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Archive for the ‘Rhetoric’ Category

To appear more human, Obama tried to be funny and folksy, but his wise cracks and “million dollar smile” came across more as creepy sarcasm.  This act also created a problem of tone.  People want to see that he cares about them and their problems , that he “feels their pain” the way Bill Clinton did so well. He failed in this regard.  He always does.  It’s not his strong suit.  It was more like a pep rally atmosphere.  And he was fully of excuses, on banks for instance, rather than careful explanations and defenses of his policies.  This made him look simultaneously cocky and weak.

The speech was screwy on many levels:  he failed to convey empathy effectively, the speech lacked a unifying theme, his “rah rah” engagement with the partisan Democrats will likely alienate independents, the facts hurt him on unemployment and the debt, and his response to the same was logically contradictory, i.e., freeze spending but spend new money on flying cars and solar and what-not.  I also think his doubling down on healthcare will scare seniors, even if Medicare reform long-term makes good policy sense.  Finally, his jobs bill sounds kind of unbelievable; if a $1T stimulus couldn’t sort things out, what will $30B do. It hurts these programs’ popularity that none of us really knows anyone helped by the stimulus.  He named a few random companies, but I literally have never seen a project or met anyone who was employed because of that boondoggle.

Like most state of the union speeches,  it won’t move the dial much, but since the dial is pointed so negative for him, that makes this speech a big failure.

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Jay Cost in a very thoughtful column notes that the President’s rhetoric, the tone of his supporters, and his exaggerated sense of his own importance are contrary to the republican traditions of America. Here is an excerpt criticizing the President’s mea culpa for all previous American history at the United Nations:

[I]t’s fair to criticize the actions of the previous administration to a point, but speeches like his U.N. address often move beyond that to suggest a broader failure, one that implicates the mass public. For instance, the best rejoinder he has to those who question the “character” of his country is: “look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months,” which he suggests are “just a beginning.” This rhetoric does not befit the leader of a democratic republic, especially one as great as the United States of America. The President should be willing and able to defend the “character” of his country beyond his own, inconsequential-to-date actions.

This jaundiced vision is Obama’s biggest problem, and it is the root of his increasing disconnect from moderates and independents.   It separates him even from someone like Jimmy Carter.  Jimmy Carter undoubtedly was troubled by the cruel racism of the South in which he grew up.  It grated against his sense of justice.  But it’s quite different to be a member of the leadership class taking a magnaminous stand for inclusion than it is to be a member of the erstwhile oppressed class triumphally criticizing the country’s entire past history.  The former is an act of bigness; the latter a dangerous indulgence in moral exquisteness that knows no natural limits.

Obama ran as the biracial healer of America’s still unhealed racial wounds.  But in reality, for most of his life he only identified with one half of these groups, and that group, especially since the 1960s , has defined itself in terms of its righteous victimhood and alienation from the majority.  This was not always true.  Guys like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Booker T. Washington did not talk or think this way.  They loved America and wanted to be fully part of it.  In their eyes it was mostly good, but it had some problems.  This is not true, however, of the Kanye Wests, Reverend Wrights, and Al Sharptons of the world, and nor is it for Obama.

For Obama, America has been mostly bad until now, and only acquired an ounce of moral legitimacy by rejecting that past, which includes his election.  But in his eyes sustaining that legitimacy depends upon the majority’s continuied obeisance to him.  Dangerous.

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John Hussman presents a cogent explanation of what Tim Geithner’s brilliant plan amounts to:

Last week, the Federal Reserve announced its intention to purchase a trillion dollars worth of Treasury debt by creating the little pieces of paper in your pocket that have “Federal Reserve Note” inscribed at the top. In effect, the Fed intends to monetize the Treasury debt in an amount that exceeds the entire pre-2008 monetary base of the United States.

Apparently, the Fed believes that absorbing part of the massively expanding government debt and maybe lowering long-term rates by a fraction of a percentage point will increase the capacity and incentive of the markets to purchase risky and toxic debt. Bernanke evidently believes that the choice between a default-free investment and one that is entirely open to principal loss comes down to a few basis points in interest. Even now, the expansion of federal spending as a fraction of GDP has clear inflationary implications looking a few years out, so any expectation that long-term Treasury yields will fall in response to the Fed’s buying must be coupled with the belief that investors will ignore those inflation risks.

