The day I found common ground with Michael Gerson

Lisa Kramer

Lisa Kramer is a contributing contributor at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

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30 Responses

  1. Michael Drew says:

    This is a horribly snobbish statement by Obama, but I don’t think that he’s saying that his conclusions and only his conclusions can be reached if one relies on facts and reason. He’s saying that at this moment, he doesn’t seem to be able to speak to in-play voters’ concerns with facts and reason, at least the way he uses them. And I think he’s saying that the other side is choosing not to use facts and reason as much, and is having more success — again — at the moment. Calling people scared and irrational is certainly crappy campaigning, don’t get me wrong, and I don’t think it’s an entirely accurate description of his problem, either. But I don’t think he’s saying that if everyone was thinking rationally, and both sides were arguing with facts and reason, that there’s no way anyone could be persuaded to his opponents’ position by their arguments rather than to his by his. On the other hand though, in a sense, that is kind of exactly what you do have to argue when you claim to be arguing from facts using reason to a resulting conclusion. That’s kind of how facts and reason work together, at least in theory. If that is so, do we not want politicians to argue from facts and reason, or to claim that that is what they are doing? I’m not so sure about that.Report

    • Will H. in reply to Michael Drew says:

      @Michael Drew, I was thinking much the same thing.
      This is a statement taken out of context. We can see that this is the tail-end of a comparison/contrast statement, but we don’t see the portion where he was building up to this. I’m sure that missing part provides definitions of terms, supporting statements and other information necessary.

      That said, there is quite a bit of truth to Gerson’s conclusion.
      I can think of a number of examples from my own experience.
      But that’s only half the story.
      The Democratic Party is undergoing a huge change. The white-collar liberals with grad degrees are to the traditional base of the coalition of minorities and blue-collar workers roughly the same as the Tea Party is to the Republicans.

      I knew that the election of 2008 was more about choosing the leadership and direction of the parties. I voted for McCain not because I thought he would make the better president (and I think Obama has done a pretty good job all-in-all), but because I liked the idea of a Republican Party under the leadership and direction of John McCain. That is, I felt that the Democrats would be better able to weather a leadership vacuum.

      Gerson makes a fair point, but he could have used a better example.Report

      • Lisa Kramer in reply to Will H. says:

        @Will H., I don’t disagree with any of this (except the personal voting choice) or with Michael’s original comment. The Obama quote was out-of-context, and Gerson made his point sloppily. My agreement with Gerson has to do with the underlying point and not this specific example.

        Anyway, I like Obama. But I do see this as a flaw of his. It’s bothered me in the past and it still does.Report

  2. dexter45 says:

    Being able to quote obscure philosophers doesn’t necessarly prove are you right, it just proves you can quote obscure philosophers. Being rich doesn’t prove you are anything but rich. Several years ago I had the displeasure of knowing a truly vile, obnoxious and stupid person who happened to have a enough money that all he did was spend. One day he was how going on about how much he was worth and a friend of mine said, “You may a lot of money, but you ain’t worth shit.” That was a simple sentence, and one that had more truth in it than all the words that effete, bow tie wearing egotistical buffoon George Will ever wrote.Report

  3. Maxwell James says:

    There was a recent episode of this American Life where they interviewed some Wall Street bankers in a bar and asked them why they thought they still had their jobs. One had the chutzpah to respond (I’m paraphrasing somewhat) “Because I’m smarter than most people. Ninety percent of folks don’t have the sense that I do. It’s survival of the fittest.”Report

  4. Robert Cheeks says:

    I liked this Lisa. However, I can’t get over the idea that the word “intellectual” has a negative conotation for me gleaned from a book I read some years ago, e.g. that to be an ‘intellectual’ one is required to accept one of the generally statist, anti-transcendent/materialist, ideological deformations that defines those who understand man as a creature who has collapsed into modernity’s version of the imago sui and, consquently, capable of only ‘deformed reason.’Report

    • dexter45 in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

      @Robert Cheeks, I love it when you prove my point.Report

      • Robert Cheeks in reply to dexter45 says:

        @dexter45, Dex, I’m here to hep…but ‘intellectuals’ are usually horses, derailed horses behinds.Report

        • dexter45 in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

          @Robert CheeksI have to respectfully disagree with you once again. I had the luck to grow up in a college town and my friends included the children of the deans of the Journalism Socialology, medicine, and law departments. What I found was that, once you get to know enough intellectuals to do a compare and contrast with the rest of the population, they were like most other people. Most of them were decent hardworking people who knew a great deal about one subject and a little about things outside their field. Besides, even if you consider yourself an autodidactic, I consider you an intellectual. You may be a touch snarky, but I don’t think of you as a horse’s behind.Report

