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William Saletan’s Discourse Problem


William Saletan makes a feeble attempt to defend the worthless “Kerryisms” column. I particularly like this bit of disingenuousness:

Another blogger, Eugene Volokh, gets the joke and doesn’t like it. “Another possibility is that ‘Kerryisms’ has evolved into an attempt to show simply that Kerry uses a lot of qualifiers, instead of giving very simple answers,” Volokh writes. “But often, as in this case, the right answer isn’t simple. It’s actually not terribly complex, but it’s not one-word simple. Is it really good to fault a politician for refusing to oversimplify?”

That’s a good and fair question. I prefer to let each reader decide for herself, case by case. I should have explained the general idea more clearly. Now I have. The rest of the judgments are up to you.

Oh, right, no criticism or judgment is implied by devoting a whole fucking column to this. Sure. If Saletan doesn’t think it matters, why is he bothering?

Part of the problem may be Saletan’s tendency to overstate the power of political discourse and wedge politicians and political movements into excessively narrow frames. His book, Bearing Right, has a serious problem with this. His argument is that the pro-choice movement won the abortion battle but lost the war, because defining abortion in terms of individual autonomy caused conservatives to win elsewhere. The first problem with this is that it overstates the internal consistency of political rhetoric. The thing is, conservatism, even in the U.S., hardly speaks entirely in terms of individual freedom; it often uses communatarian and collective rhetoric, emphasizing the importance of nation, family, community, and tradition. Using an effective individualist argument in one place doesn’t preclude you from using other types of arguments elsewhere.

But the more important problem is that the whole argument is nuts on its face. The right didn’t come to power because of a slight shift in the way activists made arguments in favor of reproductive freedom. The result of using collectivist arguments to defend abortion, making it a welfare issue, would have been 1)an erosion of abortion rights, with 2)nothing else changed. Does Saletan seriously think that the Great Society would have continued to expand if abortion had just been defended differently? He basically gets cause and effect backward. Framing abortion in terms of choice didn’t create the political context; it was just an effective reaction to it. This argument is almost as silly as the idea that the number of subordinate clauses John Kerry uses is of the slightest relevance to his qualifications to be President. Saletan’s column is just a slightly more respectable compliment to Mickey Kaus’s pathological ramblings about John Kerry’s hair and Alexandra Kerry’s breasts.

UPDATE: More from Hullabaloo.

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