02 June 2008

Bill Kristol Turns His Own Special Brand of Idiocy Into a Terribly Flawed Defense of Military Service.

In case you are wondering, Bill Kristol is still an ideologue. That maybe explains why he is more or less incapable of clear thought. He may not be a complete idiot, but you cannot tell from what he publishes. The New York Times should never have hired him; he single-handedly lowers the average intelligence of essays in their opinion section. Consider his piece today - "What Obama Left Out" - where he opines on a commencement address that Barak Obama delivered at Wesleyan University "on the theme of service to our country."

Let's leave aside the unsubtle title. Perhaps we can blame that on Kristol's editors. But no one ever mistook Kristol himself for being subtle. So we'll likely never know. Let's leave aside too the fact that Obama was delivering the address as a stand-in for a Senate colleague who today is undergoing surgery for what might well be a fatal brain tumor. We should not expect a bullshitter like Kristol to have any sense of propriety; after all he is waging an ideological campaign. And no one would expect him to allow let a big old dollop pure unadulterated bad taste stand in the way of taking some cheap shots. Let's focus instead on the hypocrisy and sophistry of the case Kristol presents.

Bill is all worked up about what he calls "Obama’s sin of omission." It seems - and I have not read the text of Obama's remarks so we'll have to rely on Kristol's characterization - that in a speech about the value of public service, Obama failed to pay proper obeisance to military service as the most important form of public service. With one hand Kristol begins by paying Obama a compliment.
The speech was skillfully crafted and well delivered, the grace notes were graceful, and the exhortations to public service seemed heartfelt but not cloying.

The speech was a success. It’s also revealing — about Obama’s view of himself and of public service.
Unsurprisingly Kristol snatches his compliment back with the other hand by more or less immediately calling into question Obama's motivations and service and sacrifice. For now, though, let's keep our eye on Kristol's hypocrisy. There will be time enough to address his total inability to frame a plausible argument. He proceeds:

But at an elite Northeastern college campus, Obama obviously felt no need to disturb the placid atmosphere of easy self-congratulation. He felt no need to remind students of a different kind of public service — one that entails more risks than community organizing. He felt no need to tell the graduating seniors in the lovely groves of Middletown that they should be grateful to their peers who were far away facing dangers on behalf of their country

Nor did Obama choose to mention all those college graduates who are now entering the military, either for a tour of duty or as a career, in order to serve their country. He certainly felt no impulse to wonder whether the nation wouldn’t be better off if R.O.T.C. were more widely and easily available on elite college campuses.

Obama failed to challenge — even gently — what he must have assumed would be the prejudices of much of his audience and indulged in a soft patriotism of low expectations.

The stench here is overwhelming. A really obvious question pops to mind almost immediately. Has Bill Kristol or any of the other ideologues he hangs with ever worn a military uniform except to a costume party? As is by now well-known, that goes for nearly every single one of Kristol's heroes in the Bush administration too. And it goes, too, for all the kids and grandkids of all the people he hangs with and admires. Those kids and grandkids are the youngsters who do now, or eventually will, inhabit what the Harvard-educated Kristol derides as "elite college campuses."*

It is easy enough to visualize the curl in Kristol's lip as he repeatedly spits out the word "elite." Here we have Kristol playing the anti-intellectual for the masses. But the children of the masses are the ones who must rely on ROTC or service in the National Guard to fund college in the first place. By contrast, the friends of Bill and their offspring rely on Daddy's contacts to get into elite colleges and on Daddy's money (or scholarships from the foundations of Daddy's right-wing underwriters) to fund their studies.

A second really obvious question: has Biill Kristol or any of the other ideologues he hangs with ever taken any risk or made any significant sacrifice for a public spirited end? Before you answer "Yes, of course. They all write for not-for-profit publications all the time," remember that the whole right-wing echo chamber in which Bill plays is a pit of nepotism funded by various right wing foundations [1]. Bill and his chums always had the safety net of nepotism to catch them if they fell. There is no risk if Daddy and his rich friends are underwriting your glossy magazines. And there is no risk if you don't ever, ever have to worry about anyone among the uninitiated (e.g., a non con-neocon-libertareon or whatever variety of right-winger) being in a position to prevent (due, say, to lack of reason or evidence) the pablum you write from seeing print. So, for Kristol to take graduates of Wesleyan or any other college to task for not taking a risk is a real howler.

Those questions are indeed obvious. So much so that I thought of leaving them too to one side. Sometimes, though, it is impossible to resist calling a hypocrite a hypocrite. Bill Kristol is a hypocrite. But enough of that. Let's move on to his sieve-like arguments. Here is the passage where Kristol tries to snatch back his opening compliment:

Obama chooses to introduce the notion of public service from an autobiographical point of view. In college, he explains, “I began to notice a world beyond myself.” So while his friends were seeking jobs on Wall Street, he applied for jobs as a grass-roots activist. And one day, a group of churches in Chicago offered him a job as a community organizer for “$12,000 a year plus $2,000 for an old, beat-up car.”

