Thursday, March 05, 2009

Obama's Rhetoric is Winning the Race

... but it's a race to the bottom.

The intellectual level of public discourse in this country seems to be sinking lower and lower, and recent presidents have being doing their share to drive it lower still. G. W. Bush communicated ideas, if you could call them that, that corresponded, not to complete sentences, but to vague, detached phrases, like "compassionate conservatism. As far as I know, there was never a proposition behind that phrase, stating what it meant with any precision.

Obama goes much further, expressing -- okay, now it is obviously wrong to call them ideas -- expressing urges and hankerings that are embodied, not even in phrases, but in monosyllabic words, like "hope" and "change." It's as if his target audience is a mind far more rudimentary than that of a ten year old child. His audience seems to be a guy who is falling asleep in front of his TV, and all he can grasp is an occasional word. He can no longer absorb complete sentences, like "I hope I can stimulate the economy by creating a trillion dollars of new debt" or "Let's change America into France, but without the great food and fine art." All his nearly-shut-down brain can absorb is "... hope ... change ... zzzzzzzzzzz."

Now Obama has declared that "the leader" of his opposition is Rush Limbaugh, setting off a snarling dogfight among his opponents. A lot of conservatives in the chattering classes say this is a diversionary ploy. He wants people to be talking about Rush and not debating about the fact that grampa's retirement fund has just evaporated, or that our children now owe his government a trillion dollars they didn't owe before.

I think it is worse than that: he believes this is how you argue about the stock market and the national debt. If you can just define your opponent as someone who is already unpopular, you win. End of debate.

What he is practicing is a form of the "straw man" fallacy. Instead of attacking your opponent's position, attack a related one that you are sure you can defeat. End of debate.

This is something he has done consistently. He got where is is today by campaigning against that gang of laissez-faire de-regulators, the Bush administration (a completely imaginary opponent). Since then, he has consistently contrasted his spend-ourselves-rich policy with that of those who want to "do nothing" about the current depression, who want to let the market correct it. During his first press conference, he mentioned those ("and I don't doubt their sincerity") who want to privatize education. Oddly enough, the subject under discussion at that moment was not education. Where the heck did that come from?

When I first noticed this pattern, I was slightly flattered by it. These extreme positions that he is referring to are all ones that I hold. (I am one of those laissez-faire deregulators that your mother warned you never to take candy from.) BHO's rhetoric at first reminded me of that moment when Mussolini claimed that this point of view -- at that time, it was called "liberalism" -- was the exact opposite of fascism and therefore the real enemy:
The foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty, and its aim. Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State. The conception of the Liberal State is not that of a directing force, guiding the play and development, both material and spiritual, of a collective body, but merely a force limited to the function of recording results: on the other hand, the Fascist State is itself conscious and has itself a will and a personality.
To me, this is a sort of back-handed compliment (which is better than no compliment at all!). But coming from Obama, it is no compliment, no matter how back-handed. He is not mentioning these views because he means to defeat them. He thinks they are unpopular with voters (which of course they are) and therefore don't need to be defeated.

There is probably no way to have a rational debate with this guy in a public forum. It's just not his sort of thing. He will always be doing some supposed-to-be-clever rhetorical dance instead.

If you think that the president's job is (inter alia) to provide moral leadership, to be an example for others, and to conduct a national conversation on the great issues before us, you should see this as a real tragedy.
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As to Limbaugh and conservative talk radio, I think it has been a disaster for the country in recent years, mainly because these people were major enablers of the catastrophic Bush administration, as John Derbyshire explains here. For eight years these guys did little but cheerlead for big spending, fiscal irresponsibility, and megalomaniacal imperialism. Ron Paul offers similar comments here.
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