George Will, failings of...

>> Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Today, as it has been for a century, American politics is an argument between two Princetonians -- James Madison, class of 1771, and Woodrow Wilson, class of 1879. Madison was the most profound thinker among the Founders. Wilson, avatar of "progressivism," was the first president critical of the nation's founding. Barack Obama's Wilsonian agenda reflects its namesake's rejection of limited government.

-George Will, "Liberalism, failings of: a history,"
Times Union, June 4th, 2010

Alright, alright, alright. I give up. I surrender. Mea culpa, I'm sorry, forget I said anything ever at all to anyone ever. Toss it in the memory hole and burn it.

It is hypothetically possible that at some point in the past I might have suggested that George Will was something other than a bespectacled submoronic jackass. It's possible I might have insinuated that he was--however wrong he might be in some particular or another--capable of intelligent, coherent thought turned into reasonably well-phrased pieces of published commentary. This might have happened in a parallel universe or alternate timeline, or it might sound like something I might say out of an abundance of reasonableness because, deep down, I'm a genuinely nice guy and wonderful humanitarian soul capable of seeing many sides of a subject and all that crap.

Never happened, none of it. Say it did, and it's a lie. You're a damned liar and I don't want to hear your slanders nor read your libels.

I can categorically deny ever saying anything even vaguely lukewarm about George Will with safety by referencing the quote that leads this post: anybody who would publish anything as mind-numbingly stupid as that cannot possibly be anything more than a drooling degenerate with a college diploma.

Did you know that the past century was a struggle between James Madison and Woodrow Wilson for the hearts and minds of Americans? Did you know that Wilson was the "avatar of 'progressivism'," as opposed, say, to the militaristic racist fucktard who exploited the turn-of-the-20th-Century progressive movement, alienated hardcore progressives like William Jennings Bryan, bombed Veracruz, and tragically had a mostly-shitty reputation rehabilitated by the resumption of hostilities between Germany and the rest of the universe (proving him right about the need for some kind of international organization and the need for the allies to lay off Germany after the armistice instead of demanding pounds of flesh)? Me either. I kind of thought Woodrow Wilson was a pretty scummy President, but evidently he's supposed to be my some-kind-of-god or something because I'm a progressive and Wilson was elected by Progressives. Of course, by that logic, racists ought to adore the S.O.B., right?


Michael Lind has a pretty good takedown of the Will piece over at Salon, and of course you can read the Will piece yourself if you're dying for a nosebleed. I won't even pretend to try to be as thorough as Lind; I'll merely note that in addition to the historical revisionism Lind focuses on, Will offers a feast for fans of non sequiturs and way-out-of-left-field statements. Like:

The name "progressivism" implies criticism of the Founding, which we leave behind as we make progress. And the name is tautological: History is progressive because progress is defined as whatever History produces. History guarantees what the Supreme Court has called "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."

To which even an intelligent conservative might reply, "Whaaaa--" moments before his head explodes like the poor esper trying to pick Michael Ironside's brain in David Cronenberg's Scanners. (Our reader also would make the same fart-smell face and twist his head around like the exploding psychic does before he does his exploding thing, so the simile is perfect.) How, exactly, does "progressivism" imply criticism of the founding? Will doesn't elaborate on the point because of course he doesn't have one: it's something that sounds vaguely clever, but to the extent it actually means anything, what it means isn't actually true, unless one supposes that the budding flower is implicitly criticizing its roots (stoopid nurturing roots, we hates them). (Given the transitory nature of a bud and the enduring nature of a tree, I suppose a tree would be a superior metaphor, but we'll leave it be; choose whatever sessile lifeform makes the prettiest picture in your head, really, it's all good.) And this business about "History is progressive because progress is defined as whatever History produces," who the hell says that other than, perhaps, a once-significant conservative pundit struggling for relevance in the teabagger era who's trying to set up a strawman he can knock over? If a progressive ever actually said that, we'd all be Reaganites like Will because that's certainly what history has produced, or perhaps we'd all be neoconservatives, seeing as how that was recently the hip thing. I mean, there's not a liberal on the planet who would say that a bomb crater or fascist regime was an improvement because the inexorable forces of capital-H History led up to that moment.

