Politics, et Cetera
A publication from The Political Forum, LLC
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
They Said It:
St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in “ordinate affections” or “just sentiments” will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one “who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.”
The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis, 1943.
BARACK OBAMA APOLOGIZES, BUT CAN’T EXPLAIN FOR WHAT.
There are, on occasion, moments in politics that are so important, so revealing, that they largely eclipse any other story. Even very important stories. Such a moment took place this past week, when the 44th President of these here United States sat down for an interview with Chuck Todd, the former editor-in-chief of The Hotline and the current Chief White House Correspondent and political director for NBC News.
Todd, who leans rather heavily to the left and who has long been an admirer of Barack Obama, nonetheless pushed the President to say something – anything! – about his lack of sincerity with respect to health care reform and the current mess that said insincerity has produced. What Obama said in response was edifying to say the least, in a variety of ways.
The first thing to note about this interview is that it was planned. Clearly, it wasn’t scripted, but it was planned, which is to say that the President and his staff chose Todd, chose the setting, chose the subject matter, and, most importantly, had ample time to prepare for the meeting. That is to say, this was not a random, impromptu chat. Nor was it a press conference, at which Obama was peppered with questions, some of which he may not have been prepared to answer. This was a one-on-one presidential interview. What Barack Obama said to Chuck Todd was precisely what Barack Obama wanted to say to Chuck Todd. This fact makes every bit of the President’s discussion with Todd all the more salient, in our opinion.
The second thing to note about this interview is that it was hardly the apology many in the mainstream press have said it was. Obama did not sit down with Todd and say, “Look, I lied. I’m sorry.” In fact, he did not express any sincere regrets at all. What he said was “I am sorry that they [people with cancelled policies] are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me.”
That is, quite simply, not an apology for his lies or for the millions of cancelled insurance policies. There is no acceptance of blame for anything tangible or even an acknowledgement that anything untoward might have been done. What we have here, therefore, is one of two things: either a non-apology couched to sound like an apology; or an apology for the entire act of reforming health care, since that is the specific reason that millions of people “are finding themselves in this situation.”
Now, we know that Obama is never, ever going to apologize for his signature achievement. He is never, ever going to say that he is sorry that he was the guy who delivered the century-old Progressive dream of universal health care. He doesn’t regret it, and no matter how poorly it turns out, he never will regret it. And that means that his “apology” – and we use those scare quotes advisedly – is nothing more than a vague statement of sadness, disconnected completely from remorse. It is an act of political damage control, an attempt to staunch the proverbial bleeding. It is, in short, akin to saying, “It sucks to be you. I know it sucks to be you. I am sorry that it sucks to be you. I really wish it didn’t suck to be you. But . . . it sucks to be you.”
The reason Obama does not make a real and sincere apology is, of course, because he does not believe that he did anything for which he needs to apologize. This entire SNAFU is premised on the notion that the President of the United States lied to the American people, and that he did so with malice aforethought. But, as we noted last week, Barack doesn’t think he did that. So what’s to apologize for? Or, as we put it:
[I]n Obama’s view, he did not lie to the American people. Indeed, no one will ever get him or his supporters to admit that he told a blatant falsehood and, in so doing, sold the American people a bill of goods with the Affordable Care Act. Why? Because they really don’t believe he lied. Why? Because they don’t believe in the concept of “lies,” especially as this concept relates to politics. The notion of objective reality – which is necessary in order to demonstrate a falsehood, or a deviation from reality – simply does not exist in the postmodernist world. What exists instead is a falsely constructed and deceptive “reality” that is little more than the application of power. And in order to counter that false reality, power must be applied inversely to foster new power relationships.
Note that when Obama speaks about this, he never even comes close to acknowledging that there might have been some deception involved in his words. He’s not sorry for being dishonest. Or even for being vague or obtuse. He is sorry that his “assurances” turned out not to be viable. As he sees it, not only did he do nothing wrong, but he actually did good, by trying to comfort the American people. He did not tell lies; he offered “assurances.”
