February 02, 2003

Fisking Kinsley


A "fisking" of "MORALLY UNSERIOUS"
by Michael Kinsley
Friday, January 31st, 2003

a.k.a Robt.Warren Jones
Slacker Laureate Of Bridgeport
Sunday, February 2nd, 2003

This is my parsing, or "fisking", of Michael Kinsley's recent column in it's entirety. Since Kinsley took it upon himself to evaluate the inherent "logical consistency" and "intellectual honesty" of George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union address, I thought it would be fun to use the same standard to him. I've always been fascinated by differing personal perspectives on issues of the day--especially among politicians and pundits; where they come from, what they show, and how they're advanced. It is not my purpose here to make a case for an invasion of Iraq, nor for anything else discussed herein, but rather to examine the way in which a certain gifted political writer made the case against such a mission. In short: this is about method, not madness.

KINSLEY: "The second half of President Bush's State Of The Union speech Tuesday night, about Iraq, was a model of moral seriousness, as it should be from a leader taking his nation into war. Bush was brutally eloquent about the cause and--special points for this--about the inevitable cost. It may seem petty to pick apart the text."

SPORK: Not at all.......

KINSLEY: "But logical consistency and intellectual honesty are also tests of moral seriousness. It is not enough for the words to be eloquent or even deeply sincere. If they are just crafted for the moment and haven't been thought through, the pretense of moral seriousness becomes an insult."

SPORK: Bravo!, so far. Michael will now attempt a logically consistent and intellectually honest critique of the logical consistency and intellectual honesty of some selected passages from the State of the Union address (SOTU).

KINSLEY: "In his most vivid passage, Bush listed practices of Saddam Hussein such as destroying whole villages with chemical weapons and torturing children in front of their parents. 'If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning' he said, telling 'the brave and oppressed people of Iraq' that 'the day he and his regime are removed from power will be the day of your liberation.'"

SPORK: All well and good, but we shall presently witness the way in which Michael the K either misrepresents or just plain misunderstands why Bush would invoke such human rights atrocities...

KINSLEY: "This is a fine, noble reason to wage war against Iraq. It would have been a fine reason two decades ago, which is when Hussein destroyed those villages and the United States looked the other way. It would be a fine reason to topple other governments around the world."

SPORK: There are two relevant conclusions one could draw from these three lines about Michael's world view, and they are both, for the most part, more characteristic of a Liberal world view than the Conservative.
Firstly, he responds to the current US President's speech with a hobgoblin's eye on the policy of past Presidents. He doesn't say it explicitly, of course, but by noting that "the United States"--rather than "the Reagan Administration"--looked the other way two decades ago, he is implying inconsistency or even hypocrisy in the policy of Bush today, the current "President of the United States". This may seem to be reading too much into it, but since this column's topic is the "logical consistency and intellectual honesty" of Bush's SOTU speech, I think Kinsley's mentioning of the events of two decades ago is no haphazard aside. It was placed to imply at least some suspicion of said inconsistency and intellectual dishonesty of the current President. What is identifiably "Left-liberal" about this is that it generally doesn't consider a person's identity, chiefly, to be individual...but rather to be defined more accurately by it's larger associations. George W. Bush then is not simply a man whom is currently the President of the United States, rather the implication is that he is "The President Of The United States" as was Reagan, Clinton, Carter, Bush the Elder, etc For Kinsley, this broadly conceptualized "President" is thus fairly criticized as being inconsistent and hypocritical if his 2003 approach to Hussein contradicts Reagan's 1983 approach. As I said, I don't think this is reading too much into it when you consider the topic and purpose of the column. Kinsley's left-leaning world view colors, if not controls, his perception of Bush as Kinsley himself states HIS world view.

Secondly, MK's opinion that Saddam's internal human rights abuses would be "a fine, noble reason to wage war against Iraq" and "to topple other governments around the world" as well, is also characteristically Left-liberal in that I think it stems from the idea that any and all "local" sovereignty should be denied when such sovereignty results in policies that seem to assault our collective notion of right and wrong policy. The characteristically Conservative approach to war (at least since the Vietnam inspired "Nixon Doctrine") was that Americans would be sent to fight ONLY if there were a vital or vitally strategic national interest in doing so (funds and materials could be provided to others, whom we support, in the absence of the vital national interest). Reagan went against the Nixon Doctrine in the case of Lebanon, Bush-41 in the case of Somalia (to the cheers of the Left mainly). Clinton, of course, went 180 degrees and actually boasted that there were, in the operations in Bosnia and Kosovo, no national interests at all at stake. While there were many on the Conservative side who did support the missions in Bosnia and Kosovo (and initially Somalia), those closer to the left seem more apt NOT to support military actions when there IS a national interest. I think this is because it is, by definition, "Nationalism", and that's a dirty word to those of more socialist bent. Therefore, sending Americans to fight and die for the Human Rights of people in other "nations" is noble and just, while sending Americans to fight and die for "America" is self-serving Nationalism. The fact that "America" is constituted of individuals whom happen to be Americans is lost to the logic because, as I noted earlier, of the propensity of social idealists to conceptualize people as members of larger un-personal groups rather than as individuals.

