Restoring Sanity? Or Restoring Liberalism?

Cross-posted from the other site

Yesterday saw 200,000 people or more attend Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity.

I don’t think there’s any deep meaning to it — Allahpundit called it Irony-Stock, which seems as good a name as any. I find it disconcerting that they invited Cat Stevens, who supported that Fatwah against Salman Rushdie. I’m sure it was fun — certainly a lot more fun than listening to one of Rush’s or Hannity’s latest (and increasingly boring) rants about Obama destroying America. But let’s not confuse with it substance.

I did have a few scattered thoughts, however. Not so much on the rally itself but on the whole idea of “restoring sanity” to our politics.

First of all, the idea “restoring” sanity seems a bit ignorant of political history. Politics has always been an ugly business, which is why conservatives and libertarians prefer that as much of our lives as possible is lived outside of its confines. When vast piles of money and power are controlled by words and influence, the fight over them gets unpleasant. It’s better than actual physical fighting, I suppose, but it’s the nature of the beast.

Politics has been nasty and unreasonable since Oogh ran for Cave King. Our own political history has included Thomas Jefferson calling John Adams a hermaphrodite and Adams calling Jefferson a coward. It has included the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, a senator beating another on the Senate floor, unnecessary wars, corruption, influence-peddling, state-sanctioned discrimination and the Red Scare. Right now, African Americans vote overwhelming for the party that supported slavery and segregation for over a century while Republicans vote for a party that crushed state rights and spawned the progressive era.

Restore sanity? How about injecting some for the first time? That’s something I could accept.

The Information Age did not create the insanity but it has exposed much of it for what it is. The days when people could claim, without criticism, that John F. Kennedy would take his orders from the Vatican (actual claim made in the South) are long gone. What is happening is not an increase in an unreason, but a pushback against it. It may seem that the extreme response to Obama — the drumbeat that he is a crypto-socialist who hates America — is something new. But Andrew Ferguson, in the process of destroying Dinesh D’Souza’s poorly-researched claim that Obama is a secret Kenyan anti-colonialist, reminds us of what was going on in politics just ten years ago:

I remember a press conference in 1993 got up by Empower America, a now-forgotten Republican think tank. The purpose was to mark the end of the first year of the Clinton administration. A murderers row of famous-for-Washington conservatives took turns denouncing the Democrats who had seized the White House after a dozen years of Republican benevolence. The upshot of the press conference was tersely summarized by Jack Kemp, a man not known for terseness: President Clinton, Kemp said, had brought to Washington something it had never seen before, the “first frankly left-wing administration in history.”

I believed everything that was said about Clinton. That he was a child-of-the-60′s communist-sympathizing Far Left radical who was going to ruin America and murdered Vince Foster. In retrospect, I’m not sure what I was smoking. Clinton was liberal and made some whack-job appointments, but even before the Republicans won Congress, he got NAFTA passed and got spending cut. Indeed, this is why I refuse to embrace the idea that Obama hates America, that Obama wants us brought down, that Obama is “apologizing” for America, that Obama doesn’t think America is exceptional (based on one sentence of a speech that elides several pages of extolling American values). He’s more liberal than Clinton and, as we saw in his Daily Show interview, sees what he’s done as the first step toward more, especially on healthcare. He’s wrong, but I don’t think he’s evil. And the reason I don’t think so I went on the “Democrats Hate America” crazy train back in the 90′s. I’m not interested in another ride.

So the Rally to Restore Sanity is, in my opinion, not about restoring sanity but about injecting some. To be frank, this is long overdue. We need some sanity around here, especially when it comes to our fiscal situation.

However, before moving on, I should note that “being reasonable” is not, in of itself, virtuous. There are some issues we should be unreasonable about. It was Barry Goldwater who said, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” We should not be reasonable to thing like free speech and due process of law. Torture is an issue on which I do not want to moderate and I suspect Stewart and Colbert wouldn’t want to either. If you fundamentally believe that abortion is murder, why should you moderate that view? (Indeed, this is why I rarely raise the abortion issue in this forum — because I think both sides have staked out incompatible but defensible views). If you believe that war is never justified, why should you be reasonable about it?

You can’t make fundamental differences go away by being reasonable about them. The best you can hope for is to keep them out of the public domain as much as possible.

In fact, I suspect that there are many issues that Stewart/Colbert would be unreasonable about if those issues were the ones of the day. And when seen in that light, their rally takes on a different tone. What they’re saying is that people should be reasonable about certain issues — issues on which they think there’s room for compromise, but issues other may not.

Frankly, I find that a bit arrogant. It’s easy to be “reasonable” on healthcare reform or cap-and-trade when you are wealthy and those issues are unlikely to affect you. It’s a bit different when you’re a doctor looking at shrinking Medicare payments or an academic looking at rising health insurance rates or a middle-class mom looking at rises heating bills.

