News & Criticism

View From Inside the Tank

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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.