS MOMENTS. I don't have any particular animus against Michael Kinsley. He and Jeff Greenfield were regular foils on William F. Buckley's old Firing Line show, and they distinguished themselves as clever, learned debaters with good manners and a healthy sense of humor. I've since seen Kinsley in less civil forums, but I could at least imagine having dinner with him and enjoying the conversation. Which makes him a rare bird in today's lefty flock. But he's written a column (h/t Hotair) I think deserves the level of attention known as a fisking. Which I will now proceed to do; however, he makes a few points I agree with, and I will call those out just as I will the many instances where I believe he is either wrong or misrepresenting the facts for purposes of political advocacy. Let's get started. Plain type is Kinsley. Italics are InstaPunk.
My Country, Tis of MeIf I didn't respect Kinsley so much, I might have gotten rough with him. Thankfully, I overcame the temptation.
There’s nothing patriotic about the Tea Party Patriots.
By Michael Kinsley
The right-wing populist Tea Party movement has politicians of both parties spooked. Democrats fear it will bring so many Republicans to the boil, and then to the voting booth, that they will lose control of Congress. Republicans fear the movement will frighten away moderates and leave their party an unelectable, ideologically extreme rump. It's by no means clear that the Tea Party movement is "right-wing." It's an easy pejorative label, to be sure, but pay attention later on when Kinsley undermines his own unsubstantiated assumption. The press, both alarmed and delighted by this political force that sprang from nowhere, is eager to prove its lack of elitism and left-wing bias by treating the Tea Party activists with respect. This is an absurd and utterly false statement. The headline of MSM coverage of the Tea Party folks is the tone of absolute contempt that has predominated in their reporting, and non-reporting from Day One. Journalists also sincerely appreciate having something new to write or talk about. It is in their interest to keep this story going. No. They don't "appreciate having something new to write or talk about" if that something new is critical of President Obama. It might be "in their interest to keep this story going," but the narrative of the MSM's rapid decline in recent years is full of instances in which political bias has prevented newspapers and networks from pursuing stories that were in their interest to cover. In sum, this is a completely empty lead paragraph, which doesn't bode well for Kinsley's argument.
A Harris poll released the last day of March reported that a third of all adults support the Tea Party, and slightly less than a quarter oppose it. Do they know what they are supporting, or opposing? The movement is not yet united on a single platform or agenda, like Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America, which started as a triumph and ended as an embarrassment. That's a pretty (conveniently) simplistic assessment of the Contract with America. The only reason it was an embarrassment was that the contract was not fulfilled, which it might have been if the MSM hadn't been such a willing accomplice in destroying Newt Gingrich. But let's move along to larger points. The lack of specifics allows anyone who is just existentially fed up (and who isn’t, on some days?) to feel right at home. No one will demand to know what he or she is fed up with. True. Lots of unhappy people. So why are they automatically assumed to be right-wing? Especially, given that polls show high percentages of Independents and Democrats in addition to Republicans? On Web sites and in speeches, Tea Party Patriots reveal a fondness for procedural gimmicks (like a ban on congressional earmarks), constitutional amendments (term limits, balanced budget), and similar magic tricks or shortcuts to salvation. Apart from a general funk, though, the one common theme espoused by TPPs is the monstrous danger of Big Government. Sly capitalization there, Michael. As if Big Government were simply a made-up label, like your 'right-wing' characterization in the first sentence of your essay.Well done. But seriously, name something -- anything -- in the U.S. that is more 'monstrous' than the federal government. After all, 'monstrous' to most people signifies large, threatening and uncontrollable. If that's the one common theme, maybe it isn't ideological so much as existential. People of many political stripes are afraid of a government that was already big getting much much bigger and imposing more and more of its will on the citizenry. Even Michael Kinsley must know that the will of any government is exercised by force. The force of law, taxation, regulation, and policing. It's deluded to think of the adjective 'monstrous'? Really?
The Tea Party movement has been compared (by David Brooks of The New York Times, among others) to the student protest movement of the 1960s. Even though one came from the left and the other from the right, both are/were, or at least styled themselves as, a mass challenge to an oppressive establishment. That’s a similarity, to be sure. But the differences seem more illuminating. I agree. Absolutely. But probably not in a way you'd like.