There is no doubt that the Fed also intends for the extra trillion in base money to end up as bank reserves. But think about what this move implies in equilibrium. The largest purchasers of U.S. Treasury bonds at present are foreign central banks. So what the Fed is really doing is printing enough money to crater the exchange value of the U.S. dollar, while leaving foreigners with a trillion dollars of savings that they would otherwise have invested in Treasury bonds, which they will now use, not to buy our lousy, toxic assets, but to acquire our productive assets, and at a steep discount thanks to the currency depreciation. So yes, the extra trillion in dollar bills will ultimately end up as bank reserves (and currency in circulation), but only by encouraging Beijing to go on a shopping spree to acquire a claim on our future production. Ultimately, funding the bailout of lousy assets comes at the cost of debasing our currency and selling our good assets to foreigners.

Make no mistake – we are selling off our future and the future of our children to prevent the bondholders of U.S. financial corporations from taking losses. We are using public funds to protect the bondholders of some of the most mismanaged companies in the history of capitalism, instead of allowing them to take losses that should have been their own. All our policy makers have done to date has been to squander public funds to protect the full interests of corporate bondholders. Even Bear Stearns’ bondholders can expect to get 100% of their money back, thanks to the generosity of Bernanke, Geithner and other bureaucrats eager to hand out the money of ordinary Americans.

Obama is really out of his element on this stuff.  He does not know what to do and has deferred to Tim Geithner and others who, while having a certain expertise, are scared more than anything of letting down Wall Street and its various creditors.  It does not help that Obama’s political education is lacking.  He has picked up on the ironic gallows humor of academia, which does not sell well in Middle America.  He can alternate between the sarcasm and occasional dreaminess of the academy and the raw rage of inner city minorities, but that combination of compassion, respect for hard work, practicality, and concern for the self-respect of the little guy that defined Roosevelt’s reputation during the Depression–the same rhetorical connection that made Reagan and Clinton and Truman such successes–evades him.

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I was struck in watching various Jonestown documentaries that the leftist ideology of Jones and his followers has been downplayed in most accounts. I had never heard word one about this until researching it recently, and it was barely visible in CNN’s documentary. For instance, most of the suicide victims willed their property to the Communist Party and an alternative to mass suicide considered by the group was defection to the Soviet Union.

There are certainly no shortage of right-wing crazies ranging from the Branch Davidians to Tim McVeigh. But left-wing violence is more often than not either treated as forgivable excesses–as in the easily rehabilitated murderers of the Weather Underground–or, at worst, as the product of deranged personalities and charismatic leaders.

If an abortion clinic bomber’s sins must be imputed to the pro-life movement as a whole, the tree-spikers of Earth First and the mass killers of Jonestown are treated as unique. This seems part of a broader attempt to excuse and compartmentalize leftist violence.  There is little attempt to examine the ways it flows logically from the uncompromising and “revolutionary” claims of the left as a whole.  Even the egregious violence of the Soviet Union was distinguished from how admirable Communism was “in theory.” Insofar as legality and “the system” are dismissed as obstacles, then such rhetoric surely has some relationship to the extra-legal actions of true believers.  But a confrontation with the Left’s violence is lacking from top to bottom.  Most egregiously, the current president began his political career in the living room of an admitted terrorist, and the media remained largely silent about it, just as they have flushed Jim Jones down the memory hole, treating his story as one of deranged personalities and an excess of religion, rather than typical leftist mania.

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I think Obama’s talk about McCain’s houses will not fly.  The usual implication of wealth in a political campaign is that someone is out of touch with and indifferent to the sufferings of ordinary people.  But as a former military man and POW, McCain will always have “street cred” with the working classes as someone who has suffered in his life, and, better yet, suffered for his country. 