        • Robert Cheeks in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

          @Robert Cheeks, Dex, thanks for that kind remark. I should qualify my understanding of the term ‘intellectual’ and e.g. I mean that in the most profound sense of the word, in the sense of Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche, et al and specifically in their personal lives. They were so warped in their existence they didn’t, in many instances, even care for their families. Indeed, they abused their loved ones…talk about spawn of Satan.
          So, no I’m not implying the folks you grew up with were evil folks, though my guess in too many of them lacked the where-with-all to escape the effects of the modernity.
          And, Dex-dude, you are going to get past that hurdle ’cause I’m here to hep.Report

        • E.C. Gach in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

          @Robert Cheeks, I don’t know. If you took the number of abusive intellectuals vs. the number of abusive “average Joes” (and Janes), I’m not sure where it would be worse, even if you looked at it respective to the total population of either of those categories.

          There were a lot of intellectuals that weren’t jerks either.Report

        • Robert Cheeks in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

          @Robert Cheeks, Just outta curiosity which ‘intellectuals’ do you consider to be ‘good guys?’Report

        • E.C. Gach in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

          @Robert Cheeks, I assume you mean good in the sense that they aren’t abusive to friends or family, Noam Chomsky, David Hume, Montaigne?Report

        • E.C. Gach in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

          @Robert Cheeks, I mean, are you proposing that those with a tendency toward being “intellectual” necessarily or at least usually demonstrate a similar tendency towards cruelty?Report

        • Robert Cheeks in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

          @Robert Cheeks, It appears that there is a tendency among ‘intellectuals’ (see previous definition) to focus on ‘the problems’ of their discipline and exclude what remains of reality. No, not all…!Report

  5. patrick II says:

    First, not every one in this country can have their contradictory wishes fulfilled. Whoever winnows out the things that actually will happen from the endless possibilities of every man’s dream is going to declared a “snob” of some sort because deciding for something is also always deciding against others.
    Second, like football, science occurs at all levels, from the back-yard pick up game to pop warner to high school and college play to the NFL elite game. But to assert such things as global warming and expect people to have some grasp of the science involved is not scientific elitism. It is expecting people to know at least what the scientific equivalant of playing catch in the back yard. It never fails to amuse me that people get on the internet, with its world wide web of cpu’s with thousands of logic circuits disseminating word and pictures at near the speed of light across a fiber network that spans the world to complain about scientific elitism.Report

  6. Aaron says:

    Although I understand the real-world impact of President Obama’s tendency to sound professorial, and to approach problems in a logical, pragmatic manner, I believe it would be better for political columnists to explain why that can be a good thing. Instead we get hacks like Gerson complaining in essence that Obama is “out of touch” because he can’t (or doesn’t) fake empathy.

    John Casey at The NonSequitur has commented on Gerson’s reasoning:

    There is a principle in argument, called the principle of charity, which has it that in the absence of the object of one’s criticism, one ought to be nice. [Gerson’s interpretation of Obama’s comment] is not nice. And it’s obviously false. Obama is talking about the state of our political discourse–the discourse where whether he looks like the devil constitutes a noteworthy intervention….

    Not only does this reference the kind of off-the-wall crap that constitutes political analysis in certain quarters, but in engages in the kind of silly discourse Obama is criticizing. Rather than consider Obama’s fairly moderate point [that people don’t always think clearly when they are scared]–I mean seriously, death panels–Gerson turns the discussion to the person. Perhaps Obama ought to have said: “rather than have a discussion about reality, some, such as Michael Gerson, would like to talk about what a snob I am to make such a demand.”


  7. E.C. Gach says:

    Chait at TNR basically expresses my own view on it.

    I think this goes back to a general bias of Dems towards technocratic empiricism and Reps towards principles. President Obama is going to want to argue something based on “facts on the ground” weather of controlling healthcare costs, global warming, etc. Reps, at least in this decade, want to argue from a priori principles like, don’t mandate healthcare, economic growth trumps environment, and tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts at all costs.

    Does anyone think his criticism is invalid after looking at the majority of republican candidates try to maintain with a straight face that they will pay down the debt by cutting taxes and tackling the good old waste, fraud, and abuse in discretionary spending?Report

  8. dexter45 says:

    Reply to Bob Cheeks. The answer to your question is that as soon as god shows up I will admit that I was wrong and apologize to god and the rest of the world. Until then I will do the best I can with my limited ability to understand the wonder around me. I will believe what I can see and doubt the rest until something comes along to change my mind. I really doubt that mere words can turn the tide.Report

    • Robert Cheeks in reply to dexter45 says:

      @dexter45, Well Dex, what can I say? I’m not a great rhetorician but Von Schelling explicates the great primordial mists and therein the movement of Divne Being in Freedom and in Love. Of course that’s greatly simplified, but it’s the best I can do…love is returning the freedom of existence back to God and living in a spirit of adoration and obedience. Most folks don’t buy that, which is a matter of choice. What irony.Report

  9. Tim Ellis says:

    I think you raise a valid point re: Obama’s perception of his way of thinking as the logical one. On the other hand, that’s the conclusion you should arrive at if you’ve come to your way of thinking by using logic!

