Daily Archives: February 9, 2010

Gerard Alexander complains of liberal condescension. Charles Krauthammer agrees, praising America’s bedrock common sense. Jake Weisberg says no, the problem is not condescending liberal politicians (or politicians of any kind, in fact)  but the country’s childish and ignorant masses. Mike Kinsley offers Weisberg support – “brilliantly,” says Weisberg disinterestedly. “Which is more condescending,” asks Kinsley, “to tell citizens they are behaving like children or fools, or to praise them for their ‘bedrock common sense’?”

Far from clarifying the issue, as I think he wished to, Kinsley has obscured it.

The confusion actually starts with Alexander’s use of the term condescension, which is narrower than the complaint he wants to make. To condescend is to patronize. You do not patronize somebody when you call him an idiot, whether it is true or false. That is not condescension. It is, on the other hand, disdain. Alexander used that word too, and probably should have stuck to it. In the main, liberals are not condescending to middle America. But they are very often disdainful.

Condescension is a subset of disdain. A good example was Obama’s understanding remark about bitter voters clinging to guns and religion.

Kinsley says that the main thing is to be honest. I agree. But then he gets muddled. He says that calling somebody stupid is to treat him as an equal. If you are going to test that idea on a stranger, I suggest you choose somebody smaller than yourself. If I frankly told somebody, “You are not my equal,” would that also be treating him as an equal?

True, there is a difference between calling somebody a fool, and telling somebody whom you respect that he has said something foolish. Sensible people, even brilliant columnists, sometimes say stupid things. Is the progressive worldview that middle America is basically wise, but gets some things wrong now and then? Not that I can see. It is that middle America is stupid: parts of it, in fact, would be better fenced off and renamed Dumbistan. But I’m sure progressives who say that mean no disrespect.

In my world, unlike Kinsley’s, calling somebody stupid is to call him your intellectual inferior. Condescension cloaks that sentiment. Saying it straight out, however, is no more of an expression of respectful disagreement. It seems an unproductive way for politicians to talk to people they might wish to represent. Most important, it is likely to end the conversation rather than advance it, if that was something you were interested in doing.

What about conservative condescension? Isn’t it condescending, as Kinsley says, to praise middle Americans for their bedrock common sense? Yes, it would be, if you thought they were stupid, as Kinsley perhaps takes for granted. But I dare say Krauthammer and many conservatives sincerely believe in the bedrock common sense of middle America. (So do I, as it happens.) In that case, they might be wrong, but they are not condescending.

I thought Alexander’s piece, by the way, made many good points but was far too one-sided. Progressives do hold conservatives and their values too much in contempt. But conservatives return the compliment, going light on the accusation of stupidity and doubling down on the charge of wickedness. When it comes to creating a space for discussion, they are no better.

I also think Weisberg is partly right. This column of mine made some similar points. He just gets carried away. Some of his supposedly self-contradictory poll findings aren’t. For instance, he complains that majorities think (a) finance needs heavier regulation and (b) business is already over-regulated. Far from being self-contradictory, that position is correct. I’m for lower taxes; I’m also for smaller deficits; and universal health care. If you want an intelligent answer, ask an intelligent question.

Weisberg is right that America is reluctant to think about the hard fiscal choices it has to make. That is true, and a huge problem. The question is, are voters hopeless, as he says, or would they respond to better leadership? Maybe they would not. Good leadership is, among other things, about being straightforward, framing the issues correctly, and challenging the electorate. Has anybody tried that lately? I agree with Evan Thomas: it might be worth a shot.

Democrats need a latte claque. Joe Queenan, Guardian. Some good observations about the tea party activists, though I disagree that this is “basically Nixon’s silent majority in a less reticent mode”. The silent majority is still silent. It has more important things to be doing than politics.

America is not yet lost. Paul Krugman, NYT. Krugman is absolutely right about political nihilism and Republican abuse of Senate rules. But his apparent nostalgia for “traditions of comity, courtesy, reciprocity, and accommodation” surprises me. That stuff was always bogus, surely. The first rule of politics is you stick it to the enemy every way you can. He’ll be calling for bipartisanship next.

Why China is waging war of words with US. Bill Emmott, Times. It’s a diversionary tactic.

How to do the second stimulus. Roger Altman, FT. Unemployment benefits, tax cuts, tax credits for new jobs; easy on help for the states, and no more infrastructure: the pipeline is already clogged.

A turning point has been reached when in the space of a few days the chief scientist at the UK environment ministry complains about the IPCC’s ever-lengthening list of blunders; the head of Greenpeace UK calls for the IPCC’s head to step down; and, following a series of commendably forthright Guardian pieces on the scandal, The Observer, no less, attacks the Climategate cover-up.

[I]t is bad science and bad politics to counter scepticism with righteous indignation. In the long run, public confidence will be inspired more by frankness about what science cannot explain.

Exactly. My only gloss on that point would be to say that the main damage to the credibility of climate science was done not by the Climategate emails, nor by the principals’ efforts to justify themselves. The main damage was done by the many climate scientists who affected to see nothing troublesome in what was disclosed, and the far larger number who decided it was best to say nothing. That was the really shocking thing. If climate scientists had united in criticising the methods and practices revealed by Climategate, the scandal might very well have fizzled. In saying they saw nothing wrong, they impugned their own work and that of all their colleagues, and brought the whole enterprise under suspicion.

And indeed, as a result, the scandal has widened. Despite the IPCC’s endlessly repeated insistence that it was dutifully reporting nothing but first-rate peer-reviewed science, we now find that it was also scouring a so-called grey literature of mountaineering magazines, activist position papers, and masters dissertations for nuggets of material to support its purpose–which, patently, was not to present policymakers with a disinterested scientific appraisal, but to propagandize for a particular, colossally expensive, course of action. The agency and its work needs root-and-branch reform, not just a new leader.

Matt Ridley’s piece on the role blogs played in all this is very good. Everything he says is right.

When Climategate broke, the mainstream media… mostly ran dismissive pieces reflecting the official position of the Consensus. For example, they dutifully repeated the line that the University of East Anglia’s global temperature record was vindicated by two other ‘entirely independent’ records (from Nasa and NOAA), which was bunk: all three records draw from the same network of weather stations. Editors then found — by reading and counting the responses on their blog pages — that there was huge and educated interest in Climategate among their readers. One by one they took notice and unleashed their sniffing newshounds at last: the Daily Express went first, then the Mail and the Sunday Times, last week the Times and this week even the Guardian.

For those few mainstream journalists who had always been sceptical — like Christopher Booker — it must be a strange experience, like being relieved after living behind enemy lines. Who knows, one day even BBC News may ask tough questions. But it was the bloggers who did the hard work.

By all means, credit where it’s due–but it is not enough to praise the bloggers, salute the carcase of the IPCC, and move on. Policymakers need a repaired IPCC, not a discredited IPCC nobody believes. This is something governments need to attend to urgently. And in attending to it, they should acknowledge how deeply implicated they are in the IPCC’s failure. The panel gave them what they wanted. Give us the useful science, governments said. Give us a clear message; let’s not dwell on stuff that’s unhelpful. If governments had wanted disinterested science, without the cosmetic surgery, they could have insisted on it. They are very much to blame for the whole mess.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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