Okay, okay, I've gone on long enough about three seemingly inconsequential lines, but I think it's an interesting exercise to decompose Michael's perspective. Anyway....here is how, as I promised earlier, he either misrepresents or misunderstands Bush's purpose in invoking Saddam's human rights abuses:

KINSLEY: "Is the Bush Administration prepared to enforce the no-torturing-children rule by force everywhere? And what happens if Hussein decides to meet all our demands regarding weapons and inspections? Is he then free to torture children and pour acid on innocent citizens without fear of the United States?
"If Hussein's human rights practices morally require the United States to act, why are we waiting for Hans Blix? Or if the danger that Hussein will develop and use weapons of mass destruction against the United States justifies removing him in our own long-term self-defense, what does the torturing of children have to do with it? Bush was careful not to say explicitly that Iraq's internal human rights situation alone justifies going to war--though he was just careful enough to imply that it does. But Bush has said clearly and often that Hussein's external threat does justify a war all by itself. So human rights abuses are neither necessary nor sufficient as a reason for war, in Bush's view, to the extend that it can be parsed. That makes the talk about the torture of children merely decorative, not serious."

SPORK: Essentially, Michael has chosen here to put words in Bush's mouth by assigning a meaning to them that wasn't intended, and then to knock down that very house of cards that Kinsley himself erected. Of course Bush never said "explicitly" that human rights abuses alone justified going to war, because Bush never meant to say that. But MK suggests that Bush's words about that were meant to be misunderstood with the aside "--though he was just careful enough to imply that it does." I think we can safely presume that Michael, prior to writing the column, had already parsed the language and discovered no announcement that Iraq's internal human rights situation alone justified invasion; that makes the succession of rhetorical questions that preceded the "was just careful enough to imply" line a rhetorical trick, likely designed to arouse a wellspring of suspicious indignation. He surmised no answers to those questions; not because he was too dull to imagine what they could be, but because he already knew the questions themselves were incorrect.
So, just "what does the torturing of children have to do with it?" MK wouldn't tell you--that would stifle the cynicism he is attempting to elicit--, but I will. The riveting account of Iraq's atrocious human rights situation, to anyone who listened and felt the words uncynically, was "illustrative", not "decorative". He is answering questions like "What kind of a leader is Saddam?" "Would he REALLY hurt anyone with nukes?" "What has he ever done to forecast this?" "Just what is the danger of not acting?" A laundry list of past crimes against humanity, the sovereignty of his neighbors and his connections to global terrorist cells and networks, illustrates the seriousness of the threat he would pose to the world were he to acquire nuclear weapons of any grade. So the "talk about the torture of children" was not "merely decorative, not serious", it was instructive about Saddam's approach to problem solving, and is very serious.

KINSLEY: "And tell us again why we're about to invade Iraq but we're "working with the countries of the region" to pinion North Korea, which is further along the nuclear trail and can't even be bothered to lie about it. Bush's "axis of evil" coinage last year and recent flagrant North Korean nose-thumbing made it almost impossible for him to avoid addressing this logical conundrum. His solution was artful but mysterious: 'Our nation and the world must learn the lessons of the Korean Peninsula, and not allow an even greater threat to rise up in Iraq.' He seems to be saying that the United States should have invaded and conquered North Korea years ago. But as Bush sets it out, the "lesson" of Korea seems to be that if you don't go to war soon enough, you might have a problem years later that can be solved through regional discussions. That doesn't sound so terrible, frankly. So what exactly is the lesson the Korean experience is supposed to offer?"

SPORK: He begins here with "Tell us again..", implication: we haven't been told at all why North Korea is so similar to Iraq that it offers up "lessons" that we can apply, yet so dissimilar that the two should be treated differently. The differences between the two situations are no secret and are readily available to anyone, especially the chronically curious like MK. The uncreative device Michael uses is not to offer the reader any evidence that there are differences while, then assuming that there are none, simply wonder at the "conundrum" of the differences in the approach to the two situations. Another house of cards built and knocked down by Kinsley himself. It's simply a feigned obliviousness of reasoned and plausible counterpoints that might fetter the otherwise cogent persuasion of his presentation...the better not to have to address them. You can usually spot when an author is using this device by noticing how many question marks litter the essay. Blanks are presented; and since a fully honest thesis might be cluttered with underwhelming vagueness, the blanks are left unfilled.
For instance: The differences may be many, but the "lesson" of North Korea, as Bush presented it, is applicable to Iraq precisely BECAUSE of those differences. Iraq has oil to leverage with, North Korea has nothing, and plenty of it. The U.S. trades with Iraq for their oil, and has agreed to trade with North Korea for their commitment not to have a nuclear weapons program. Iraq occupies central real estate in a troubled region, North Korea is surrounded by China, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan; all major global traders.