    Obama’s been more than willing (too willing, in fact) to modify his positions to accommodate opposing views. It is his way of thinking critically that he won’t (and should not) modify.

    A healthy dose of critical thinking should be required for any leader. Otherwise you get an entire political party devoted to failing to think, and doing so as loudly and as obnoxiously as it can. Anti-intellectualism is a far greater danger than smug rationalism.Report

    • Lisa Kramer in reply to Tim Ellis says:

      @Tim Ellis, Tim, just to be clear, my suggestion is not that Obama bend to accommodate the views of the opposition, just that he acknowledge those views as legitimate. There’s a difference between starting with the premise of “I’m objectively right, and will now demonstrate the logic of my argument” and “I strongly believe in X and will fight for it as long as I’m president.”Report

      • Will H. in reply to Lisa Kramer says:

        @Lisa Kramer, I think he probably did that more toward the beginning of the speech.
        I seriously doubt that was the lead statement. (My guess is that it was a transition statement.)
        But I know that you don’t win over the frightened and ignorant by telling them that the only rational view is that they are simply frightened and way too ignorant for their own good.
        So, this was a preaching to the choir type of thing. And something said less than a month before a big election.

        I can tell you that I know exactly what Obama was referring to; no doubt in my mind about it.
        Whether there was much wisdom in stating the matter in such stark terms is somewhat questionable.
        But I’m inclined to cut him some slack.
        I’d rather hear more of what he has to say.

        Seriously, this is the one blog that I read regularly that is notably sympathetic to the Left. There are an awful lot of people out there saying quite plainly the Obama is a socialist.
        Apparently, they are concerned about Obama taking over the farms, and enforcing crop production over various tracts of land.
        Which differs significantly from the American way, which would be government payments to grow certain crops or for not growing any crops at all, coupled with various tax incentives.

        I ran into a corner here.
        I keep having this thing about bribery being the highest form of human activity, much in the same way that Ayn Rand’s claims that trading is the highest form of human activity.
        Bribery does involve trade, does it not?
        Let’s save that one for another day.

        Anyway, it’s the American way.
        And so, it’s acceptable, because it’s the American way.

        So, when Obama says something to counter those claims that he is a socialist, I feel good about it, even though the people that really need to be hearing it aren’t listening to it so closely.Report

  10. Pat Cahalan says:

    > “conditioned to believe their superiority is founded not on
    > wealth or lineage but on “facts and science and argument.””

    Well, now, hold on one minute.

    If someone is well educated in a particular field, and has a nicely tuned rational mind, they *are* superior to the average bloke.

    But *only* when discussing the particular field. It is not a superiority of essence, only circumstance and training.

    My problem with anti-intellectualism is that it conflates arrogance and illegitimate extension of authority == experts being experts about something in which they actually possess some expertise.

    Look, I work at Caltech. There are some towering brains there. And, occasionally, you get the towering brain who forgets for a moment that their area of expertise is physics, not psychology. Or mathematics, not political science. Or engineering, but not theology. And, admittedly, some of them (not in any wise all of them) can occasionally be jackasses about stuff with which they don’t have any familiarity. I can attest to that, certainly.

    That doesn’t mean that they don’t know what they’re talking about in their actual field. It doesn’t mean that any uneducated (or Educated by Google) person even possesses anywhere near the basic competency to understand what the hell they are talking about when they *do* talk within their field.

    I’m convinced, every time I hear Gerson talk on this subject, that he actually believes that every expert who declares something that doesn’t fit in Gerson’s desires for how the world ought to be is an arrogant blowhard talking entirely off a phony pinnacle of incorrect knowledge from inside an ivory tower. Instead of thinking to himself that maybe, in this particular case, reality doesn’t conform to his political desires.

    > “Obama clearly believes that his brand of politics
    > represents ‘facts and science and argument.’ His
    > opponents, in disturbing contrast, are using the
    > more fearful, primitive portion of their brains.

    Now the first half of this is misleading. There are some issues (global climate change, for one), where simple acknowledgment of the science is indeed Obama’s “brand of politics”, in the sense that it’s part of his overall brand. That doesn’t make global climate change belong solely to “Obama’s brand of politics”; it’s an active ongoing continuous choice by the vast majority of the Republican party.