These charges won’t stick.  It’s part of a general odd tone of the Obama campaign, as if any attack is equal to any other.  There is no narrative unity.  Consider Obama’s whiney argument that McCain (and his surrogates) should not question his patriotism, and in return he won’t question McCain’s.  Huh? McCain’s commitment to the country is undeniable. He might be wrong-headed and embrace a liberal version of open-borders, but his subjective intent and life experiences count for something.  Obama, by contrast, spent much of his life affiliating with people highly critical of the country and its core institutions, people like Jeremiah Wright and terrorist Bill Ayers.  Coupled with symbolic acts like his resistance to rituals like the national anthem, frankly his patriotism is questionable.  Either way, he should stay off the topic.  It is as if McCain were to say in pseudo-magnaminous fashion, “I won’t question my opponent’s commitment to civil rights.”  No shit.

By contrast,the Rezko stuff and Obama’s shady housing deals are easily coupled with Obama’s prep school years and Ivy League alma maters and occasional resentment of America to show him as a guy who thinks he is so smart and so worthy that the rules do not apply to him. Instead of reflexively suggesting that McCain’s snobbery is extant and equal to his own, Obama would benefit by contrasting his native smarts with McCain’s pig-headedness and bad judgment.  This character debate is a dead-end for Obama and ultimately helpful to McCain. 

Obama has another challenge. He has boxed himself in by campaigning like this post-political voice of reason.  Every time he strikes or strikes back, even if it’s reasonable on the merits, it hurts his main narrative and marks him as indistinguishable from every other politician.  You at least knew that Clinton played hard-ball the minute he got rolling in 1992.  Of course, this “post political” narrative should have been deconstructed a long time ago.  This charlatan rose through the ranks of Chicago politics and has played the race cards about as frequently and obnoxiously as McCain appealed to his POW credentials.  We have too power-obsessed biography candidates who avoid ever being clear about any real policy matters. 

In the end, this stuff is only of mild academic interest to me.  I find this campaign boring beyond belief, not least because I don’t plan on voting for either of the two front-runners, and I find them both to be slaves to political correctness, unserious in their treatment of our nation’s problems, and both represent different variations of consensus liberalism.

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America’s chief source of power has been economic, and that power is chiefly created by the private sector.  Most of our most productive people go into business:  inventing, marketing, and manufacturing things and providing innovative services to improve other peoples’ inventing, marketing, and manufacturing. So it is a bit lamentable that both major presidential candidates speak like high school guidance counselors, creating a cult of “public service” without any acknowledgment of the nobility, or at least necessity, of much of what happens in the private sector.

Of course, private charity, military service, and concern for our communities and nation is important.  Without some concern beyond self-interest, I do not believe well-ordered institutions alone could sustain  a free America.  But part of that concern and public spiritedness should consist of honoring the unique vigor and importance of the private sector, including the life-changing improvement in our lives that derives from actors in the business world.  Without this, everything from life-saving drugs to color television would likely not have graced our lives; more important, without our dynamic economy, the government and the nonprofit world would not have the vast sums with which to wage wars, build damns, feed the hungry, put men on the moon, and pursue other projects that give both McCain and Obama a rush of satisfaction.

McCain’s romantic views of big government are well known, and were manifested in his obnoxious criticisms of Mitt Romney‘s lack of military service.  I was glad to see the similarly naive and self-absorbed Obama and his praise of such dubious gigs as “community organizing” criticized today in an excellent piece by Jim Manzi.

First Obama

At a time when there are children in the city of New Orleans who still spend each night in a lonely trailer, we need more of you to take a weekend or a week off from work, and head down South, and help rebuild. … Find an organization that’s fighting poverty, or a candidate who promotes policies you believe in, and find a way to help them.

This shared attitude is very worrying.

…all of us will have to use the energy sources we have more wisely. Deep-rooted poverty will not be reversed overnight,… Transforming our education system … Bringing an end to the slaughter in Darfur…

At a time of war, we need you to work for peace. At a time of inequality, we need you to work for opportunity. …

Manzi responds:

And so on.

This incorporates, but is not limited to, the normal helpful advice that a completely materialistic life is usually not the most fulfilling – “With all thy getting, get understanding”. But it also incorporates the assertion that the well-lived, or at least the best-lived, life must be one centered on engagement with political affairs or a social movement. (Though notably lacking on this long, long list of potential forms of service is any mention of the military.) While he throws an occasional rhetorical bone to the idea of responsibilities to jobs and immediate families, and certainly calls out homey service at a small scale to those nearest us as admirable, I challenge anybody to read this speech in full and not conclude that Obama is presenting a hierarchical view of human flourishing that sees becoming absorbed in something big and political like transforming American society, addressing global warming or bringing and end to the slaughter in Darfur as the highest form of self-actualization.