To be blunt, unreason is sometimes a perfectly reasonable response. It’s not unreasonable to not want to be killed by a terrorist. It’s not unreasonable to be scared of losing your job and being unemployed for a long time. It’s not unreasonable to be worried about our debt. It’s not unreasonable to be angry that your industry is hurting. I’m not saying we should let people’s emotions over-ride necessary policy: people were nervous about integration too. But we should at least acknowledge that concerns, fear and even anger can be fully justified. And sometimes even right.

To sum up, the “Rally to Restore Sanity” is a misnomer. You can’t restore something hat has rarely been there. There are some issues which no amount of sanity is going to resolve. And there are many issues on which our fear and unreason are perfectly justified.

Despite this, however, I do feel some sympathy for the Rally because I do think there is a problem in our politics that we need to deal with. I just think they’ve identified the wrong problem. It’s not a new problem, but it’s one we can no longer put up with. What we need less of in our society is not really fear, partisanship, anger or passion — although certainly those should all be much smaller in a society as wealthy and safe as ours. No, what we need less of is bullshit.

Bullshit is the problem that is afflicting America right now. The debate over Obamacare should have been about the Law of Unintended Consequences, the impossibility of increasing care and cutting costs and the options of severing the job-insurance link or moving America toward major medical. Instead, it got side-tracked into bullshit about death panels and whether Obama is a socialist. And the irony is that this bullshit didn’t help. Not only did Obamacare pass, it passed with deep fundamental flaws like the 1099 requirement and the gaming of the CBO.

And to ping the Left: the debate over the War in Iraq should have been about the reality of the WMDs or the wisdom of invading a country as ethnically complex as Iraq. We should have been debating whether we had enough troops to control such a big country and whether we had the right people in place for the reconstruction. We should have talked about the duration being longer than the war. Instead, we got No Blood for Oil and Halliburton. And the irony is that this not only failed to stop the war, it allowed it to go forward with a game plan that would shame the Underpants Gnomes.

It’s perfectly reasonable to have a firm point of view that is opposed to others. It’s perfectly reasonable to be unreasonable when it comes to death and taxes and war and debt. What is unreasonable is to mischaracterize the opposition’s view, to prop them up into an easily beaten straw man, to make outrageous and frequently false claims about their point of view or their stance on the issues.

And it’s outraged even further by the meme of never admitting that you were wrong. Has Sarah Palin ever backed down from her death panels rhetoric? Has Christopher Monckton ever owned up to the flatly false claims he makes in his global warming “skepticism”? Have the Democrats ever backed off from the meme that civil rights would go backward with Republicans in charge? Will Mark Critz ever admit that he’s lying about the Fair Tax? No, no, no and no.

What we need is not a Rally to Restore Sanity. What we need to a Rally to Stop Bullshit.

But ….

Here’s my problem with Stewart/Colbert: they are very good at calling out the Right Wing for their bullshit. But they’ve taken a far easier stand on the Left Wing. Oh, they’ll occasionally hit Olbermann or Maddow or Code Pink. But do they call out Democrats when they say that Republicans want to “gut” Medicare and Social Security? Do they call out Democrats when they say Republicans want to ship our jobs to China? Do they call out anyone when slowing the growth in a program is referred to as a “draconian cut”? When Bush tried to eliminate a few wasteful and redundant programs, did they mock the defenders of those programs? Or did they mock Bush? Do they treat Charlie Crist with the same contempt with which they treated Joe Lieberman? Notice also the Medals of Reasonableness they gave out. The most prominent was to Velma Hart, who called out Obama … for not being liberal enough.

So how about it, boys? The Republicans are about to retake Congress. And we can bet that, within months, the Left will be screaming that our water is dirtier, our air is dirtier, our people are poorer, our civil rights worse, our healthcare worse — whether these things are true or not. Are you going to slam them? Are you going to mock them? Are you going to ask them to be rational?

Because if you’re not, than all this rally is about is Left Wing smugness. It’s about a Left that thinks their views are “reasonable” and “rational” and that the only thing keeping us from a liberal paradise is the “extreme” rhetoric of the other side; their refusal to simply admit that liberal ideas are the best ones.

And that would make you the biggest cynics of all.

Update: Photos of signs here. Some are funny (#30) is my favorite) but notice how far they tilt to the Left. And notice also that one picture out of the hundred has 9/11 Truthers in it. According to the UCLA study, this would mean there was a similar percentage of Truther signs at the Sanity rally as there were racist signs at the Tea Party rally. I wonder if they will play an equally large role in the media coverage.

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