    But it’s also true that Obama uses FUD too, and I’m fairly sure either he’s aware that he’s doing it and has no illusions that it represents facts and science and argument, or he’s suffering from biases like anybody else. He’s doing it because he thinks it’s going to increase his “moderate” credentials, or because he has his own biases for which he’s not correcting, or for some other political expediency.

    The second half of it is (unfortunately) very largely fucking true. Sorry, Lisa, but the vast majority of public speeches I hear from Obama’s political opponents (note, this is politicians I’m talking about here, not conservatives in general) are relying most heavily and almost entirely on appeals to fear.

    Not reason. Not science. Not logic. Fear, plain and simple. Not “how should we prioritize dealing with immigration”, but “IMMIGRANTS DUR STEAL JOBS KILL PEOPLE KICK THEM OUT!” Not “how should we prioritize national defense” but “cutting military spending (still largely dominated by strategic expenses) in the middle of a war (largely dominated by tactical needs) is going to KILL THE SOLDIERS”.

    My biggest grump about the Democratic party is that they are unwilling to prioritize on their own disparate agenda. My biggest grump about the Republican party is that it has, almost entirely en masse, completely abandoned any reasonable attempt to discourse, any attempt at applying their own approaches inside the framework of the other party’s majority to provide a check and balance, and has retreated entirely behind “let’s scare the poop out of the public because that will get us re-elected.”

    Aside from the fact that it’s a reprehensible way to engage in political discourse, it ruins your ability to argue credibly against your opponent’s FUD. How can the political parties check and balance each other when they’re both willing to wiretap the U.S. populace in the name of fear?Report

    • Robert Cheeks in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

      @Pat Cahalan, As always Pat a reasoned argument. However, don’t you think that under BO’s policies and following his agenda the Congressional Democrat majority has placed the country in some economic jeopardy, exploded the daffycet, caused a real unemployment level of nearly 17%, and interjected a component of ‘fear’ among our entrepenuerial class so much so that they have restricted their bidness activity because of concern for the future.
      It looks to me, and I’m open to criticism, that America elected a radical Kenyan-Marxist, and consequently is suffering under his failed policies and inept governance. It also seems to me that the electorate is about to do its best to rectify that mistake. But, hey, I could be wrong?Report

      • E.C. Gach in reply to Robert Cheeks says:

        @Robert Cheeks, When you refer to “entrepreneurial class,” what exactly are you referring to? Small businesses? How small? Starting a restaurant or laundry mat?

        In what ways did the deficit “explode” starting 2009?

        In what ways did the Obama/Congressional agenda contribute to 17% unemployment? Or do you mean, caused 17% unemployment by leading the country to a lower unemployment rate, thus causing the higher rate by continuing what was already there?
        Does economic jeopardy refer to the two things above, or to a third thing. And is that thing a causal factor or a consequence?Report

      • @Robert Cheeks,

        I don’t like the approach Obama took towards handling the current economic crisis, but I’m a fatalist on that regard: until this country wakes up to the fact that everyone who lives anywhere else in the world is willing to do their job for less money (and in most cases, currently can), our economy is screwed; doubly so as we’ve guaranteed a substantial portion of the now-about-to-exit workforce paychecks for the extended future.

        That’s not directly attributable to the current President (nor, for that matter, the previous one either), it’s a structural problem. One can argue in many different ways what we ought to do about it, of course.

        I don’t think there’s compelling economic evidence to indicate that small businesses are stalling on account of fear of this Administration’s fiscal policies. It’s all about the lucre, and that’s all about net sales.


        Which is also why nobody’s spending money on CapEx; no sales equals idle production capacity… why build factories when you’re not using the ones you have fully?

        This all boils down to the cold reality that people are realizing that they have, for decades, under-saved and over-extended… and they’re actively trying to correct that to a degree by saving and spending less. Probably good for the overall long term health of the country’s economy, but it’s not going to do any good for our short term economic future given 3/4 of our economy is based on consumption.

        Less consumer demand, fewer sales, and more uncertainty in the business sector. Even upping the availability of credit probably won’t help if people aren’t inclined to spend money, and signs currently appear to indicate that they aren’t and won’t be, for a while… just like putting in tax cuts for businesses won’t do any damn good if they’re not going to take the money left over from those cuts and invest it in something (not to mention the fact that many companies are sitting on giant piles of cash and certainly don’t need a tax cut to increase liquid capital).Report

        • Robert Cheeks in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

          @Pat Cahalan, Thanks Pat, I like that explanation, it’s rational. Now, if you get a chance, I’d like your take on Obama/Congress’s trillion dollar ‘stimulus’ spending, and the effects of Obamacare on the near future. And, thanks!Report

  11. stuhlmann says:

    “And snobbery is snobbery, whether based on money or brains.”

    Let’s not forget about moral snobbery, which both left and right exhibit.Report

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