Thursday, September 17, 2009

McArdle's Crusade

Megan McArdle finds it funny that Nancy Pelosi is worried about political violence. I'm not sure which element tickles McArdle's funny bone. Maybe it's Pelosi's request that public officials speak responsibly. Maybe it's Pelosi's embarrassing and uncool emotional sincerity. Perhaps it's that Pelosi is soooo amazingly old that she actually remembers the Mayor of San Francisco's thigh-slappingly funny murder. (Can you imagine being that old? Silly grandma!)

McArdle has titled her comic response "There Will Be Blood," thereby establishing her credentials for highly literate snark. It follows in its entirety:

I'm not sure what Nancy Pelosi is trying to say in this video. Is she furthering the largely unsubstantiated claim that the American right is planning a reign of terror? Or is she trying to tell us that Owosso was just the beginning? Either way, this doesn't seem like it's adding much to the national conversation.

McArdle does have a remarkable talent for crowding slippery debating tactics into a limited space, a kind of spin doctor's haiku. In four sentences she's got at least two straw men, some misleading rhetorical questions, an appeal to moral equivalence: a post like this requires one an elaborate and unwholesome genius. There isn't time enough in the world to deal with every one of McArdle's pithy distortions, but I'd note the two biggest ones. First she treats Pelosi's worry about unbalanced people taking political rhetoric too seriously as a conspiracy theory about an organized "reign of terror" by "the right" as a whole. Easy to refute that one, isn't it, Megan? (That McArdle considers her own fantastic straw man only "largely unsubstantiated" is rather chilling.)

McArdle's second big move is the your-side-does-it-too riposte, familiar from school yards, street corners and protracted civil wars the world over. By bringing up the murder of a pro-life activist in Owosso, McArdle implies that it is really the liberals who are killing the conservatives, or that both sides are equally violent, or some other idea which McArdle seems to think wins her a debating point.

Of course, Pelosi did not denounce violence by the right. She denounced violence, full stop:

I wish we would all curb our enthusiasm in some of the statements and understand that some of the ears that it is falling on are not as balanced as the person making the statements might assume.

Pelosi's appeal to responsible speech, explicitly aimed at a universalized "we" than any specific or partisan "they," warning that overheated rhetoric can be misunderstood by the unbalanced, has immediately been taken by the conservative media as an unjust accusation against conservatives. That response speaks like a thunderclap. When saying things that excitable lunatics might misunderstand feels like a core value of your movement, your movement should disband.

In McArdle's world, of course, there is no such thing as a non-partisan statement. Pelosi says "we" and McArdle hears "you." McArdle's snark about Owosso presumes that Pelosi would not be bothered by the senseless murder of a protester on the right. But Pelosi said no such thing; it is McArdle who cannot imagine anyone mourning violence against an ideological opposite.

The question of violence has been on McArdle's mind intermittently over the last few months, including her repeated defense of people bringing guns to Obama speeches, and her thought experiment about the moral coherence of murdering abortion providers:

Now I can move onto the observation that if you actually think late-term abortion is murder, then the murder of Dr. Tiller makes total sense.

Of course, McArdle never explicitly advocates murder. She identifies herself as pro-choice. She calls bringing guns to public events "counterproductive." McArdle merely urges us to accept murder as reasonable. Not that she would ever do such a thing, of course. She simply demands that people who would, and people who have, be treated as serious contributors to the public debate. In McArdle's world brandishing a weapon, or even using that weapon to kill another human being, should not discredit one's beliefs.

This strange fixation on McArdle's part, her crusade make sure the armed and even the violent are not penalized in the public debate, helps explain her hostility to Pelosi. An appeal for responsible speech, for considering the consequences of one's words, is anathema to McArdle; she seems to believe that ideas must always be judged upon their abstract and intrinsic merits, rather than on their material consequences, and still less on the behavior of their adherents. It would offend McArdle heartily if an idea that seemed to her logical and consistent were discredited simply because its advocates were violent or anti-social. She demands that ideas be judged only as ideas, and for McArdle an idea doesn't become any less true, beautiful or good just because someone who believes in it kills someone who didn't.

Thus Pelosi's obvious emotion, the tears that unexpectedly started welling when she recalled the bloody deaths of people she had known and worked with, evidently struck McArdle as tasteless or ridiculous. That sort of thing, as Jay Gastby put it, is "only personal." And that Pelosi appealed to her own lived experience must have struck McArdle, for whom politics is a long series of seminar-room hypotheticals, as uncouth. McArdle values being "contrarian," by which she means offering logically valid arguments with surprising conclusions; these conclusions are often surprising because they are at odds with the experience of living in the world. McArdle doesn't view guns at public assemblies as dangerous, because for her guns are primarily ideas. And whether or not guns are dangerous is a question to resolve with a syllogism, before moving on to another observation.

Movement conservatives have been working hard since 1980 to build their presence on college campuses, and groom a new generation of conservative thinkers and pundits. McArdle is one of the fruits of their success: focused on winning adversarial debates, favoring abstract logic over experience and snark over sobriety, not only thriving on a polarized atmosphere but insisting on one. McArdle still argues in the ad hoc style of dorm rooms and dining halls: facile, punchy, never overly burdened by research. She is bright. But her intelligence is focused on winning games. When someone gestures to something bigger than the partisan game, she can only hear a play for partisan advantage. When Nancy Pelosi talks about avoiding violence, McArdle can only understand that as a ploy. McArdle is so blinkered cannot imagine that avoiding civil bloodshed might be valuable to people on both sides of the aisle. She cannot see what is in it for her. Megan McArdle is still a sophomore, in the most literal meaning of the word: a bright and highly-educated fool.

crossposted at

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