Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Soft-Bigotry of No Self-Expectations

Note: unlike many guest pieces on Et tu, Mr. Destructo? today's article comes from a real, live person: the mysterious Mr. Awesome, a law student who is not a pundit and fears nothing. He previously paid us a visit to describe how Newsweek Sucks Really Bad. Robert J. Samuelson is a contributing editor to Newsweek and an op-ed writer for the Washington Post.

Robert Samuelson Uncovers the Sinister Threat of Giving a Shit

You cannot rely on American journalism to explain the Health Care Reform Bill. Doing so will leave you disgusted and uninformed. Our news media, by and large, has little or no interest in explaining what the HCR bill actually does and doesn’t do. Perhaps editorial boards don’t believe this makes for exciting copy. The statutory text is boring, dense and complex; spitting slack-jaws harassing congresspeople is exciting culture-clash American-identity stuff. That’s rich and compelling. That begs questions about the role of government and the character of American society. There are novels in that. Sure, writing a novel is hard, but invoking the conceits of novels is pretty easy, and journalists love the easy part of writing.

Since its infancy a year or so ago, the HCR "story" has been about a massive rhetorical and ideological circus. Coverage focuses on the ignorant, the dishonest, the opportunistic and the impossibly clueless. Republicans scream about government takeovers; they wail about communism. The Democrats flail around trying to explain centrist compromises made with an opposition party that isn’t even in the room. They are apparently operating with one hand a political machine built with two handles.

The news media referees a process that operates without fact-checking, without any emphasis on the legislation. The process naturally devolves into a game. You score rhetorical points for your side, and you move the ball up and down the field. You're not debating policy, because either you or your opponent has no tether to reality. You're just playing for field position in a football game with no end zone, where no one marks the yards. You advance and you get pushed back. The exercise is airless and has no apparent consequences. The news media stands at the sidelines as a blind referee, a checkered mannequin. They referee by standing by in reference. Their presence implies that there is an actual, official game going on, with rules and meaning. But they are inert. They are clueless.

And yet, they are necessary. You need someone with an agenda of uncompromising cluelessness in order to act as a human canvas for the rhetorical finger-painting. The Music Man needs a chorus. The plaintiff and defendant need a judge. And when there are no standards or proof, no fact-checking, no rules of procedure, the best judge is a credulous, vacuous hollow man. Nature abhors a vacuum. So, to succeed at vacuum, you must get away from nature and its attendant facts. You must operate a system of pure artifice to bypass the abhorrence of nature.

That hideous game is actually a lot better than the other common approach journalists have taken to the HCR bill. Sometimes they editorialize. Like all punditry, HCR editorialization is most often an attempt to construct a theory about American society, usually one specifically about the motivations of people with whom you disagree. And like the vast, vast majority of op-eds, these theories do not bear muster as actual research, are unsubstantiated, and ignore the reality of the actual subject. The HCR bill is just a lead-in, a "peg" on which the author hangs the coat of some pet theory or personal grievance.

Take this guy, Robert J. Samuelson. This article is a great recapitulation of our news media's inane fixation with using the HCR bill as an opportunity to craft theory and grind axes. I'm going to take a moment and delve into why this article is terrible and stupid, because I dislike this man. I dislike his poodley Stossel 'stache.

Here's the money quote:
People backed it [the HCR bill] because they thought it was "the right thing"; it made them feel good about themselves. What they got from the political process are [sic] what I call "psychic benefits." Economic benefits aim to make people richer. Psychic benefits strive to make them feel morally upright and superior. But this emphasis often obscures practical realities and qualifications. For example: The uninsured already receive substantial medical care, and it's unclear how much insurance will improve their health.
This quote does a lot of heavy lifting. First, the author demonstrates he does not understand the terms he uses. "Psychic benefits" actually refers to any sort of compensatory satisfaction that isn't based on salary or other tangible benefits. This phrase often appears as a justification for paying and treating public schoolteachers and other public service workers like they're dipshits because the "psychic benefits" compensate for the lack of compensation. Casting "psychic benefits" as some sort of license to be smugly superior is a cute way to insult people who are underpaid by virtue of virtue.

Note that psychic benefits language is used as an excuse for underpaying public schoolteachers and the like, a backhanded compliment or a concession used to soften the sting of being paid like a dipshit. It's like when a manager gives you a promotion in title only that incurs a bunch of new responsibilities with no additional pay or benefits. So, when the author uses the term to preface a snide insult, he writes a fun new chapter in the underhanded rhetorical history of "psychic benefits."

"Economic benefits," meanwhile, refers to a much broader set of things than those which are "aimed to make people richer." Samuelson uses the term to obscure more than he reveals. The provision of health insurance is a benefit which does not by itself make the recipient "richer." It kind of does the opposite, whereby the "richer" part only comes into play through the complicating medium of greater personal and economic security, and targeted tax benefits and subsidies. Samuelson misuses and oversimplifies these terms to the point of euphemism and avoidance.

