I sat down for an interview with Erik Black, the former Strib political reporter and one of the thundering herd of “deans of Minnesota political reporting”, the other day.
It went a little like this.:
BLACK: So you took a trip the other day.
BERG: I did.
BLACK: You’ve said your goal when driving long distances is to get there as fast as you legally can.
BERG: Yep. I like to get the trip over with.
BLACK: But you stopped in Black River Falls.
BERG: Right. I had to go to the bathroom.
BLACK: What do you mean?
BERG: Er, I had to urinate. And buy a Red Bull.
BLACK: So haven’t you gone back on your princples then?
BERG: Are you serious?
BLACK: You don’t have an answer, do you?
BERG: Of course I do. My goal was to get to Chicago. As a practical matter, I needed to take a whiz.
BLACK: So your principles are muddled, then? Perhaps you shoudn’t talk about “driving fast”.
OK, I made that one up.
But when you read Black’s fisking (I mean, really? What else would you call it?) of a Jason Lewis column in the Strib this past weekend, you might wonder:
Let’s do Mr. Jason Lewis the kindness of taking seriously his latest Strib op-ed philippic against the evils of liberalism.
The headline “Do you want equality or freedom?” certainly suggests that we can’t want a bit of both, and it also suggests that freedom and equality cannot coexist.
Now, when liberals read “equality” they think “women and minorities voting” – something conservatives support. When Jason Lewis – whose broadcasts and op-eds sound and read more like grad-school poli-sci seminars every year – talks about “equality” in this context, he’s referring to equality of outcomes; leveling out the economic peaks to fill in the valleys; making sure nobody becomes wealthy until everyone’s in the middle class.
I’m going to add some emphasis to the next bit; we’ll come back to it:
Of course, Lewis didn’t write the headline, but it captures the keys to his argument, and to a bit of semantic bullying in which righties engage often.
It goes something like this:
Everything the right likes can be phrased as a form of “freedom,” as in freedom of the rich from paying higher taxes, freedom of corporations from government regulation, freedom to pollute, freedom of those with almost unlimited resources to use those resources to influence elections, freedom of the wealthiest 1 percent to accumulate any damn portion of the society’s wealth and income without shame, freedom to overthrow foreign governments (but only in order to bring freedom to the oppressed of those nations) and a few other important freedoms that you can think of on your own.
Once the right has established its ownership of the “freedom brand,” it follows that everything that distinguishes the left from the right is a form of oppression.
Government is oppression, taxes are tyranny, and progressive taxation or anything else that requires rich people to pay more than poor people is a particularly pernicious Bolshevik form of totalitarianism that requires a complete leveling between rich and poor.
That’s why you have to choose between freedom and equality.
No “rhetorical bullying” in that passage, was there?
There are really two ways of addressing Black’s…argument?
First: I work in an engineering-y field. And when analyzing a problem, engineers will break it into two areas; what you want to happen – your goal – and how you make it happen. Your goal – your “policy”, at a high level – is to put a bridge over a river. That goal/”policy” drives the actual implementation; building over the road on one bank and between the buildings on the other, using plate-girder construction instead of stressed concrete arches (because it’s a small bridge with a low budget). The same idea works in politics; high-level “principles” guide lower-level politics and undertakings. If your princples are “progressive”, you likely believe some permutation of “society should use government to rectify the worst of life’s wrongs” and “those that have should be expected to help out those who have not”. These principles likely inform your “policy” decisions – things like “the rich should only make 80 times as much as the rest of us, rather than 90 times, so let’s add on a Wealth Tax”. It’s a simple fact of life that there will be inconsistencies between your “princples” and the policies you use to implement them. Lewis is speaking in terms of principles – “Freedom” and “Equality” in abstract, academic senses that never really occur as absolutes in nature. That’s what he does.
Second: Well, duh. That’s what political rhetoric is; trying to frame your side as a better idea than the other side.
You don’t have the option of maybe just bumping the top marginal rate up a point or two to help reduce the deficit (something about which the right generally claims to care) and still leave the average CEO 90 times better off than his average employee (or maybe only 80).
Mr. Black: Behold the power of rhetoric. Of course you have the option. Lewis is arguing against the option.
It’s not much different than when progressives, for example, say “if you want to cut taxes [or just not increase them as much as the left wants – Ed.], you must hate government!”. Conservatives respond “Er, government is fine – but couldn’t we settle for just the right amount of it, rather than letting it expand forever, unchecked?”
Because in principle, conservatives want to control the size of government; in practice, that means picking and choosing.
Just like Black wants Lewis to allow for.
Now, that’s Jason Lewis for you; the guy with the Masters (PhD? LLD? I forget) in Poli Sci does like him some high-level political theory. He does it for three hours every night, and in most of his written output as well. His second hitch in Twin Cities radio has been like an extended grad school poli sci seminar.
And I have to believe Black knows that.
So why would he write an entire column chastising Lewis’ “logic” when, in fact, all the cognitive dissonance is a matter of the scope of the argument (Lewis’ high-level rhetoric vs. Black’s policy-oriented low-level analysis)?
Reading the comment section – which largely reads like a thread at Democrat Underground or the Daily Kos – should answer that for you.