Ironically, Obama’s vision strikes me as quite narrow. While it is surely true that striving to overcome the innate tendency to self-love is an important part of what it means to become fully human for almost every person on earth, it does not follow that the highest form of this struggle for everyone is centered on political projects or organized social movements. It also doesn’t follow that society would be better if everybody devoted more of their energies to such crusades.

At the level of individual psychology, different people are different. Shocking as it is to professional politicians (and maybe readers of political blogs), most people don’t care a whole lot about big causes. If I devote my energies to starting and running my dry cleaning business and helping to raise my kids, am I a lesser person that my neighbor who works full-time at Human Rights Watch? Surely, it is more realistic and humane to think of a healthy society as a mosaic in which different people play different roles based on temperament and circumstance.

More importantly for a presidential candidate, at the political level, would the United States really be better off if everybody spent less time at the office and devoted more of it to ameliorating global warming, stopping the killing in Darfur and joining the Peace Corps? If the U.S. were not the largest and most productive economy in the world, it would not have the world’s most powerful military, it would not have the luxury of trying to solve problems from sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East, it would not have created awe-inspiring collective achievements like getting to the moon, and the vast majority of poor households in America would not have already have TVs, cars and air conditioning.

Where do you think all of this wealth comes from? I’ll give you a hint: not from protest rallies, public-interest internships and petition drives. One thing that reliably motivates people to work hard and produce economic output is the promise of getting more money so that they can buy things they want (a.k.a. “the big house and the nice suits”). This isn’t quite as romantic as losing yourself in service to others, but it seems to work pretty well.

Obama is not alone in de-emphasizing this. His formulation of “it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential” is amazingly close to John McCain’s frequent invocation of “some purpose higher than self-interest”. While McCain obviously has a more militaristic view of this kind of service than Obama does, he also appears to me to find life in the commercial world as morally inferior to a life of public service.

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Doug Feith is a piece of work. Compare his recent attempts to pain himself as the Cassandra uttering realist warnings to Bush about Iraq in 2004 with his saccharine pro-democracy rhetoric uttered at the time. I agree with his criticism today that Bush’s rhetorical shift from WMDs to democracy confused the American public and resulted in a wrong turn by redefining the mission as “freeing Iraq.” Bush’s talk of liberation obscured the chief pre-war rationale for the war as a self-defensive action based on the reasonable view that Iraq had WMDs coupled with the reasonable reduction in tolerance for risks posed by troublesome and provocative nations like Iraq after 9/11. Bush’s rhetoric in 2004 almost exclusely emphasized the democratization efforts. Too bad for Feith–and Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rice, Rumsfeld, and Perle–all of the administration people were all sayings the same things as Bush at the time. It wasn’t lying per se. Democracy always made an appearance in lists of reasons to attack Iraq. But a tertiary rationale became the main rationale, and no one bothered to acknowledge this change in forthright terms. It’s as if “Elections for Bavaria” replaced “Remember Pearl Harbor” in May of 1943.

More important, whether or not the administration’s unacknowledged change in emphasis constituted ethical rhetoric, no one in the administration dissented about the idealist rhetoric’s major premise: that with or without WMDs, a democratic Iraq was a worthy and achievable goal that furthered American national security.

I confess, before the war, I thought all of this democracy talk was merely window-dressing to justify our realist motives. I only realized later that the Bushies were bona fide foreign policy idealists with general indifference to the welfare of Americans. For Bush and other liberals, fidelity to liberal principles is the chief mark of strategic success.

Feith is a liar and an Israeli spy. He belongs in jail, not on the pages of America’s newspapers. It’s one thing to make mistakes. Everyone does, particularly in the complicated world of foreign policy. But, like Sanchez, Rumsfeld, and George Tenet, his lack of character consists in his unwillingness to acknowledge his own barely hidden dual loyalties and consequent dual motives in promoting and managing a huge failure of an operation that rested on mistaken intelligence and sought to obtain ridiculous goals.