When you blithely gloss over the complexities of a subject by misusing and oversimplifying complex terminology, you will write really stupid arguments, and you will appear ignorant and/or dishonest. This is a good example of how and why. Samuelson cites dangers like "the sacrifice of pragmatic goals," but he never defines pragmatism and gives no examples of these superior sorts of goals. He argues that this bill would have failed "on a simple calculus of benefits," but he never defines this calculus of benefits, and he never defines the benefits calculated. He strips his argument of any argumentative force and elides the bases for his opinions. He presents as factual argument pure opinion, without admitting he's just opinionating. He makes a case he either doesn't have or doesn't want to show the reader. He appears dishonest, and ignorant.

So he's not off to a great start — especially since this is not the start. This quote is the first place he really explains the reason for his article, and it's buried down in the middle of the piece. This combines with the title "The posionous [sic] politics of self-esteem" to suggest the unfortunate absence of an editor. (Microsoft Word tried to autocorrect this, which tells you the kind of ship WaPo runs these days. Granted, it's possible this is the fault of a copy-editor, as they write headlines for most articles in newspapers. At best that suggests that nobody there knows how to use Word — or perhaps that they disregard the "psychic benefits" of doing so.)

Basically this guy argues that the HCR bill represents a chance for morally superior leftist jerks to lord over everybody else and make them feel bad for not wanting poor people to have health insurance. This is the latest permutation of the "uppity leftist" caricature. Here the smug leftist is used as a particularly lazy attempt to gloss over what the legislation actually does in order to imply its drafters and supporters have no agenda beyond self-gratification. He does this with other prospective legislation, like (apparently any?) response to Global Warming. With Global Warming, though the smugness/economics distinction he fails to set up falls apart. He writes,

"Given this evasion, the public agenda gravitates toward issues framed as moral matters. Global warming is about 'saving the planet.'"

When you have no substantive point, when you offer no research, when you present no analysis, when your entire argument is word games, then framing "saving the planet" as a vacuous moral imperative is kind of a bad plan. We live on the planet. This is where we keep our stuff. Is he saying we shouldn't want to save the planet? Is he saying the planet is not at risk? Is he saying plans XYZ don't serve this goal? Is he saying we should strike laws against child abuse because they arise from mere moral imperatives? What the hell is he saying? When you argue against morality, you stand on treacherous ground. This Samuelson guy doesn't stand on that ground so much as float above it, though, because his argument is weightless.

He tries to establish that the use of moral language in politics and policy undermines the political process. He argues that moral language radicalizes the process, drawing legislation away from the moderate base, and towards extremism. He does this by citing two polls, one which examines the self-identifying political terminology of political activists and the public at large, the other which describes the monumental ignorance of the public as to the provisions of the HCR bill. He never connects these surveys. He never describes how the use of moral imperatives creates the results of either poll. Samuelson never connects these statistics by anything more than an intangible chain of random inference.

It's also very unclear what he means by moral language (and the psychic benefit this language provides). He argues moral language as though it were nothing more than shrill, self-aggrandizement designed to alienate non-believers. He seems bizarrely ignorant that morality forms the fundamental basis of any system of law or governance. All policy, all law, has at its basis the implicit argument or assumption that it serves the people, that its existence makes life better for people in some respect, and you simply can't parse this assumption without some moral basis. Further, who the hell gets involved in politics, even to the very limited extent of voting, without some moral basis for their choice?

Even the most parsimonious policy decision has at the very least some utilitarian basis in the "public good," a conception that becomes incoherent without the moral presumption that policy should provide good outcomes for people. It's not that Samuelson does a very bad job of articulating his argument, though Heaven only knows he does. The problem is that his distinction is fundamentally meaningless. A competent thinker and writer could make it sound better, could make this terrible article more convincing. But it would still be a meaningless false distinction. This is a cockroach soufflé, prepared by an incompetent chef.

Samuelson tries to demonstrate the harm of moral language and the moral imperative — in that it breeds ignorance, immunizes political operatives against reasonable discussion, and removes the facts from policy discussion. He does this by being ignorant, presenting no reasonable discussion, and removing the facts from his analysis of policy. He has inherited all the negative consequences he ascribes to morality, without demonstrating any of his own.

Samuelson's lies of commission are obvious after a critical reading of his terrible writing. But his lies of omission are far greater and more serious. Samuelson wants to distract his audience from the substance of the Health Care bill, to suggest there is no substance. He implies the entire thing exists in terms of pure polemic. There's room for reasonable people to disagree about the Health Care bill. But that room exists within the actual terms of the bill. Unlike Samuelson's article, and all the other content-less bullshit floating through our mass media, this bill has substance; it's real, and it's important.

Even a brief but serious effort can go a long way towards working against this deception. Please stay tuned for a five-point breakdown of the HCR bill tomorrow.