Monday, March 31, 2008

Selective Quoting

Nicholas Kristof wrote up a big long New York Times column on the alleged decline of American intellectualism, and I agree with parts of it. But not where he channels Susan Jacoby committing what I think is a major sin: cherry-picking.
“America is now ill with a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism,” Susan Jacoby argues in a new book, “The Age of American Unreason.” She blames a culture of “infotainment,” sound bites, fundamentalist religion and ideological rigidity for impairing thoughtful debate about national policies.

Even insults have degenerated along with other discourse, Ms. Jacoby laments. She contrasts Dick Cheney’s obscene instruction to Senator Patrick Leahy with a more elegant evisceration by House Speaker Thomas Reed in the 1890s: “With a few more brains he could be a half-wit.”

Susan Jacoby is trying to illustrate a point about the decline of American eloquence by choosing two quotes to contrast. But you could illustrate practically any proposition this way. There have been political insults in this decade that have been far more eloquent than Cheney's "go fuck yourself". There were undoubtedly political insults in the 1890s far coarser than Thomas Reed's cutting words.

Crude four-letter Anglo-Saxon words did not suddenly come into being from nowhere in the late 20th Century, as a little historical investigation shows.

You might think coarse insults may have been common among the Great Unwashed in the 19th century, but political discourse was characterized by high-minded, thoughtful, educated speech. Well then, I have the perfect counter-example all cherry-picked for you.

-- The Saga of Sumner and Brooks --

In 1856, Senator Charles Sumner (D-MA) denounced Senators Stephen Douglas (D-IL) and Andrew Butler (D-SC) for their support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Most notably, he accused Butler of taking a mistress (slavery) and mocked Butler's speech impediment (Butler had suffered a stroke some time earlier).

But there were even loftier heights of discourse to come. Congressman Preston Brooks (D-SC), Senator Butler's nephew, decided to confront Sumner personally on the Senate floor. What sort of political discussion ensued?

Did Brooks and Sumner talk through their differences amicably, in a highly literate discussion with frequent references to the Greek philosophers and the writings of Locke and Kant? Not really.

Did Brooks tell Sumner to go fuck himself, in a foreshadowing of Dick Cheney's verbal attack on Patrick Leahy? No, but you're getting warmer.

Did Brooks beat the bejeezus out of Sumner with his cane until Sumner was lying bleeding and unconscious on the floor?

Well, um, yes, that's precisely what happened.

Sumner did not return to the Senate for three years; he soon transmogrified from a D-MA into an R-MA. Southern newspapers opined that perhaps Sumner ought to be savagely beaten every day; that might knock some sense into him. Brooks, his self-preservation instincts operating at full blast, weaseled his way out of a duel with one of Sumner's political allies, but died of croup within the year (a hazard of living in the 19th century).

-- Thus Ends the Saga of Sumner and Brooks --

Obviously not every political argument in 19th century America ended with someone lying beaten and bloody on the floor, just as not every sharp exchange of words in 21st century America consists of "Go fuck yourself".

But by cherry-picking your quotes, you can make 19th century America seem like a land of glittering repartee and lofty erudition. Or you can make it seem like a country of cavemen thwapping each other with clubs. You can make the first decade of the 21st century seem like a digital wonderland of articulate wits exchanging eloquently phrased opinions on the Internet. Or you can paint it as a world where Eric Cartman clones trade barbs with like-minded imbeciles on political forums.

Anything is possible, if you cherry-pick your quotes.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

An Idea I Had

If I had more creative energy:

I'd have a blog. All about politics and the 2008 Presidential election.

And it would be set in a world where John Kerry won the 2004 race, and is in the fight of his life running for reelection in 2008. It would be a world where Kerry has had a lackluster first term, and the GOP still control both houses of Congress. A world where US troops are still in Iraq, and the GOP is practically calling for Kerry's impeachment over how badly he's perceived to have screwed up the war. (Of course, the situation in Iraq would be no worse, maybe slightly better, than the Iraq situation in the "real" universe.)

A world where Kerry was eviscerated by GOP punditry for screwing up the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, with some commentators hinting darkly that it was all a plan to reduce the population and influence of Red State Louisiana. Meanwhile, Vice President Edwards' highly publicized involvement in rebuilding New Orleans has boosted his popularity, which led to months of speculation that he would actually replace Kerry at the top of the 2008 Democratic ticket.

A world where Kerry has acquired a Prince Philip-like reputation for saying unfortunate or vaguely insulting things on live camera, and Kerryisms have become as popular as Bushisms ever were.

Not that my parallel-universe blogger would explicitly explain all this, of course - the reader would be trusted to infer it. I would never break character on the blog.

My parallel-universe blogger might have a bit of a sarcastic streak, but I wouldn't allow his personality to take over the blog. No comments would be allowed - they would break the illusion. And all links to news stories and blog posts would be subtly fictional, so that they look authentic but, when clicked on, would lead to "Page Not Found" messages.

Ideally I would have started this blog before the GOP primaries had really gotten underway. I think I would have gone with a Mitt Romney nomination. Not sure if I would have given Kerry a primary challenger.