Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Political personalizing

In my view some people, otherwise quite intelligent, watch altogether too much television. In particular, they spend a lot of time in admiring contemplation of the careers and utterances of such TV commentators as Keith Olbermann (well, not any more now, as that firebrand has been fired from MSNBC), Rachel Maddow, and John Stewart. By contrast, they excoriate Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly. I am not sure that any of these six people matter very much.

However, the fixation on them reveals a curious obsession among liberals with regard to personalities, as seen (to take the matter up a notch or two) in ratings of the presidents. Ronald Reagan, bad; Bill Clinton, good. George W. Bush, bad; Barack Obama, good.

Surely this binary thinking ("root, root for the home team") is simplistic, for politics involves much more than getting the right people before the airwaves and in political office. The grubby work of politics encompasses many things: the influence of lobbyists and interest groups; the policies of international corporations; unexpected events such as 9/1. Still, we can all appreciate the interest in colorful individuals, especially those who have, or are thought to have, an important effect our lives.

What is striking about this tendency to personalize is that it plays a major role in a world view that, outwardly at least, is nonelitist and favors process over against contingency. I refer to the Whig concept of history, which views that great narrative as essentially the story of progress, however obstructed it may be from time to time. Today this view survives mostly among people who term themselves, not inaptly, “progressives.” Some are liberals who believe in advance through a gradual process of beneficial change. They differ from the radicals, otherwise their fellow progressives, in that the latter envision that at some points a more forceful, even violent intervention may be required.

Looking at the pattern in its largest terms, the Whig view is that human progress is inevitable. So it has been and so it must be in the future. However, some benighted individuals seek to hold progress back; these are the “reactionaries.” Unfortunately, it seems, this band of would-be wreckers is particularly numerous of late, embracing such figures as Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, John Boehner, Newt Gingrich, and of course all the assorted Tea Party folks. There are also the egregious radio personalities of Rush Limbaugh. Mark Levin, and Michael Savage, as well as the television pundits mentioned above, Beck, Hannity, and O’Reilly.

In the progressive view, none of these villains is particularly smart, though they enjoy a great deal of influence because their conservative audience is even dumber.

Of course many conservatives are not particularly intelligent. To view all of them in this way, though, represents a misunderstanding that has, over the years, brought many disappointments to the progressives. First, it is not at all self-evident that the arrow of time points in only one direction--towards the liberal-left nirvana. In their infinite self-assurance progressives exempt themselves from any study of conservative thought.

All that is necessary, in this view is to get rid of all the Limbaughs and Becks, the Palins and Gingrichs--get rid of them once and for all.

However, to achieve progressive ends, the ones who must be disposed of are an entirely different crew, consisting of such thinkers as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Michael Oakeshott, and Milton Friedman. These giants cannot be easily disposed of, because they live on through their books.



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