Tuesday, August 5, 2008

polemic (or confusion) vs. analysis

Two essays on The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule-- one from the author (Thomas Frank in Harpers) and one from a reviewer (Adam de Jong in the C-J)...

De Jong opens by critiquing cable TV's political analysts and then holds up Frank as a paragon of the same ("a welcome read"). Unfortunately, it is obvious (quickly) that Frank can be no significant improvement-- and that de Jong's admiration for Frank can only get in the way of his ability to objectively deal with the subject.

In his short essay, De Jong echoes Frank in conflating Republican, conservative, "right-wingers", ("radical") "free-marketers", and "the absurdity of Washington". Such characterizations are erroneous and not helpful (especially when they come from "experts")-- unless, by helpful, one means forwarding a wrong-headed (or at least muddy-headed) view/agenda.

Contra de Jong, governing Republicans are certainly not conservative in many significant ways; there are many types of conservatives; and there has certainly been no triumph of the free market (even under Reagan-- but certainly since then).

One sees the same sort of conflation in the so-called evolution/creation debate: conflating creationism with ID, young-earth creationism with old-earth creationism, evolution as no-debate micro observation with Evolution as a supposedly comprehensive "explanation" for the development of life.

Both cases reveal a startling ignorance or a purposeful obfuscation of key distinctions that is depressing to see among people who should know better.

Frank examines what happened in Washington, D.C., once these right-wingers had the chance to govern. He offers a harrowing version of contemporary Washington -- a city that has seen its competent and nonpartisan civil servants replaced by radical free-marketeers...Now, after years of Republican governance, the free-marketeers have created exactly the kind of government they want -- one that does not work, one in which the American people have no faith. Free-marketeers, Frank argues, not only revel in such cynicism but also promote it. Because so long as people think that government is the problem...

What a mish-mash!

-Laying the blame for contemporary governance at the feet of "conservatives" or even more laughable, "radical free-marketers" is simply absurd.

-Perhaps one could argue that a free-marketer might want a poorly-run government-- if there's going to be a big government. But it is incoherent to say that free-marketers want the vastly expanded govt we see today.

-We've gotten even bigger government with economic liberal and a Democratic Congress in charge. So, Pelosi & Co. have drunk the same conspiratorial Kool-Aid?! Mr. de Jong's analysis would apparently improve (at least slightly) by watching more Cable TV.

-Why do people have so little faith in government? Because it doesn't work well. There's not some vast right-wing conspiracy to bring in lots of bad govt in order to reduce the people's trust in govt. For one thing: If they had that much power and principle, then they would have brought us their version of utopia by now! For another, let's go with Occam's Razor here: people of all stripes have pursued big govt and it hasn't worked well-- because big govt doesn't work well.

Elsewhere, De Jong says that "Frank believes regular citizens like regulations" before heading into a litany of universally-acknowledged difficulty for markets and potential for government (pollution and info problems). Then DeJong tucks Social Security into the same dog's breakfast. Not quite-- either in terms of SS's supposed popularity or the theoretical case to be made for market struggle. Nice try.

Frank, in his longer essay/excerpt, uses the same conflation obvious in de Jong's review. He takes reasonable aim at Jack Abramoff but then conflates him with "conservatism" (and wants to connect him to Reagan). Then, this gem:

There are plenty of good conservative individuals...but put conservatism in charge of the state and it behaves very differently.

-Would Frank say the same thing about "liberals"? If so, why doesn't he? If not, why/how not?

-If the two things behave "very differently", why is he so comfortable calling him the same thing?" For example, there are plenty of good people in PETA, but when you put them in charge of the state, they pass laws to kill baby seals." Huh?

In an odd way, these are difficult times to be a Statist. Because most Democratic and many Republican politicians are doing their bidding-- when the "fruit" of govt activity is difficult to defend-- the rhetoritician is left to do impressive gymnastics in finding or exaggerating differences between the two major parties.


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