North Korea will be dealt with diplomatically because a war with a nuclear power is a dangerous option, and in such cases diplomacy is almost certainly always and forever the default method of engagement. North Korea's bargaining position hasn't changed really; it's still all about WMDs; whether in it's potential to create them or in the potential that it has them. But that's all they have...no oil, no electronics, no contracts for flip-flops...not even bananas. N.K. at worst has a relatively drop-in-the-bucket sized nuclear program that (hopefully and expectantly) can be dealt with by applying pressure from the Democracies that surround it and, most importantly, from China.

Iraq, on the other hand (buffered by a neighborhood of, at best, liberally ambivalent neighbors), possesses a great supply of oil and leadership with a deep abiding hatred of the West. With nuclear weapons and other WMD Saddam can, if he made up his mind to do so, create havoc, economic and political, regionally and even globally. If we were to learn that Saddam has acquired nukes---either by his admission or through our discovery---and our options for engagement thus were to be largely reduced to that same default method of diplomatic negotiation, then the best position we would be in is exactly the one we are in today: attempting to "contain" a prevaricating, stonewalling, murderous sociopath using an under-effective weapons inspection regime in a perpetually inconclusive game of hide-and-seek.
So the "lesson" of North Korea would be that you don't follow the Carter-Clinton weapons-inspection model of wishful finger-crossing and neglect in the hope that your unverified trust in a tyrant is not misplaced.

MK closes the paragraph with a presumed interpretation of Bush's words, that "the 'lesson' of Korea seems to be that if you don't go to war soon enough, you might have a problem years later that can be solved through regional discussions." He then, accepting that this interpretation, from the side of the ledger of SIMILARITIES ("can be solved", as opposed to the obviously intended "unfortunately in the case of North Korea will be attempted to be solved"), announces that he prefers it and wonders again what the "lessons of Korea" could be. The point Bush was making, of course, centered on the DIFFERENCES between the two cases, and is that the "problem" of Saddam is precisely that it CAN'T be solved diplomatically. It hasn't been, it isn't being, and likely wont ever be.

It's interesting that M the Kinsley seems to prefer endless threat, uncertainty and tension to pro-active engagement; the same weak leadership style that kept the Cold War simmering for over four decades.....anyway;
After all that confusion about why Iraq and North Korea were being handled differently, Michael writes this:

KINSLEY: "There are actually plenty of differences between the situation on the Korean Peninsula and the one in the Middle East, and good reasons why you might decide to bring Iraq to a crisis and steer North Korea away from one. But all of these reasons cut against the Manichean notion of an absolute war against an absolute evil called terrorism. Bush is getting terrific credit for the purity and determination of his views on this subject. But either his own views are dangerously simplistic or he is purposely, though eloquently, misleading the citizenry."

SPORK: Wha...? He now concedes that the differences between the Korean and Iraqi situations may indeed demand different approaches, UNLESS you believe, as Bush does, that terrorism is "an absolute evil." (btw, I have no idea who or what "Manichean" refers to, but it's just an offhand metaphoric adjective and if you leave it out, the sentence reads the same.)
We can draw a major conclusion here about Kinsley's world view in that this entire paragraph presumes that moral relativism is synonymous with moral seriousness. The thrust of MK's observation is that since Bush has an idea about the existence of Evil, then Bush ought to combat It identically in all situations (i.e. not by dealing militarily with Iraq while dealing diplomatically with North Korea). While, in the broadest sense, Kinsley must agree that Bush IS, by Bush's definitions, combatting Evil (though in different ways in different circumstances); Kinsley now seems to imply that by combatting Evil in ways tailored to the risk, threat and consequences specific to each situation, Bush (for which "there are plenty of reasons you might want to" [and none offered for why you might NOT want to"]) is compromising his moral consistency and intellectual honesty.
MK concedes that Bush's more complex multifaceted approach is more sound, which must then mean that "evil" is not "absolute", and therefore terrorism cannot honestly be claimed to be "evil". Michael le K, of course, isn't attempting to make the case that "terrorism isn't evil" (that much is supposed to be understood as base a priori knowledge by the sophisticated reader), he is trying to make the case that either Bush's "moral unseriousness" (a belief in absolute evil) is "dangerously simplistic" [which already has been discredited by the admittedly multifaceted, and MK-preferred, approach], or that Bush himself is "misleading the citizenry" when he asserts that evil exists. And this, my friends, is exactly the case the column is attempting to make: the implications of Bush's "morally unserious" belief in Evil. If moral relativism is, as Kinsley holds it to be, the only serious approach to public policy, then Bush's obvious "moral unseriousness" must impugn his entire agenda; foreign and domestic.