The day after he interviewed the President, Chuck Todd himself was interviewed on the Hugh Hewitt radio show. Guest host Carol Platt Liebau asked about Obama, about the apology, and about the fact that the President never once acknowledged that he lied to the American people. Todd responded as follows:
You know, he does not believe he lied on this, and that’s the sense I get. I mean, I think that that’s, he’s taken issue with that before with folks off the record, and I got it’s a sensitive issue, felt like he did not sit there and say he intentionally lied. He said that he wanted to, he thought he was going to be able to keep this promise. I thought what was revealing in that answer, when I asked him that direct question about this, was this a political lie that you started to believe it, was he talked about well, you know, it turns out we had trouble in crafting the law.
Ah, yes. The problem with the millions of cancelled insurance policies isn’t that the President lied. The problem is that the situation – what the rest of us might call “reality” – would not conform to the President’s assurances. He was right; reality was wrong. And good luck to you in getting him to admit otherwise.
This whole matter is, unsurprisingly, compounded by the fact that everything that the President said in this “apology” is itself untrue. Obama told Chuck Todd, “Obviously we didn’t do a good enough job in terms of how we crafted the law….And, you know, that’s something I regret.” This is patently untrue.
The way that the law was “crafted” – to use Obama’s term – actually allowed people to keep their health plans. Section 1251 of the “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” contains the provisions relating to the viability of existing insurance plans under the law. It reads in part:
Nothing in this Act (or an amendment made by this Act) shall be construed to require that an individual terminate coverage under a group health plan or health insurance coverage in which such individual was enrolled on March 23, 2010 . . . .
Except as provided in paragraph (3), with respect to a group health plan or health insurance coverage in which an individual was enrolled on March 23, 2010, this subtitle and subtitle A (and the amendments made by such subtitles) shall not apply to such plan or coverage, regardless of whether the individual renews such coverage after March 23, 2010 . . . .
In this title, the term “grandfathered health plan” means any group health plan or health insurance coverage to which this section applies.
Translated into English, this section of the health care reform law says that “if you like your plan, you can keep it.” Granted, there are some caveats, but the general gist of the law says what Obama himself was saying: that the government is not going to shut down your health plan.
Like all legislation these days, though, the Affordable Care Act was, essentially, contingent. Contingent on what, you ask? Contingent on regulatory interpretation, of course. Three years ago, just after the Affordable Care Act was passed, Philip Klein, writing in The American Spectator, noted that the law had indeed been passed, but contra the assurances of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, even then, nobody knew what was in it. And nobody knew what was in it, largely because the Department of Health and Human Services hadn’t yet determined what would be in it. Klein put it this way:
There are more than 2,500 references to the secretary of HHS in the health care law (in most cases she’s simply mentioned as “the Secretary”). A further breakdown finds that there are more than 700 instances in which the Secretary is instructed that she “shall” do something, and more than 200 cases in which she “may” take some form of regulatory action if she chooses. On 139 occasions, the law mentions decisions that the “Secretary determines.” At times, the frequency of these mentions reaches comic heights. For instance, one section of the law reads: “Each person to whom the Secretary provided information under subsection (d) shall report to the Secretary in such manner as the Secretary determines appropriate.”
The powers given to Sebelius are wide ranging. In the coming years, if she remains in office, the former Kansas governor will be able to determine what type of insurance coverage every American is required to have. She can influence what hospitals can participate in certain plans, can set up health insurance exchanges within states against their will, and even regulate McDonald’s Happy Meals. She’ll run pilot programs that Democrats have set up in an effort to control costs, and be in a position to dole out billions of dollars in grant money.
But the full breadth of her powers will be known only over time, due to the ambiguity of the language in many parts of the health care legislation.
