OUTLOOK RIDES AGAIN: How bad is the Washington Posts Outlook section? Yesterday, the section led with its latest groaner—this daft analysis of the two types of generations which have supposedly driven American politics over the past two hundred years. Kevin Drum has mordantly summarized so that we dont have to:
DRUM (2/3/08): Guess what? Were about to enter a Joshua generation.
According to Morley Winograd and Michael Hais in the Washington Post today, there have been three elections in American history that ushered in an era of dominance by a "Moses" or idealist generation: 1828, 1896, and 1968. "Members of idealist generations embroil the nation in heated debates on divisive social issues as they try to enact their own personal morality and causes through the political process."
Likewise, there have been two elections that ushered in a "Joshua" or civic generation: 1860 and 1932. "Civic generations react against the idealist generations' efforts to use politics to advance their own moral causes and focus instead on reenergizing social, political and government institutions to solve pressing national issues." We're due for another civic generation to take over this year.
In context, this piece served as an endorsement of Obama, though that isnt Obamas fault. But ignore the apparent political shaping. Lets review the type of work that now routinely leads Outlook.
Winograd and Hais seem to have remarkably active imaginations. American history suggests that about every 80 years, a civic (or Joshua) generation, emerges to make over the country after a period of upheaval caused by the fervor of an idealist (or Moses) generation, they excitedly tell us. Members of the idealist generations try to impose their diametrically opposed ideas, values and morality on everyone else through the political process. And then, along come those civic generations, whose members react against the idealist generations' efforts...and focus instead on reenergizing social, political and government institutions to solve pressing national issues.
This theory seems vastly improbable on its face (more below). But how absurd are the authors willing to be as they sketch their theory of history? Consider the following paragraph, in which the authors rhapsodize about the civic conduct which got its start in 1860! No, we did not make this up:
WINOGRAD AND HAIS (2/3/08): Civic generations react against the idealist generations' efforts to use politics to advance their own moral causes and focus instead on reenergizing social, political and government institutions to solve pressing national issues. Previous civic realignments occurred in 1860, with the election of Abraham Lincoln, and in 1932, when the GI generation put Roosevelt in office. It's no coincidence that these "civic" presidents, along with George Washington, top all lists of our greatest presidents. All three led the country in resolving great crises by inspiring and guiding new generations and revitalizing and expanding the federal government.
A civic realignment occurred in 1860? No doubt, the authors refer to the subsequent, four-year period known as the Civic War. Meanwhile, note the way the authors scold the prior idealist generation—the generation which supposedly came into sway in 1832:
WINOGRAD AND HAIS: Because idealist generations are unwilling to compromise on moral issues, they've always failed to solve the major social and economic problems of their eras. In the decades after the 1828 election, the country was pulled apart over slavery, ultimately leading to the Civil War. After the 1896 campaign, the United States couldn't find a way to help blue-collar workers and farmers to share fully in the wealth generated by the Industrial Revolution. It took the Great Depression to usher in the sense of urgency that led to Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.
Were both sides supposed to compromise on the moral issue of slavery? To call this work impossibly daft is to be far too kind.
But we liked one point best. What created those idealist generations? As Tommy Smothers used to complain, Mother loved them best!
WINOGRAD AND HAIS: Reared by indulgent parents and driven by deeply held values as adults, members of idealist generations embroil the nation in heated debates on divisive social issues as they try to enact their own personal morality and causes through the political process. (Remember that boomer-era rallying cry, "The personal is political"?) In the idealist eras that began in 1828 and 1896, the nation divided between the forces of tradition and those advancing a more modern approach to morality. In 1828, Andrew Jackson's Democrats gave rural traditionalism a victory. In 1896, the tables were turned as Mark Hanna, the Karl Rove of his day, guided Republican William McKinley to victory over William Jennings Bryan and his agricultural allies, on behalf of industrial-age companies and their urban workers.