KINSLEY: "Proclaiming the case for war as the second half of a speech that devotes it's first 30 minutes to tax cuts and tort reform also makes the call to arms seem morally unserious. Why are we talking about cars that run on hydrogen at all if the survival of civilization is at stake? Bush declared that the best thing to do with government money is to give it back to the taxpayers, and then put on his "compassionate conservative" hat and propose billions in government spending on the environment, AIDS in Africa, a program to train mentors for children of prisoners and on and on. The dollars don't exist to either give back or spend, of course, let alone both, so we'll be borrowing them if Bush has his way, a point he didn't dwell upon."

SPORK: The first sentence accuses Bush's morality (or perhaps just the speech's morality) of being unserious because, as he writes in the second sentence, "the survival of civilization is at stake." Michael does not explain why he "believes" that civilization itself is at stake.....undoubtedly because Bush never made such a claim. It's hyperbole and sarcasm infused to belittle, once again and without coherent argument, the case for war, - tellingly ending with that anti-committal question mark. Unserious.
He then shifts in mid-paragraph to some of the domestic agenda. This, too, is important not for any factual accuracy or inaccuracy, but for the left-liberal character of the language.
For instance: strictly speaking, tax cuts (as opposed to rebates) are not dollars that the government "gives back", they are dollars that are never collected in the first place--and those dollars do exist. The economic theory behind this, which MK does not present, is that tax cuts will put more money in the economy thus growing the economy, creating jobs, creating wealth which expands the tax base which grows revenue. I'm certainly not going to argue that case at length, as trying to figure out just to what degree a tax cut of X$ would instigate meaningful growth gives me a headache.

KINSLEY: "This orgiastic display of democracy's great weakness--a refusal to acknowledge that more of something means less of something else--undermined the moral seriousness of the call to arms and sacrifice that followed."

SPORK: Here is where Michael's left-ness is blinding. By "democracy" he means "capitalism". There is, it's fair to say, a curious misconception that the Left cling to (or maybe just haven't learned to unlearn) about free market economics: that a poor man is poor because a rich man is rich. Kinsley and others will eagerly maintain that in a falling stock market wealth is being lost, but rarely seem to understand that it had to be created in the first place. Economic activity doesn't just shift wealth from place to place in a zero-sum game. The very activity incites productivity--and wealth is created from that labor. Economic growth exists precisely because "more of something" does NOT necessarily means "less of something else."
Again, I don't mention this in order to advocate any particular magnitude of tax cut or spending initiative--I am not an economist, but rather to note how Kinsley offers not even a cursory mention of the economic theory that underlies Bush's proposals.

KINSLEY: "Sneering at the folly of tax cuts spread over several years instead of right away, Bush failed to note that those gradual tax cuts were part of his own previous tax bill."

SPORK: Kinsley finally cites an inconsistency that indeed exists. But since one could argue that as the economic forecast is updated, so should economic initiative. Bush's current proposed tax cut schedule could semantically be called inconsistent from his previous, but it is quite another thing to call it LOGICALLY inconsistent. Michael makes no case that it is, so the sentence makes no case for the column. So the sentence rings true, but hollow.

KINSLEY: "Bragging that he would hold the increase in discretionary spending to 4 per cent a year, it probably didn't occur to Bush to wonder what that figure was under his tax-and-spend Democratic predecessor. Short answer: lower."

SPORK: Michael doesn't mention that Clinton had a Republican congress, nor that Bush's first congress was split and he made some effort to compromise with Daschel's Senate and negotiated a budget increase of, I believe it was 8% (a large increase perhaps, but less than the Senate wanted).

KINSLEY: "These are venial sins in everyday politics, but Bush was striving for something higher. He had the right words for it. But words alone aren't enough."

SPORK: Words are certainly enough to deliver a morally serious address. Assessing the logical consistency and intellectual honesty of a policy speech should inspire the same in the assessor. Just as a true believer in UFOs might scoff at the "inconsistency" and/or "dishonesty" of someone who claimed openly that space aliens never crash-landed in Roswell, New Mexico, Kinsley, in his column, fails to take seriously the lens through which Bush has come to--and has presented--his vision.
Some writers will reject the validity of Bush's base frame of reference, and explain why. It may not occur to some others that different personal perspectives even matter. But Kinsley is smart enough to know these things as he's evidenced by carefully citing Bush's words, creatively assigning arbitrary interpretations to them, and finally re-presenting them through the lens of his own world view. A believer in the Loch Ness monster could be excused for this. But from someone as clever as Michael Kinsley it is seems to be an exercise in unserious, purposeful sophistry, replete with intellectual dishonesty.

Michael Kinsley's text copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company

Posted by Tuning Spork at February 2, 2003 03:42 PM
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