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A commenter named Sage McLaughlin in had the following sage words in a discussion thread based on an entry of mine over at Takimag.com:

Even a fully libertarian system, were it possible to implement one, would require force to maintain, since libertarianism itself isn’t what significantly large communities of people have ever wanted for themselves.  So the promise of giving each person whatever he can get for himself is a hollow one, since one of the things people want is to live in a community that reflects their own desires and hierarchy of values, and invests those things with some authority.  Libertarianism says people shouldn’t want that, or at least that they aren’t justified in insisting upon it, which is a normative claim that must be proved philosophically, not empirically.  Either Larry Flynt or I can have the kind of society that we want, but not both, and to concede to him everything he claims about the good of society, while claiming to be neutral on the question, is to decide the issue in the most dishonest possible way.

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Steve Sailer’s made this point a few times, but considering Obama’s long record as a liberal of the worst kind, it’s worth re-stating:

First, more than anybody else in recent politics, Obama has internalized the rule in all the self-help books on how to win arguments: Restate your opponent’s argument respectfully to show you understand it. Since most people assume their rival disagrees with them only because he is too stupid to understand their reasons, this instantly disarms much opposition. Indeed, Obama’s intelligence and verbal skills allow him often to summarize his opponents’ ideas better than they could themselves.

What his opponents don’t realize is that, although Obama is more than smart enough to grasp their logic, he just doesn’t care about what they care about.

Obama reminds me of a famous incident in Charles De Gaulle’s career. When in 1958 he journeyed to war-torn French Algeria, where the French Army’s mutiny had propelled him back into power, he stared out for a long moment at a waiting throng of European residents, then pronounced four words: “Je vous ai comprisI have understood you.”

The mob went wild with joy. “De Gaulle understands us! He will make everything right.”

Nonetheless, much to the surprise of the pied noir Europeans who cheered De Gaulle that day, the French president then proceeded to give Algeria to the rebels, dooming Algeria’s one million Europeans to exile for life and their Arab allies to death.

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Bush’s defense of his more controversial stands in the war on terror has been Clintonian. First, he denies that something is taking place. Then, when that something–in this case, the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” is exposed–he simply denies without explanation a reasonable characterization by critics: these techniques constitute torture. Now, I do not support torture. And, more precisely, I do not support official policies that sanction torture. There may be times to forgive ultra vires actions after the fact; this is different from allowing them in advance. These techniques and policies may be defensible. But Bush does not show respect to his critics or the citizens who elected him by providing such a defense. He never says, for instance, these are regrettable incidents of war, truly dirty deeds that are absolutely necessary. Instead, he just repeats: this is necessary, and also this is not torture. No one is fooled, not even his supporters. This kind of rhetoric has been his hallmark in other contexts; for example, he denied that his nation-destroying amnesty proposal was in fact amnesty.

Framing policies is important. There is nothing wrong with describing them in a manner that reasonably describes them in a way that is favorable. But simply denying reality and ignoring critics and proffering labels instead of reasoned arguments is a sign of decline. It’s a sign of decline in the Presidency and also in the citizens who accept this descent into unreason. Reagan, in describing his various controversial policies–the arms race or cutting taxes and spending, for example–did not deny reality, but instead explained how these policies were necessary and likely to work towards the common good. He acknowledged their essence and did not, for lack of a better word, lie.

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Noah Sweat in the Mississippi legislature giving perhaps the most skilled “political” speech in history:

My friends,

I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey.

If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.

But;

If when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.

This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

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I’m extremely wary of those who spend too much time focusing on tactics, tone, and the alleged incivility of our political life. If anything, there is far too much consensus on important issues, particularly where elite and popular opinion diverge, i.e., immigration, gay marriage. From Hilary Clinton to John McCain, our politicians spend far too much time discussing their opponents’ “mean” rhetoric and “dirty tricks.” Similarly, while I think Andrew Sullivan’s criticism of Bob Herbert and the politics of polarization in The French Third Republic are interesting, I also think his own decision to prioritize gay marriage above every other issue, including national security, takes away his own credibility to decry our political culture.

Polarization is not just a question of tone; it is also a question of policy. Radical liberalism, by putting every inherited folkway and institution in its rationalist crucible, does more to raise the stakes than any of the rear guard actions waged by conservatives in defense of the way things have always been done.

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