“And I said yes.”

Those four words form their own paragraph in the prepared text. Obama wants us to be impressed by the drama of his spurning the big bucks, by his bold acceptance of such a pittance of money in order that he could do good.

Leave aside the fact that two years elapsed between Obama’s graduation from Columbia in 1983 and his heading off to Chicago in 1985. Dramatic foreshortening is, after all, sometimes necessary. And leave aside whether $14,000 in 1985 was really such a shockingly low salary for someone recently out of college — in inflation-adjusted dollars, it’s about what we pay entry-level editorial assistants today at The Weekly Standard.

Obama’s point is that he went on to do good in Chicago — and that the college graduates to whom he’s speaking should follow in his exemplary footsteps. Of course, most politicians do admire themselves and their excellent careers. So perhaps one shouldn’t make too much of Obama’s sin of self-regard.

First a simple fact that Bill might've discerned by glancing at Wikipedia (he might've then set the crack fact checkers at The Times loose to find out if the entry is accurate). Obama reportedly spent at least part of the two year period between when he graduated and when he headed off to the South Side working for the New York Public Interest Research Group. Notice that Bill complains that Obama didn't go directly into public service upon graduation. But, were you to look up 'do-gooders' in the dictionary, I'd wager the entry refers directly to such Naderite groups. Obama spent the remainder of the period that so galls Kristol, working for what looks like a consulting/publishing outfit at which he likely made a reasonable salary. But do we need to know that Obama took a salary cut to try, as Kristol puts it, to "do good?" At best, Kristol is here continuing a widely recognized pattern of incredibly sloppy "research" [2] [3] into the topics he opines about. At worst, and I suspect, more likely, he knows what I've just pointed out and simply decided to bullshit his editors and readers.

Second, note the tendentious comparisons Bill constructs. One appears in the initial passage I cited above where Kristol alludes to "public service" of the sort "that entails more risks than community organizing." Here he is winding up to sing the praises of military service. But notice that when Obama graduated from college in 1983 there was no particularly pressing need for another young black man to join the military. There was no war on. And conservatives were singing the praises of the 'all volunteer' military. (The contrast to the older Kristol who never came close to Vietnam is especially stark here.)

A second ridiculous comparison concerns the question of just what sort of sacrifice Obama made by heading to the South Side. Controlling for inflation, Kristol compares Obama's then $14K plus salary to the pittance Kristol himself apparently now pays entry level help at his own rag, The Weekly Standard. Setting aside the waste of youthful idealism that working for that outlet involves, this is an idiotic comparison. The relevant comparison would be to what Obama might've made if, instead of taking up the job of organizing, he'd gone to work for an investment firm or headed straight to law school. What would Obama have made during the four years he was in Chicago if he had been a graduate of Harvard or some other "elite" law school? What Kristol seems to be interested in doing is diminishing Obama's record. His effort, though, simply reveals what a hack he truly is.

I would not accept the sort of faulty evidence or reasoning that Kristol peddles here from students in my advanced undergraduate classes (I am unsure where Rochester counts as "elite" or not, though). And, unfortunately, we have not even gotten to the premise of Kristol's argument, namely that non-military public service is somehow deficient as compared to military service.

Kristol never defends this premise. In fact, he never states it. But unless it holds, the entire structure of his screed collapses. It is pathetic that in this country the only way to gain honor is through military service. That, to be sure, is one way one might do so. But what about kids engaged in Teach for America or the Peace Corps or any one of a number of less well known and even more ridiculously underfunded "public interest" programs? Is Kristol trying to say that those kids should've volunteered to head off to fight in the BushCo foreign policy disasters?

I have several former students in the military. They are terrific, smart, idealistic young men and women. I also have students doing Teach for America - at least two of whom are in New Orleans, the locus of yet another of BushCo's disasters. They too are terrific, smart, idealistic young men and women. On what grounds can Kristol justify even tacitly calling their service into question? If he cannot offer a plausible answer that question he should be fired.
* I would love to know whether Kristol had a selective service deferment while he was at Harvard in the early-to-mid 1970s. Kristol graduated from a private high school in 1970 and from Harvard in 1973 - roughly the time when conscription was ended. He loathed elite educational institutions so much then that, after going to prep school and spending three undergrad years at Harvard, he re-enlisted to get his PhD there too. What a terrible, risky sacrifice he made!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This guy is absolutely vile. It blows the mind to think of how many platforms this hack has available to him to air his worthless two cents -- NY Times, Fox News, Charlie Rose, CSPAN, and the various rightwing medias. It's really a farce.

03 June, 2008 23:37  
Anonymous dixieflyer said...

I actually don't think you've been the least bit unfair here (sometimes I do). Kristol never hesitates to blurb out the party line in his talking head mode, and writes poorly composed garbage as an editorialist. I usually find it somewhat stimulating to hear or read someone like David Brooks, and even used to enjoy Safire, but Kristol is a really poor choice for the Times.

05 June, 2008 14:37  

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