View From Inside the Tank

Perpetually overrated New Yorker word-sculptor Hendrik "Rik" Hertzberg provides a nifty demonstration of what it's like to take every Barack Obama utterance not just at face value, but as a harbinger of all that may yet be right and redemptive in this fallen world of ours. Here's one paragraph of Hertzberg's sustained burst of applause in response to Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress.

For some thirty years, the American political conversation has been dominated by a strain of ideological conservatism that wields market fundamentalism as a sword and cultural populism as a shield. In this speech, the President began to take up the task of reintroducing the public to what once was called, and one day may again be called, liberalism. He would have been perfectly within his rights to focus blame for the nation's condition on his predecessor and his predecessor's party, but he made a different choice. (The closest he came was when he said, "A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future.") Instead, he spoke of "we"—of a common responsibility for the past and the future alike. He was able to anticipate and soothe the reflexive emotions of his opponents while explaining, in undogmatic yet value-laden terms, why the times demand a decisive departure from an essentially amoral exaltation of individual success. "Dropping out of high school is no longer an option," he said. "It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country." That admonition, which won applause from both sides of the aisle, was not directed solely, or even primarily, at the young and underprivileged. It was a metaphorical call to duty and a redefinition of patriotism.

Jacob Sullum on the metaphorical implications of the "quitting on your country" line here.

At the risk of taking Hertzberg more seriously than he deserves (yet far less seriously than his fanclub in the media), I'll note just one of many correctable errors in his star-struck evaluation: "Market fundamentalism" (a catchy insult popularized by armchair philosopher George Soros after he developed the world's most expensive case of winner's remorse) was buried by the modern Republican Party in 1999, when the presidential primary process winnowed the field down to two candidates running explicitly against that concept: John "National Greatness Conservatism" McCain, and George "Compassionate Conservatism" Bush. The 43rd president didn't come into office championing the "amoral exaltation of individual success," but rather a big new federal program to (ostensibly) improve public education in order to provide better opportunities for minorities and the poor. Bush's budgets, as readers here have heard ad nauseum, demonstrated more philosophical affinity to Lyndon Johnson than Ayn Rand. If Republicans have belatedly rediscovered the joys of limited government and capitalism, it's a sure sign they're no longer in power.

Read Obama's whole speech here; my less-charitable reaction to it can be found here.

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  • Warty||

    word-sculptor

    Ugh. At least you didn't call him a wordsmith, I guess.

  • ||

    If Republicans have belatedly rediscovered the joys of limited government and capitalism, it's a sure sign they're no longer in power.

    Amen and Amen.
    Matt you should make that a running thread title. Like Radley does with "isolated indecent".

  • Matt Welch||

    At least you didn't call him a wordsmith

    There was an intended tone of mockery.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    "At the risk of taking Hertzberg more seriously than he deserves, ...."

    I'm sorry, Matt, but by mentioning Hendrik at all, you've already committed that most grievous sin.

  • ||

    That reminds me. Whatever happened to hack watch? Recent budgetary and appointment shenanigans in DC have been a festival of hackery.

    Why, just last week, the new Solicitor General to be refused to answer questions about her substantive legal views, as if she were up for Justice, contradicting her earlier written position.

  • Warty||

    There was an intended tone of mockery.

    Oh, I picked up on that. It seems I need to practice my wordcrafting some more.

  • ||

    It seems I need to practice my wordcrafting some more.

    You only rate as a word-sculptor, I'm afraid. Don't blame me, blame your mother for being raped by The Comedian.

  • Warty||

    Yo, fuck Epi's wordperversion.

  • Matt Welch||

    I'm sorry, Matt, but by mentioning Hendrik at all, you've already committed that most grievous sin.

    Fair enough.

  • Tim Cavanaugh||

    The word mage Hertzberg's own god disagrees with his version of history:

    "I did think it might be useful to point out that it wasn't under me that we started buying a bunch of shares of banks. It wasn't on my watch. And it wasn't on my watch that we passed a massive new entitlement -- the prescription drug plan -- without a source of funding. And so I think it's important just to note when you start hearing folks throw these words around that we've actually been operating in a way that has been entirely consistent with free-market principles and that some of the same folks who are throwing the word 'socialist' around can't say the same."

  • ||

    For just how fucking long are we going to have to listen to Obama whine about what the previous administration did?

  • ||

    For just how fucking long are we going to have to listen to Obama whine about what the previous administration did?

    Until you all get it through your thick skulls that nothing that happens could ever be his fault. So, ultimately, the whining is your fault.

  • ||

    undogmatic yet value-laden terms

    So *that's* what they call it, in polite society.

  • Warty||

    RC, that will happen .01 seconds after things start to improve, or after Obama ritually strangles Bush at the Mamertine. Whichever comes first.

  • raul duke||

    Most of the population is so caught up in Obamamania that you can't say anything negative about him without losing the thread of a conversation. Say something negative about Obmamassiah and you're immediately a Bush lover. (Let me say it again here: GWB was a failure of HISTORIC proportions).

    Matt's point about "market fundamentalism" gives an important talking point that may, may, give you a chance to have a complete conversation with someone outside your realm of thinking. Remember: to make an impact politically you must change opinions of others...

    to R C Dean: Obama hasn't had to open the second envelope yet (Google: Three Envelopes Joke).

  • ||

    At the risk of taking Hertzberg more seriously than he deserves (yet far less seriously than his fanclub in the media)...

    But Matt, it's so well written. It's the New Yorker!

    And yet, you know there is a mass of lefties at home, reading his confirmation-bias screed and alternating between slight nods of their heads in complete agreement and slowly shaking their heads side-to-side in disgust.

    Besides, you can't have reality intruding on the meme. The narrative of Bush-as-free-marketeer must be maintained at all costs! This is war damnit!

  • Mike Laursen||

    ... a nifty demonstration of what it's like to take every Barack Obama utterance not just at face value, but as a harbinger of all that may yet be right and redemptive in this fallen world of ours.

    That's nothin'. Read the ACLU newsletter lately?

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