In the June 17, 2010 issue of the Federal Register, Secretary Sebelius and her staff released the regulations pertaining to the maintenance of existing health plans, that is, those plans that would be grandfathered. And the regulations were very strict. Indeed, they were so strict that HHS expected that most Americans purchasing health insurance through the individual market would lose their plans. As NBC News reported last month:
Buried in Obamacare regulations from July 2010 is an estimate that because of normal turnover in the individual insurance market, “40 to 67 percent” of customers will not be able to keep their policy. And because many policies will have been changed since the key date, “the percentage of individual market policies losing grandfather status in a given year exceeds the 40 to 67 percent range.”
What does all of this mean? Well, it means that the law was, in fact, crafted to allow for grandfathered plans. Eventually, all of those currently receiving cancellation notices (including your humble correspondent) would have been forced to “upgrade” to an Obamacare-compliant plan. But in the meantime, the President’s promise could, more or less, have been kept. The regulations issued by HHS changed that. Let us repeat that, in case you missed it: The law was crafted perfectly well (at least where this particular matter is concerned). But after passage, the Obama administration unilaterally interpreted the law to break the promise. And despite this, the President continued to make that same promise, over and over and over.
Worse yet, when the Republicans in the Senate tried to reverse these rules, the Democrats voted unanimously to kill the bill, which is to say that even those Senate Democrats now whining about the President’s “lies” hurting their reelection chances are complicit in said lies.
Not that anyone is admitting any lies. Indeed, as we said, when the President told Chuck Todd that this entire problem springs from the fact that “Obviously we didn’t do a good enough job in terms of how we crafted the law,” he was still lying, compounding his untruths, piling falsehood upon falsehood and calling it an apology. When you read his words and compare them against the actual historical record, he really could not have said anything that would have been further from the truth. Assuming such a thing exists, of course.
Given all of this – the non-apology-apology, the confirmation of the post-modern worldview, and the ongoing lies – it is, in our estimation, fairly clear that Obama’s interview with Chuck Todd was a borderline disaster. But it gets worse.
In order to get the full effect of the Chuck Todd-interview fiasco, one must not simply rely on the news summaries or highlights. Rather, one must watch – or read – the interview in its entirety. The brief clips or excerpts do not do justice to Barack Obama or to the kind of statesman he really is. The following bit, for example, is one from which several of the so-called “money quotes” have been drawn. But those quotes are, in our opinion, only part of the story, the totality of which must be seen/read to be believed. To wit:
A lot of these plans are subpar plans. And we put in a clause in the law that said if you had one of those plans, even if it was subpar– when the law was passed, you could keep it. But there’s enough churn in the market that folks since then have bought subpar plans. And now that may be all they can afford. So even though it only affects a small amount of the population, you know, it means a lot to them, obviously, when they get – this letter cancelled.
And – you know, I am deeply concerned about it. And I’ve assigned my team to see what we can do to close some of the holes and gaps in the law – because, you know, my intention is to lift up and make sure the insurance that people buy is effective. That it’s actually going to deliver what they think they’re purchasing. Because what we know is before the law was passed, a lot of these plans, people thought they had insurance coverage. And then they’d find out that they had huge out of pocket expenses. Or women were being charged more than men.
If you had preexisting conditions, you just couldn’t get it at all. And we are proud of the consumer protections we put into place. On the other hand, we also want to make sure that – nobody is put in a position where their plan’s been cancelled. They can’t afford a better plan, even though they’d like to have a better plan. And so we’re going to have to work hard – to make sure that those folks – are, you know, taken care of.
In real time, this response takes roughly a minute. In that minute, Obama says “you know” four times. He also begins his next two answers to Todd with “you know.”
Before we continue, we’d like to remind you of a few things: First, this was a planned interview. Second, Barack Obama is the smartest President in the history of the Republic, smarter than all previous presidents combined! Third, Barack Obama is also the greatest orator in the history of the English language.
And yet . . . it seems that he can barely speak the English language. You know?
“You know,” is, of course, one of the most common verbal tics in American English – right up there with “like” (as in “I’m, like, gonna get my best, like, people to, like . . . you know, fix the Obamacare web site.”). Obama uses “you know” a great deal. And he is hardly alone. This particular tic is quite prominent these days among celebrities, athletes, and, unfortunately, politicians.