Good God! Leading up to 1828, American parents had been too indulgent. Then, for forty years, they were not—and so on, down through the ages. On its face, that theory seems impossibly daft—and the authors make no attempt to defend it. But this sort of blather has been quite common in Outlook in the past year. Often, such pieces carry political sub-texts. Then too, they often do not.
Thanks to their non-indulgent parents, Americans began to compromise with each other—in 1860! Sorry, but democracy simply cant work when press elites reason like that.
PHILOSOPHER FOSER: Weve often recommended Jamison Fosers weekly essay at Media Matters. But his post on Friday was so superior that all the analysts whistled and cheered, then fell over, barking and howling, on the uncovered ground. In the main, Foser critiqued a question posed by Wolf Blitzer at Thursdays Democratic debate. (No, it isnt the question, posed to Clinton, which brought boos and cat-calls from the audience.) We strongly recommend that you read Fosers piece—then dream how your world might have been.
Because no, the world in which you actually live doesnt resemble the world of this piece. In his critique, Foser displays the kind of analytical skill that we almost never observe at our liberal journals or among our liberal intellectual leaders—or for that matter, among the thinkers who rob American parents of tuition money on behalf of philosophy departments.
In Fridays piece, we get a Philosopher Foser; he displays the kind of analytical skill that belongs to the discipline once known as logic. But today, liberal intellectual leaders rarely display such skills. As an example, consider this post—from The Department of Wild Speculation—authored by the Atlantics Josh Green.
Might we start with an obvious point? Labeling something a wild speculation doesnt mean that it isnt a wild speculation. And intelligent people typically try to avoid such pointless endeavors. But so what? Green offered his wild musings all the same, and his effort was quickly linked by TNRs Michael Crowley, then by that journals Noam Scheiber. Scheiber completely failed to note the obvious problem with Greens speculation. Crowley seems to have noticed the gap in Greens piece. But when he does, he makes a sad attempt to address it.
Why doesnt Al Gore endorse Obama? For ourselves, we dont have the slightest idea—but thats the question Green is asking himself in his wild speculation. In his piece, Green puzzles long and hard, wondering why Gore wont endorse Obama. Sadly, though, he doesnt consider two obvious possible answers:
Just as a matter of simple logic, youd think those possibilities would occur to anyone. But not down here in Liberal Land! Down here, those fairly obvious thoughts dont seem to have entered Greens head. To his credit, Crowley does note the omission; as he links to Greens piece, he offers this: I'll add a key point obvious to insiders but perhaps not to everyone: There is no love lost between Gore and Hillary. But then, as proof of this obvious point, he links to a piece by repulsive Sally Bedell Smith, an uber-insider Democrat-trasher. Trust us: Smith knows as much about Gores state of mind as you know about the rocket fuel formula currently driving the space shuttle program. But so what? Thats how Crowley patches up the obvious gap in Greens thinking.
Egads! Watching these intellectual leaders reason, we get a look at the future of liberal politics. And then, we turn to Harold Meyerson, whose latest effort helps us see the actual shape of our liberal world. Last Friday, Foser offered cool clear reason—but it plays little role in your world.
TOMORROW: Gag us! With notable friends like Harold Meyersons, who needs Republican hit-men?
THE PRECEDING QUESTION: In his piece, Philosopher Foser examines the following question by Blitzer. It was jointly posed to Obama and Clinton:
BLITZER (1/31/08): I just want to be precise. When you let—if you become president, either one of you—let the Bush tax cuts lapse, there will be effectively tax increases on millions of Americans.
Foser offers a brilliant critique of that unfortunate question. But just for the record, the question asked directly before it was also tendentiously framed:
BLITZER: Senator Clinton, your health care plan, it is estimated, will cost $110 billion annually. You want to tax the rich to pay for that, is that what you're saying?
Clinton wants to tax the rich? Thats a highly tendentious way of paraphrasing what Clinton is saying.
We all can dream of a better world—a world in which aggressive, skilled liberals critique such work by the mainstream press. But after ten years at this miserable beat, we think the facts are abundantly clear. We live in a vastly different world—a world where liberal interests will always be disadvantaged, thanks to Harold Meyersons friends.