Tuesday, January 26, 2010
My foraging through the news and commentary sites this morning led me to two very different examples of the same fundamental mistake. First, we have the President of the United States achieving self-parody through his use of a teleprompter to address a bunch of sixth-graders. And second, we see conservative columnist Thomas Sowell, reading the tea leaves of the recent Scott Brown electoral victory and concluding that politicians can indeed "count votes."
First, let's look at President Obama. What's important here is not so much the fact that he chose to use a teleprompter in the situation he did, but the fact that he does so with such regularity that his habit became a national joke long ago. Clearly, Barack Obama, who has bragged about his oratorical prowess, places a high value on making sure his speeches are delivered perfectly. The question is: Why?
We don't need Thomas Sowell's intellect or vast reserves of knowledge to tell us that Barack Obama can count votes. We have that from Obama's own telepromp- -- I mean mouth: "I'd rather be a really good one-term president..." Obama at once confirms Sowell's main point -- that the will of the people is still what drives American politics -- and turns that into cold comfort. But more on that momentarily.
We still have the matter of why Barack Obama is so obsessed with what he deems to be oratorical perfection that he'll risk looking like a fool. As Sowell indicates with ObamaCare -- and we have seen in Obama's disdainful comments about "bickering" as well as his snitch line -- Barack Obama is not merely proposing his side of an argument from the bully pulpit. Rather, he sees himself as a teacher delivering content to heads full of mush. There is, in his mind, as much room for debate about his agenda as there would be for debate about English grammar in grade school. This is doubtless why it seems not to have occurred to him that a teleprompter in such a setting would be ridiculous: He doesn't see a kids' classroom as a different situation than, say, his upcoming State of the Union Address.
To such a mind, a speech is an opportunity not to convince rational voters of the facts of reality that support one's opinion, but an opportunity to mold a consensus in a world where facts don't really matter because reality is shaped by social consensus. And, if facts don't matter, neither do rational debate nor reason.
But what of Sowell? His column actually makes some very good points, and could have been a clarion call for intellectual activism. It deserves a full read for this reason, as well as to see what he missed. Sowell is right that Americans intuitively grasped that something was wrong about ObamaCare. ("[T]he way it was being rushed through in the dark ... told us all we needed to know.") But his assurance about the soundness of the judgment of the American people falls flat the moment we remember that Obama won his election decisively!
Sowell's major intellectual shortcoming I have elaborated long ago:
His error is a common one, in which he treats an implicitly rational, reality-oriented philosophical outlook as a given, rather than as an implicit example of just another possible ideology. My last would doubtless strike many, probably including Sowell himself, as moral relativism at first blush, but it is not. For if the rational, "adult" ideology that Sowell implicitly favors can be judged as an ideology, so must all other ideologies be examined under the cold light of reason, and compared against the facts of reality, which include the requirements for man's survival.Sowell fails to regard (and, in doing so, also, in an important sense, dismisses) the implicit political philosophy that elected Scott Brown as a political philosophy, and in doing so, rejects the premise that reason is the sine qua non of republican government.
Sowell's mistake will allow a few battles (like Massachusetts) to be won, but will ultimately concede the war to the likes of Obama -- or a more "competent" version, if you will. People do not have an innate desire (or appreciation of the meaning of) freedom: They have to learn it from somewhere, and that "somewhere" is the culture. An Obama does grasp that a culture can be shaped. But only the de facto forfeit of a Sowell's will permit such to win.
The will of the people saved us this time. However, unless someone with a firm, rational grasp of the principles underlying American greatness appeals to the minds of the American people -- to encourage them where they are right and to change their minds where they are wrong -- we will not be able to count on a Scott Brown some other time down the road.
The American people don't have everything right -- they elected Barack Obama. But they don't have everything wrong, either -- they voted against him later when they could. Likewise, neither preaching to them nor assuming they'll eventually "get it" will improve our current cultural trajectory. To do that, we have to do what the Founding Fathers did and fight a battle of ideas, starting with a proper identification of the right ideas and continuing with proper advocacy of those ideas. As with Obama, the American people need to see for themselves what is wrong, and not just with his particular policy ideas, but with his whole approach to government.
Obama fears the rational mind and Sowell thinks that it doesn't exist past a certain point. Both men are wrong. We are not a nation of automatons.
1-27-10: Minor edits.