Does this mean that Obama is stupid? Or that he is a poor public speaker – at least without his teleprompter? Well, no. But it does suggest that he is not particularly sure of what he is saying. He hesitates. He stumbles. He grasps for words. And “you know” is his way of compensating.
We have complained in these pages before about the inability of Republicans, and especially Republicans in Washington, to make coherent arguments in support of their policies. Among other things, this incapacity turns them into cheerleaders for bad news when Democrats are in power. It also allows them to be caricatured in a way that is not only unfair but is a turn-off to independent voters.
In his interview the other day, Obama reminded us that Democrats too suffer from this debilitating failure, which is both good news and absolutely terrible news. It is good news in the near-term, strictly partisan sense, in that it assures that the Republicans are unlikely to be overmatched terribly in the political wars of rhetoric. But it is far worse, in our opinion, in that it suggests, at least in part, a reason why our politics today is so angry, so bitter, and so ineffectual.
Over the weekend, Chuck Raasch, an author and a former national reporter for USA Today, penned a piece lamenting the “death of writing” in American culture. Among other things, Raasch insisted that Americans today – in all social classes and at all levels of intelligence – are incapable of expressing ideas through writing. They can’t formulate the thoughts, make the arguments, or express the conclusions. And so instead, they rely on “imagery” which is both a poor and inflammatory substitute. Raasch put it this way:
Imagery is the primary medium of our time, a potentially powerful host for good change and authentic understanding. But in its shadow, we have gotten lazy in our appropriation of the correct words to assuage or understand or to seek the common humanity that is in all of us. Today, throwing barbs and brickbats into the Great Din of the Internet has become as second nature as breathing, and one can do it so ubiquitously that words have become devoid of any meaningful consequence. The Great Din requires no forethought, no real calculation of purpose or result, no contemplative brake, no need to seek angles or views beyond those that reaffirm or reassure what we think right now. The best photographers still work patiently and incessantly for the right angles, the right lighting, the right moments to tell the story most truthfully and honestly. Would that more writers do likewise.
This is a big reason why our approach to politics is broken. Seeking any edge, the leading actors too often talk about “optics” over accommodation or resolution. By boiling complex issues into single images or seven-word slams, everyone — actor, describer, citizen — is let off the hook, content with their own translators and tribes. Even the once-derided 30-second sound bite has become archaic, too lengthy for our run-and-gun debates.
Writing and public speaking are, obviously, different in a great many ways. Still both require a certain clarity of thought; both require a certain knowledge of audience and technique; both require a great deal of effort, at least if they are to be employed successfully; and both are critical, especially in politics, in conveying the messages necessary to achieve success, however that may be defined. Raasch is right, we think, about the inability of America’s supposed “thinkers” to write. This, we think, is inextricably related to their inability to communicate more generally. And both, we’re afraid, stem from their inability to think clearly.
Raasch – at least in this essay – attributes all of this muddle to the internet and to a focus on “optics,” both of which necessitate lightning-quick responses that simply do not allow for the thought and effort required to produce clear thinking and clear writing (or communication, if you prefer). There’s some truth to this, we think, but the explanation goes beyond the hurried nature of our culture as well.
In the past, when discussing the Republicans’ inability to communicate, we have, in part, blamed the education system, which tends to turn out both an electorate and politicians who are incapable of logic, unable to grasp consequences, and totally ignorant of history. “How,” we have asked more than once, “does a nation survive when its politicians are the products of an education system that has ‘taught’ them little more than platitudes and propaganda?”
This question and others like it are worth asking again as we listen to Barack Obama struggle so mightily and so painfully to explain his SIGNATURE POLICY ACHIEVEMENT in a PLANNED INTERVIEW. Unfortunately, these questions will also become more and relevant as time goes by and as political class continues to age, pushing the early Baby Boomers out and replacing them with those, like our President, who were educated after the Boomers won the culture wars of the 1960s.