First, the 1960s (shorthand for all of the political and social developments we associate with that period) were by, for, and about young people. The Tea Party movement is by, for, and about middle-aged and old people (undoubtedly including more than a few who were part of the earlier movement too). The second statement is so false as to amount to a lie. I'll explain later. If young people discover a cause and become a bit overwrought or monomaniacal, that’s easily forgiven as part of the charm of youth. uh, no. I was there, Michael. It was never charming. Smelly, stupid, selfish, and sordid, yes. Charming, no. When adults of middle age and older throw tantrums and hold their breath until they turn blue, it’s less charming. Less charming than Abby Hoffman, Mark Rudd, Bernadine Dohrn, and Bill Ayers? Well, strike me pink.
Second, although the 1960s ultimately spread their tentacles throughout the culture and around the world, politically there was just one big issue: ending the war in Vietnam. Right. More about this later. No such issue unites the Tea Party Patriots. You mean, apart from a government that is aggressively intruding itself into every aspect of the economy and private life? Which isn't an issue because you spell big government with a little 'b' and a little 'g'? You might guess from some of their materials on the Web that the repeal of health-care reform is the TPPs’ Vietnam, their towering cause. But even for devoted TPPs, stripping health insurance away from people who’ve just gotten it is unlikely to summon the same passions that the activists of the 1960s brought to stopping a misguided war. Observe debater's tricks in action: the war is assumed to be 'misguided.' What if Tea Partiers assume an unfunded federal takeover of the healthcare business is also 'misguided'. But there is no rhetorical consistency here. Opposing trillions of dollars spent on a new entitlement that will inevitably increase costs and reduce quality and personal choice is reduced to "stripping health insurance away from people who’ve just gotten it." Kewl. Not only do TPPs not have one big issue like Vietnam—they disagree about many of their smaller issues. What unites them is a more abstract resentment, an intensity of feeling rather than any concrete complaint or goal. Just a reminder: we entered this essay with the flat-out assertion that Tea Partiers are right-wing, which, to me sounds very much like an ideological determination. "Abstract resentment, an intensity of feeling" not so much. That would be more, uh, emotional, wouldn't it, Michael?
The antiwar movement also worked, sort of. As did the civil-rights movement that preceded it. Antiwar protests ultimately turned the establishment itself against the war, though extracting us from it still took years. And millions of Indochinese lives. By contrast, the Tea Party Patriots, I predict, are just the flavor of the month: the kind of story that the media are incapable of not exaggerating. Because there's nothing to see here when law-abiding citizens are so alarmed that they rally in hundreds of thousands in the streets, so please move on and stop impeding the traffic. The antiwar movement and the 1960s changed America in numerous ways forever. You got that right. It got us our first marxist president. The Tea Party Patriots will be an answer on Jeopardy or a crossword-puzzle clue. Remember to phrase your preemptive, prejudicial answer in the form of a question.
A final difference: although the 1960s featured plenty of self-indulgence, this wasn’t their essence. It wasn't just their essence; it was their totality. Their essence was selfless and idealistic: stopping the war; ending racism; eradicating poverty. Good Lord. What a load of crap. You libs like Occam's Razor. Here's the simplest thought experiment: remove the draft and there is no sixties protest movement. Game, set, match. Selfless? What kind of childish romantic are you, Michael? These goals and some of the methods for achieving them may have been childishly romantic or even entirely wrongheaded, but they were about making the world a better place. Oh. That kind. The Tea Party movement’s goals, when stated specifically, are mostly self-interested. Time to note what Michael has deliberately and systematically omitted from his characeterization of Tea Party issues -- the outrage about exponentially increasing deficit spending. The oldsters who carry signs about the crimes being committed against their grandchildren in the form of gigantic federal debt are 'self-interested' are they? Quite the opposite. They'll be dead and buried long before the real bill comes due. And they lack poetry: cut my taxes; don’t let the government mess with my Medicare; and so on. I say “self-interested” and not “selfish” because pursuing your own self-interest is not illegitimate in a capitalist democracy. How kind of you to nod, however briefly, in the direction of the economic system that made this country the richest in history. (Nor is poetry an essential requirement.) Aww. I'm starting to get tearful now. Poetry isn't actually required of the citizens who want to tell their government that too much spending and regulation is too much spending and regulation. Surely, they could take a course in iambic pentameter or something... But the Tea Party’s atmospherics, all about personal grievance and taking umbrage and feeling put-upon, are a far cry from flower power. Wow. WOW. This sentence should be included in all future dictionary definitions of 'hubris.' The intent is to make the orderly, peaceful demonstrations that are Tea Parties look wicked compared to the excrement-throwing unwashed anarchists of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Good luck with that, Michael. There is a nasty, sour, vindictive tone to the Tea Party that certainly existed in the antiwar movement and its offspring, but never dominated the atmosphere created by these groups. Huh? "Never dominated the atmosphere vreated by these groups"? I take back what I said in my previous fisk interpolation. This is the sentence that should be included in all future dictionary definitions of 'hubris.'
