Wednesday, 07 December 2011

Lying by example. According to Leon Cooperman, in his widely circulated open letter to Obama, Wall Street complaints about Obama concern not the substance of his response to the financial crisis these complainers created — and from which they continue to profit — but “the divisive, polarizing tone of [the President's] rhetoric.” Color me skeptical, but I don’t think Wall Street much cares about the rhetoric being directed at it, given its embrace of characterizations intended to vilify it. (“Greed is good,” anybody?) The most galling aspect of Cooperman’s letter, however, isn’t its tone-deafness to the larger political climate so much as its utter lack of understanding of what the President has done. Cooperman begins by setting the tone: “It is with a great sense of disappointment that I write this.” So, from the first, readers know that the author considers himself qualified to pass judgment on the President. Fair enough, but the next sentence shows that he clearly isn’t: “I hoped your election would bring a salutary change of direction to the country[.]” That undefined “salutary” hangs Damocles-like over the rest of the essay. He thought things would change for the better, but he can’t be bothered to define what those “things” are or how they might be “bettered.” That he follows this by admonishing the President for his rhetoric isn’t unsurprising — it’s all he’s got. “Just to be clear,” he writes, when he’s been nothing of the sort. He’s written a template upon which any reader can foist any objection they have to Obama’s management of anything. How clueless is he? He contends that he’s been “richly rewarded by a life of hard work (and a great deal of luck),” but like most powerful people who appeal to their humble roots, that luck matters less than the hard work. They take to heart the cliché about making your own luck, so this perfunctory invocation of the humility trope is even more perfunctory than most. It’s evident in the way he later extols the virtues of capitalists who, for him, function as benevolent overlords whose sole purpose is to “fill store shelves at Christmas.” The actual people who fill those shelves — not to mention those who make the products placed upon them — may work hard, but they’ve been terribly unlucky. Of course, Cooperman doesn’t say that. Instead, after praising the virtues of he and his, he chastises the President for doing exactly what he’s been doing all this time: Rather than assume that the wealthy are a monolithic, selfish and unfeeling lot who musts be subjugated by the force of the state, set a tone that encourages people of good will to meet in the middle. See what he did there? He and his are “people of good will,” and if the President would only stop describing their behavior in a factual manner and start pretending that they’re other than they are, they would be more than happy to continue doing what they were going to do anyway. Because...
In praise of Hitchens Perhaps because I teach in one of the reddest counties in the country — Orange — but every quarter, I make it clear to my students that I’m not interested in indoctrinating them. I’m left of liberal in my politics, but when I’m in the classroom, I’m interested in one thing and one thing alone: teaching these students how to construct a stronger argument. When I argue with conservatives online, I’m arguing with people who don’t know how to argue (or whose idea of arguing involves suing people who disagree with them). I tell my students I’m looking to create a better class of opponents. That I’d rather disagree with people who can state their beliefs forcefully, so that I didn’t always feel like I’m beating candy from a baby. Since 2001, in the back of my mind, I always imagined I wanted to train my conservative students into being a wee Hitchens. I know I’ll take flack for this, but honestly, the reason the left reviled Hitchens as strongly as it did was because it realized that it had a formidable opponent. For the most part, the left argues with the likes of Grover Norquist, whose influence is undeniable but whose skills are very much comparable. To everybody. Who argues. About anything. Hitchens was different. We can turn a phrase, but he could cant and pirouette it. As I wrote after learning he died: He’s basically our generation’s G.K. Chesterton: wrong about it all, but beautifully so. I stand by it. He attacked Mother Teresa, and justifiably so, when he felt it necessary. And he embraced an unjust war, unjustifiably so, when he felt it necessary. But he also waterboarded himself, to justify himself, because he felt it was necessary, and he backed down. He was the opposition we should hate, because he makes his case so strongly; but he was also the opposition we should love, because he challenged us to make our argument in its strongest form and changed his mind to fit the facts. Would that we always had opponents so eloquent and wrong. UPDATE: Because it was brought up in the comments, I thought I'd at least shed a little light on how I deal with other "leading thinkers" in the conservative movement. I just don't want anybody confused about the issue here, which is argumentative integrity, not correctness. UPDATE II: Because someone brought up that I'd said it better before, here's "Liberal Fascism: Two Words Next To Each Other."

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