It is, we know, something of a cliché for conservatives to blame the culture of the ‘60s for screwing up everything. But in the case of education, and especially teaching students to think and communicate clearly, that cliché, like most, is grounded in reality. Two weeks ago, a New York Times piece detailed the “worry” on college campuses over fading interest in the “humanities.” According to the Times and those whom it interviewed, this worry stems largely from the fact that humanities degrees no longer lead necessarily to employment.
Unfortunately, no one ever bothers to stop and think why that may be the case. The Times insists that employers should value humanities majors for their “critical thinking skills,” skills which the paper believes are indubitably a net positive. Humanities majors learn “critical thinking,” which makes them better, over the long run, at securing productive employment. We’re not so sure. In fact, we think that these “critical thinking skills” are quite probably both a big part of the problem with education and emblematic of the deficiencies in humanities education since the 1960s.
Five years ago, our friend Roger Kimball, the erudite author, essayist, publisher, and editor of the New Criterion, penned a piece attacking the cult of critical thinking as just one more “progressive” education scheme that has damaged rather than helped the students who have been subjected to it. We think that some of his comments are pertinent here and help to explain the political class’s communication deficiency. Kimball wrote thusly:
What we are dealing with here is an educational watchword, not to say a cliché, that has roots in some of the Enlightenment values that Kant espoused. It’s a voracious, quick-growing hybrid. A search for the phrase “critical thinking” using the Google search engine brings up 2,290,200 references in .08 seconds. The ﬁrst match, God help us, is to something called “The Critical Thinking Community,” whose goal is “to promote essential change in education and society through the cultivation of fair-minded critical thinking.” (Why is it, I wonder, that the conjunction of the phrase “critical thinking” with the word “community” is so reliably productive of nausea?)
Everywhere you look, in fact, you will ﬁnd the virtues of “critical thinking” extolled: Colleges and universities claim to be stuffed with the thing, and even high schools – even, mirabile dictu, primary schools – brag about instilling the principles of “critical thinking” in their charges. There’s “critical thinking” for bankers, for accountants, for cooks, gardeners, haberdashers, and even advanced toddlers . . . . Absolutely everyone is enjoined to scrutinize his presuppositions, reject conventional thinking, and above all, to be original and/or “creative.” (Ponder, if your stomach is strong enough, a “Creative Critical Thinking Community.”)
To some extent, we owe the infestation of “critical thinking” to that great twentieth-century movement to empty minds while at the same time inﬂating the sense of self-importance, or, to give it its usual name, Progressive Education. It was John Dewey, after all, who told us that “education as such has no aims,” warned about “the vice of externally imposed ends,” urged upon his readers the notion that “an individual can only live in the present.” (The present, Dewey said, “is what life is in leaving the past behind it,” i.e., a nunc stans of perfect ignorance.)
The ﬁrst thing to notice about the vogue for “critical thinking” is that it tends to foster not criticism but what one wit called “criticismism”: the “ism” or ideology of being critical, which, like most isms, turns out to be a parody or betrayal of the very thing it claims to champion. Criticismism is an attitude guaranteed to instill querulous dissatisfaction, which is to say ingratitude, on the one hand, and frivolousness, on the other. Its principal effect, as the philosopher David Stove observed, has been “to fortify millions of ignorant graduates and undergraduates in the belief, to which they are already only too ﬁrmly wedded by other causes, that the adversary posture is all, and that intellectual life consists in ‘directionless quibble.’”
In short, then, critical thinking as it is taught in the humanities today, is next to useless. It is platitudinous. It provides humanities students with nothing more than the ability to think that everything is, to borrow a phrase from the recently deceased Lou Reed, “just dirt.” As such, it is an incitement to nihilism. It teaches students how to tear down ideas, but not how to construct ideas of their own.