Some people think that what unites the Tea Party Patriots is simple racism. I doubt that. Good of you. But the Tea Party movement is not the solution to what ails America. I agree. It's what's called alarm annunciation. Like setting off a fire alarm in a burning building. It doesn't put out the fire. But it identifies a problem. It is an illustration of what ails America. Not because it is right-wing (it isn't) or because it is sometimes susceptible to crazed conspiracy theories (it mostly isn't), and not because of racism (had to sneak that one in despite the pass you supposedly gave it, eh?), but because of the movement’s self-indulgent premise that none of our challenges and difficulties are our own fault. You're going to have to prove that particular assertion, kemo sabe.
“Personal responsibility” has been a great conservative theme in recent decades, in response to the growth of the welfare state. It is a common theme among TPPs—even in response to health-care reform, as if losing your job and then getting cancer is something you shouldn’t have allowed to happen to yourself. I'm taking notes here, so help me out: Who said that, where, and when? I'll help you string'em up. But these days, conservatives far outdo liberals in excusing citizens from personal responsibility. Come again? Can I have a video of you saying that with a straight face? To the TPPs, all of our problems are the fault of the government, and the government is a great “other,” a hideous monster over which we have no control. It spends our money and runs up vast deficits for mysterious reasons all its own. Here's the essay I'd like to see: Michael Kinsley explaining why this pair of sentences isn't 100 percent accurate. At bottom, this is a suspicion not of government but of democracy. TIME OUT: Just so none of you miss it. The man is telling us that democratic dissension is anti-democratic. After all, who elected this monster? uh, you mean, who elected the EPA and the IRS and the FCC and the SEC and the Federal Reserve and Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac and the FDA and... Well? Who did?
This kind of talk is doubly self-indulgent. Doubly. Kewl. First, it’s just not true. What's not true? Losing our essay skills, are we? Second, it’s obviously untrue. Oh. Obviously. The government’s main function these days is writing checks to old people. You could have fooled me. I thought the government's main function these days was to spend a trillion dollars on shovel-ready projects, nationalize the banking, automotive, insurance, healthcare, and energy industries, and begin the arduous task of telling Americans what to eat, what they're allowed to consume in the way of information sources, and what kind of hazardous lightbulbs they have to install in their bedlamps. Silly me. These checks allow people to retire and pursue avocations such as going to Tea Party rallies. I've got it. Let's kill'em with death panels BEFORE they can retire to such seditious 'avocations.' This basic fact about the government is no great secret. In fact, it’s a huge cliché, probably available more than once in an average day’s newspaper. But the Tea Party Patriots feel free to ignore it and continue serving up rhetoric about “the audaciousness and arrogance of our government,” and calling for the elimination of the Federal Reserve Board or drastic restraints on the power of the Internal Revenue Service. Seriously. This is the oldest liberal wheeze in the book. They've taken your money your whole working life for Social Security, which is NOT optional, but then because you accept the checks you're a hypocrite for thinking the government shouldn't saddle your children and grandchildren with more debt than their expected lifetime incomes. But guess what? That's the definition of totalitarian logic. Once we make you dependent on us, you have no right to resist us on any of the myriad ways we intend to rule your lives. Thank you, Michael, for explaining 'democracy' to us hypocritical rubes.
