Saturday, September 26, 2009

Jokers Wild

The origins of the term straw man are unclear according to the Wikipedia article about it.
One common (folk) etymology given is that it originated with men who stood outside of courthouses with a straw in their shoe in order to indicate their willingness to be a false witness. Another is that a man made of straw, such as those used in military training, is easy to attack. Attacking a straw man can give the illusion of a strong attack or good argument.
For my money, the second account makes more sense, and certainly matches the metaphor.

Democrat apparatchiks, Obama sycophants, and leftists of various stripes are using the straw man argument of "racist intent" against an astonishing number of those who dissent with any of our president's policies. They are, to mix metaphors, playing the race card with abandon. The range of people engaging in the practice is staggering: from New York Times columnists (Maureen Dowd), to rock music stars (Dave Matthews), to tattooed comedian/actors (Janeane Garofalo) to an ex-president of the United States (Jimmy Carter).

The beauty of this tactic is, a) like a joker, it's a wild card that can work for all occasions, and, b) it leaves your opponent stupefied. Let me take these points one at a time.

a) The race card works for all occasions.
The race card has been used against large groups (the "tea parties," the vast numbers of seniors who have protested against Obamacare, the Republican party as a whole) and individuals (Joe Wilson). It works regardless of what your opponent says because a "secret" or "hidden" or "unspoken" intent is attributed.

b) It leaves your opponent stupefied.
The use of the race card is like the old vaudevillian question, "when did you stop beating your wife?" Any reply seems self-incriminating. If one gets angry at the accusation, one's very anger will be used as an indication of his guilt. The "some of my best friends are..." response will solicit rolling eyes or derisive laughter. And silence will be seen as consent.

An additional benefit to the user of the race card is the feeling of nobility it can engender. While his opponent is condemned as racist--whether of the vicious intentional type, or the late middle-aged white buffoon to be pitied for his parochial attitudes--the user of the race card can congratulate himself on his superior enlightened outlook on the subject of race. The fact that accusations of racism without clear and unequivocal proof is a cowardly and despicable libel (in our present social milieu akin to a false accusation of rape) is irrelevant to its purveyors. It works. And considering all the benefits and advantages to be garnered--political, social, and psychological--it's perhaps easy enough to convince one's self that it's true absent any concrete evidence. The most tenuous of internal constructs upon which to build the case will do, such that Maureen Dowd can write an entire column of moral outrage based on a word she imagined Joe Wilson to have added (in his mind) after his "you lie!" outburst directed at president Obama in his speech to the joint session of Congress: "boy!"

Which brings me back to my original metaphor: the straw man. Hacking away at a straw man can infuse one with a sense of great skill and accomplishment--if one forgets that the straw man is not striking back. Point b of my earlier argument--the that the use of the race card leaves your opponent stupefied--creates this very condition. It's vital that conservatives, against whom the race card is so often played, craft an effective response and counter-attack to the spurious straw man accusation of racism. For every time it is used without answer it not only reinforces the user's self-image as morally superior, but also lends support to the picture of conservatives that leftists have carefully nurtured over the decades as a cohort of greedy, callous, angry white men, and prudish, punctilious, snobbish white women. It's time to pull the straw man down and replace him with a real, flesh and blood man who will fight back.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Wish Fulfillment

No one should ever die for lack of health care. No one should ever go broke just because he got sick.

The two sentences above were posted recently on the Facebook page of someone I know (who shall remain nameless.) I had my ideas about them at the time, but what really brought it to a head in my mind was when president Obama made similar sentiments in his speech on health care to the joint houses of Congress on the 11th of this month.

These sorts of statements have become common these days, ostensibly a testament to the evolved sensibilities of our time, we being so much more complex, nuanced, and perceptive than those who came before us. But to my mind it's just an example of mushy, half-baked thinking; the kind of thing that at first sounds caring and profound, but at the slightest application of analysis and inquiry, falls apart like damp tissue.

Let's take the second sentence first: No one should ever go broke just because he got sick. My first response is, "why not?" People go broke for lots of reasons that all share the same characteristic: their bills exceed their income. When it's due to poor decisions--profligate spending--we tend to think the fellow got what he deserved. But what about the poor sap (let's call him Dave) who looses his job because the owner of the company he worked for was a boob, mismanaged the company, and it went under? Or, better yet, the company fails, not due to mismanagement, but obsolescence: nobody wants buggy whips anymore? Did Dave get what he deserved? And if he didn't deserve it, does that mean that he "shouldn't" go broke? So if he went broke undeservedly, through no fault of his own, what is the government's responsibility to him? If we apply the same set of reasoning as many are to the question of health care, the answer would be the government should pay Dave's bills and keep him from going broke to be fair (or, in the progressive vernacular, in the interest of "social justice.")

But wait a minute: the money the government would use to pay Dave's bills has to come from somewhere. And government--any government--only has two ways to get money: it confiscates it from its citizens, or prints it (which just deflates the value of all money.) Borrowing doesn't count; that's just another, more pernicious form of confiscating wealth since it eventually has to be paid back, with interest. So how is it fair that the government takes money from you and gives it to Dave?

The first sentence--No one should ever die for lack of health care,-- is even more problematic. If by this one is implying, (as many advocates of government-run health care do,) that people in the United States are dying because they don't have access to health care...well, this simply isn't true. By American law no hospital, public or private, can turn anyone away or refuse treatment due to lack of insurance or inability to pay. As far as the present debate is concerned this sentence is a pure red herring. What's in question is health insurance, not health care. If, however, we take the sentence at face value, it's not difficult to dream up a set of circumstances that render it fantasy. Think of the following scenarios: hunting, logging, or doing geological survey in the deep wilderness, commercial fishing days out to sea, mountain climbing, archeological digging in remote areas. That was just off the top of my head, but with a little thought one could come up with many other activities in which the only way to ensure that "no one should ever die from lack of health care," would be to ban completely those activities simply because their nature removes the person from the proximity to the access of health care.

At the crux of this whole matter is the word used in both statements: the word "should." Because behind that usage of the word is the implication that this is a "right." This is even being stated explicitly by "progressive" voices in this debate. But from the beginning of this country to this present day, rights, as expressed in our founding documents are all "negative" rights, that is they are proscriptive of what the government is allowed to do. "Congress shall make no law..., the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed...nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law..."

But a move is being made in the debate over government-run health care to open the door to a completely different concept of "positive" rights, an idea espoused by the left for some time. So there is talk of food being a right, water being a right, a job being a right--and of course, health care being a right. President Obama, for instance, back in 2001 when he was still an Illinois state senator, said in a Chicago public radio interview that the civil rights movement was victorious in some regards, but failed to create a "redistributive change" in its appeals to the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, and went on to suggest that the Legislature is the place for such change to occur. (You can hear the audio of the interview here.) One of my favorite writers, Theodore Dalrymple, has made the argument against this lunacy in an article which you can read in its entirety here, but the essentials of the argument are this: "If there is a right to health care, someone has the duty to provide it. Inevitably, that “someone” is the government. Concrete benefits in pursuance of abstract rights, however, can be provided by the government only by constant coercion."

We already have many government-supplied safety nets and assistance programs, but let's be clear: we have always done these things--for better or worse, (and I would argue that many are for the worse)--because our legislators were persuaded that they were "good" things to do, never because it was a "right" of the citizen that government was obligated to provide. The founders of our country were wise to codify our rights as limitations on government's power to infringe the liberty of the citizen. If we ever do open this Pandora's box of "positive" rights, which then become perpetual governmental obligations to provide, we will find that these new "positive" rights will be at war with our traditional "negative" rights.