If the geniuses at Stanford and Harvard and Yale want to know why interest in the humanities has declined, the answer, we think, is both obvious and impossible to reach, at least in an academic setting. The humanities, as they’ve come to be taught are parodies. Once upon a time, they included the classics, history, composition, literature, philosophy, rhetoric and the like. Today, they include gender studies, ethnic studies, LBGT studies, and even “puppetry.” These “humanities” may teach critical thinking as it’s defined by the academy, but they do not teach the construction of thoughts, the clear communication of thoughts, or the art of persuasion. In a world that views education as job training, the humanities as they are taught today provide no discernible value at all.
When considering our emerging political class, which is to say the generation AFTER the early Baby Boomers – late Boomers like Obama and Generation X-ers like Paul Ryan – it is important to remember what makes them different from their predecessors. And chief among these differences is the type and quality of education they received. Barack Obama, for example, attended Columbia and then Harvard Law School at a time when Progressive education – as fostered by Dewey and forcibly ratified by the post-‘60s intellectuals – was dominant and largely unchallenged in elite higher-education circles.
A great many conservatives over the years have screamed and hollered about not being permitted to see Obama’s college transcripts. They believe that there is a great deal of knowledge to be gleaned from the man’s grades. We, by contrast, think that there is even more knowledge to be gleaned from his class selection. What did he study? Did he study the Peloponnesian War, for example? Did he read Plato and Aristotle? Did he take any courses in early medieval Christian philosophy? Did he ever encounter the works of Augustine of Hippo or Thomas Aquinas? Does he know anything about anything other than the trendy, pseudo-intellectual pursuits of the progressive intellectuals?
The “They Said It” quote above is a duly famous passage from C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, in which the author cites a panoply of great thinkers on the importance of properly educating the young. The gist of the passage is, as Lewis puts it, citing Plato, that “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.” Education matters, in other words. And our President – and the political class more generally – has been woefully educated. That little human animal that was Barack Obama was not properly trained, much to our chagrin and to the nation’s detriment.
In the aforementioned radio interview that Chuck Todd did with Carol Platt Liebau, the NBC analyst wondered aloud why President Obama lacks the guts to do what his Democratic predecessor did, namely debate his policies in public against real and thoughtful adversaries, rather than at campaign events against straw men. Todd said:
I actually think he [Obama] would benefit from just simply doing some town halls and not White House-screened town halls with supporters, but doing, you know, going back, essentially letting some folks vent, letting some folks vent, handling the vent a little bit. . . .
Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich did that joint town hall back in ’96, in ’97 in New Hampshire. It was a big, it was a good moment, frankly, for both of them. At the time, it ended up helping Clinton more than helping Newt, but it was sort of, that’s another way you could do this.
We agree with Todd that such an event would be interesting. But we disagree with him that Obama would benefit from it. As we saw in last year’s presidential debates, when he is forced to defend himself and his policies without benefit of scripted answers, he performs terribly. He comes off as either ill-informed and terse, or snarky and belittling. Forming, explaining, and defending ideas are not his strengths. He is, as we have noted before, a perfect product of his environment. That is, highly credentialed but pitifully educated.
The Obama interview with Chuck Todd was big news for a couple of days but not for long after that. Obama kinda, sorta apologized. Most observers agreed that the semi-apology would change nothing. And then everyone moved on to other stories.
Obviously, we didn’t move on, largely because we think that the interview was both important and telling. And what we were told is that we have a President who is a bit panicked, genuinely unhappy, congenitally dishonest, and, most notably, not particularly capable of defending himself or his ideas. This bodes ill, we think, for the remaining three years of his presidency.
Republicans and other conservatives should not, however, take too much pleasure in this unfortunate circumstance. Not only would the country be in far better shape if it had a president who could articulate viable political ideas, but the maladies that debilitate Obama are shared by the majority of the political class, including the majority of Republicans. And that means that they will likely be unable to take advantage of the current president’s weakness, just as they will be unable to articulate their own ideas.
Thirty years ago, President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education lamented that “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” The current political climate confirms this. And the next few years will likely determine how successful that act of war has been in bringing the Hyper-Power low.