“I like what they’re saying. It’s common sense,” a random man-in-the-crowd told a Los Angeles Times reporter at a big Tea Party rally. Then he added, “They’ve got to focus on issues like keeping jobs here and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.” These, of course, are projects that can be conducted only by Big Government. If the Tea Party Patriots ever developed a coherent platform or agenda, they would lose half their supporters. This is where I agree with Kinsley. But it's also where he exposes the fallacy of his entire argument. The Tea Party is not an ideological movement. Let me repeat that. The Tea Party is not an ideological movement. It's not even a party. It's a protest, an exercise in democratic dissension. It's not Republican as he tacitly admitted in his opening paragraph. It's a vigorous free expression of the loss of trust in government. It is anti-incumbent. It's a basic, utterly pragmatic "throw the bums out" movement. And unfortunately for all the intellectual liberals who presume to know more about everything than we do, the list of "bums" includes the whole damn federal establishment. Republican, Independent, Democrat, whatever, the Tea Partiers don't believe the government's claims that they can make everything better if they can just have a lot more money and control. Period.
Principled libertarianism is an interesting and even tempting idea. If we wanted to, we could radically reduce the scope of government—defend the country, give poor people enough money to live decently, and leave it at that. But this isn’t the TPP vision. The TPP vision is that you can keep your Medicare benefits and balance the budget by ending congressional earmarks, and perhaps the National Endowment for the Arts. A bullshit summation. Didn't he just say it was impossible to define a Tea Party agenda? He did. So where does this bit of omniscient reduction come from? Out of his ass.
What is most irksome about the Tea Party Patriots is their expropriation of the word patriot, with the implication that if you disagree with them, you’re not a patriot, or at least you’re less patriotic than they are. Standard liberal whining. If they ever thought about how paranoid they get when anyone uses the word 'patriot,' they might realize they're hyper-sensitive because of, um, guilt. Without getting all ask-notty about it, I think a movement labeling itself patriotic should have some obligation to demonstrate patriotism in a way other than demanding a tax cut. That sounds good, doesn't it? Provided you think American prosperity flows from the government, not the people who create the wealth governments appropriate and piss away. In their rhetoric, the Tea Party Patriots do not sound as if they love their country very much: they have nothing but gripes. The gripes are against an accelerating federal government grab of money, power, and personal liberty. Yes, of course, these are gripes against the government, not against the country itself. But that distinction becomes hard to maintain when you have nothing good to say about the government and nothing but whines to offer the country. Really. Well, you're the hands-down expert on 'whines.' That I freely concede. But I'm less clear on why we have to say nice things about the government whenever we also want to criticize it. Is that like pretending Islamic radicalism has nothing to do with terrorism? Or not offending a carjacker who wants to rape our wife and daughters because then he might get really mad? Maybe so. But a lot of us are wondering what the difference might be these days between a government that's really mad and vicious and the one we're seeing every day in Washington, DC. That could maybe be your next brilliant essay to us flyover morons.
Times are tough, and some sympathy is due. True. You have our sympathy, Michael. You used to know how to write and think and like that. We're sorry for your loss. Still, times have always been tough for many folks for one reason or another, and people didn’t always resort so quickly to all-purpose bellyaching, did they? Who didn't? You libs always did, immediately and utterly. But in recent years inchoate rage against the government has almost become part of our civic religion: the short list of values we all do share. To say, “Yeah, the government’s okay by me,” or even to express gratitude for a country that sends you a Social Security check and pays your medical bills, actually does seem almost un-American. Our new national motto is from the movie Network: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” And what is “this”? Ask not. Jeez. Did you actually read what you're closing on here? Or were you going to get around to that after you and all the other libs finally read the Arizona immigration bill? "Yeah, the government's okay by me." That's what you closed on. You have our (tea and) sympathy.
UPDATE. More thoughts on Kinsley and the Tea Party phenomenon from Doc Zero.