It's not even a good strawman: it's too stupid a thing for a conservative to claim a progressive would say. Will would be better off claiming that we progressives are pro-unicorn-rape or something, because, you know, we think unicorns really have it coming with the way they add to rainbow-pollution with those ridiculous farts (and we all know progressives have despised rainbows ever since Woodrow Wilson was attacked by one in 1915). That would actually be a somewhat less-batshit thing for Will to write, but noooooooo....

Moving on, this also seems worth poking:

The liberating--for government--idea is that the Constitution is a "living," evolving document. Wilson's Constitution is an emancipation proclamation for government, empowering it to regulate all human activities in order to treat all human desires as needs and hence as rights. Unlimited power is entailed by what Voegeli [William Voegeli, author of Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State] calls government's "right to discover new rights."

It's worth pointing out, I think, that what we have here is one of modern American conservatism's cardinal sins. In the American system, "government" isn't merely a separate, distant, distinct institution the way "The Crown" is in a monarchy or "The Nobility" is in a feudal system or "The Papacy" is in a certain theocratic system that historically claimed for itself immunity from secular laws and self-rule. One of those awful Historical documents we progressives aspire to distance ourselves from and implicitly criticize says in its very first sentence:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Another terrible document we American progressives yearn to trample in the dust of our passing contains this bit of silliness:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.

Nearly a century later, somebody said this at a funeral (seems worth mentioning, somehow):

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

It is inevitable that social constructs become independent of the people who comprise them, but we should never forget that the whole point of American government is that we are the government. We elect these people from among ourselves, and even the faceless bureaucrats we didn't vote into office are our friends and neighbors who applied for a job the same way anyone would apply to work at a factory or a used car dealership or a doctor's office. Setting aside the practicalities of corruption (something conservatives largely appear to be in favor of, given their typical stands on campaign finance reform), the American system is to have controlled revolutions every few years, putting into office our avatars, or at least the people we hope or expect will represent us. Of course, it will happen in the course of events that sometimes the body politic will elect someone we progressives despise or somebody those conservatives loathe--but the lovely thing about the whole setup, at least on paper, is that we all have the power to try to convince each other that our boy or their woman would have been better for the job and here's how you should vote in the next election cycle.

Alright, I'll admit Reagan and Will weren't the first people to say "government" is the problem and that plenty of liberals have said the same--and just as stupidly. But face it, if you think government is the problem, you're the problem, literally and actually, because it's your government and your government is you. Bitch about it when the totalitarian regime actually really does take over or we somehow adopt an actual caste system in which the us-and-them of citizens-versus-government is born and bred; in the meantime, by all means print fliers and Vote For Doe and so on.

(I also feel obligated to add, as I look over the Gettysburg Address again, that here we have a Republican President talking about progress and setting forth a progressive standard: "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced." This, not obedience to historical forces--I presume Will is mistaking progressivism for Marxian/Hegelian mysticism--is the essence and definition of progressivism, and if I had to sum up progressivism in one sentence I might steal Lincoln's line--it is our task to dedicate ourselves to the unfinished, perhaps unfinishable, noble work that our predecessors have advanced--that is to say, have made progress on, thereby criticizing their predecessors, oh brother! Seriously, though: what is progressivism in a nutshell? What Abe said.)

It lastly has to be pointed out that the other shoe finally drops late in Will's piece when we discover, if "discover" is the right word to apply to something so tediously predictable, that the real gripe here, as ever, is that Will is unhappy paying taxes:

Although progressivism's ever-lengthening list of rights is as limitless as human needs/desires, one right that never makes the list is the right to keep some inviolable portion of one's private wealth or income, "regardless," Voegeli says, "of the lofty purposes social reformers wish to make of it."

What's most confusing here is the way it's put: by "inviolable portion," Voegeli (and Will) clearly mean "all." Given that one of progressivism's cardinal points is that every person should have enough to live, it logically has to follow that progressives believe everyone has a right to an inviolable portion, including people who would otherwise have nothing; were the progressive to say that wealthy Peter should be robbed utterly blind to pay poor Paul, he would be creating the absurd situation in which newly-rich Paul must be robbed to pay now-impoverished Peter, and oh, look, now we have to rob everybody again; clearly this would be stupid and clearly nobody is saying it except certain jackholes looking for strawmen to knock over (and they do it beautifully, I must say, and by "beautifully" I mean "by running around in mad circles wildly waving their arms and frothing like syphilitic lunatics enjoying 'outdoor recreation hour' at an Edwardian-era hospital for the criminally insane").

Progressive taxation is a long and complicated subject, and I don't really want to get into it too deeply now, except to say that a compromise has to be found between your right to have enough and your responsibility to contribute to the society that you continue to benefit from and that made it possible for you to be comfortable in the first place. Honestly, I've lately started to fantasize about taking all the tax-bitches from the upper class and removing them and their estates to a remote tropical isle--we could call it "Galt Island," why not?--and let them fend for themselves Lord Of The Flies-style and see how long it takes for them to start burning each other's mansions down and clubbing one another to death with bones at the watering hole à la the simians in 2001 (eat your heart out, Dennis Miller); I'm willing to wait, really, though I don't think it will take long for somebody to complain that somebody else's pool parties are making too much noise and then it's on. Also, the fact I wouldn't give them any food, just packets of seeds and maybe a few pigs and cows probably wouldn't help. (Or it would totally help, I guess, depending on your preferred outcome in this social experiment.) Naturally, I'm also not opposed to speeding things up by borrowing the rules of Battle Royale, allowing the denizens of Galt Island to cope with the vagaries of an unrestricted and unregulated economy in which some are randomly assigned useless crap and others lethal weapons while everybody gets an explosive radio collar that detonates in randomly-designated areas (fair is fair).

What were we talking about again? Oh yes, Will on taxation. Let me wrap it up with a summary of Mr. Will's position: "Whiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiine." There.

Anyway, any of the nearly-nice things you may have imagined I might have said about Will in the past--they never happened. Never, not ever. How's the weather?


Tom Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 12:32:00 PM EDT  

I am afeared that our good host has a thorny problem in some other aspect of his life that he wishes not to embrace at this particular juncture. How else to explain genesis of this post? I made it through paragraph 8 (that's the one with the splodey head pic) before I succumbed to splodeyheadedness on my own behalf.

Alas, poor Eric. I knew him, Horatio...

Eric Wednesday, June 23, 2010 at 12:39:00 PM EDT  

And here I thought I was being clever and sharp. Or one or the other.


John the Scientist Saturday, July 3, 2010 at 7:39:00 AM EDT  

Well, surprisingly, I generally agree with you, though History has been progressing in fits and starts overall - the most advanced civilization on the planet 2000 years ago encouraged people to kill other people in public for sport and thought that annexing another country was fine and dandy as long as you had the cash to pay your soldiers. We've progressed a bit since then.

But we can regress, too, and I think it's the idea that an overabundance of new ideas can lead to regression that defines my type of right-of-center politics, which used to be mainstream in the Republican party, but is now nearly extinct.

On the other hand, I feel the liberal fallacy is this:

In the American system, "government" isn't merely a separate, distant, distinct institution the way "The Crown" is in a monarchy or "The Nobility" is in a feudal system or "The Papacy" is in a certain theocratic system that historically claimed for itself immunity from secular laws and self-rule..

The various Constitutional changes you are fond of pointing out have weakened this because the Founders envisioned a small bureaucracy. Politicians come and go, bureaucrats are forever, and they conduct a lot of the de facto ruling these days. I don't think you've worked in a regulated industry or seen the destruction these clowns can unleash with relative impunity if the wrong person gets to the head of a department and advises a useless Congresscritter on new legislation.

It's not that any bureaucrat will make a giant step over the line, its that freedom is tied to a line on a ratchet. With each step back, the bureaucrats rarely let the line back out. Yes, Minister was less satire than sardonic observation.

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