Monday, September 01, 2008

The Experience Flip-Flop
Big Bill Kristol
Comments on the Method of Inverse Criticism!

O.k., lemme get this straight: a week ago, vast experience was the most important characteristic a candidate could have--a necessary condition for even being considered for high office.

Today, experience is utterly irrelevant and, heck, maybe even an impediment to success.

Exhibit 1, today's column by big Bill Kristol.

O.k.--Kristol is not what you'd call a paradigm of objectivity, nor of consistency. But he is an exemplar of a certain kind--a bellwether of wingnuttery. So we can expect this to be the official party line from now on: experience is so last week.

This is all utterly daft, of course, but it's a somewhat tricky case for Democrats to make, especially in a national discourse conducted in sound bites. Obama, after all, doesn't have an overwhelming superabundance of experience himself. So Republicans hope to force the Dems into a dilemma that goes like this: you can't attack our candidate's near total lack of experience without indicting your own candidate.

But this dilemma is problematic only if the subject is viewed in the cartoonish terms preferred by the Kristols of the world. The real situation looks something more like this:

Experience in national government is a very important thing, in particular with regard to foreign policy. Barack Obama has it, Palin doesn't. Obama is, for example, on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (for chrissake!). Palin has no foreign policy experience whatsoever. Now, if we're honest, we have to admit that Obama is less experienced than a perfect candidate would be. However: we never get perfect candidates (nor perfect anything elses, for that matter). Every candidate is sub-optimal in various ways, and we have to balance strengths against weaknesses, choosing the best from among the available alternatives. In Obama's case, his other strengths are so rare, so striking, and so overwhelmingly impressive that they more than make up for any weakness he has on the experience front. Obama, as you may have noticed, is sensible, level-headed, knowledgeable, thoughtful, reflective, strikingly intelligent and possessed of unusually good judgment. He's also, by every indication, a good and admirable human being. Long experience is, of course, a desideratum, but only one among many, which must be added to the calculation and balanced against other desiderata. Obama, taken as a whole, is impressively well-qualified to be President, even if he is not optimal in every respect. But it would be the height of foolishness to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the excellent--especially when we consider the actual, non-excellent alternative, rather than ideal alternatives that do not and will never exist. The case becomes even clearer when we recognize that, as it turns out, the alternative to Obama is a man who--experienced and admirable though he might be in many respects--is possessed of notably bad judgment and a decidedly non-Presidential temperament, who has admitted to knowing little about the economy, and who has trouble keeping basic facts about foreign policy straight.

And Palin, as it turns out, has no national experience, has already demonstrated that she knows nothing about foreign policy, and has demonstrated none of the remarkable abilities that Obama possesses. I'm sure that Governor Palin is smart and accomplished and good at what she does, but that is simply not enough to balance out her weaknesses in this case. While Obama's truly extraordinary abilities more than make up for the fact that his time in the Senate has been short, Palin's lesser abilities cannot, sadly, even come close to making up for her near-total lack of relevant national and foreign policy experience.

The Kristols of the world, however, want to ignore the plain fact that we face such calculations in every election, and cartoonify the problem: either experience matters or it doesn't. If matters, then Obama is out, if it doesn't then Palin is in. This is cynical, false, absurd...but, sadly, par for the course.

But Kristol et. al. probably realize all this at some level. So why the BS? Because they aren't, of course, really reasoning about what's going on. Instead of looking at the facts and reasoning toward a conclusion, they are employing a familiar strategy that Jeremiah McCarthy has dubbed "the method of inverse criticism." When we use the MIC, we start with whatever conclusion we prefer, and then frantically assemble whatever reasons we can find that seem to support that conclusion, scrupulously ignoring any evidence, no matter how pertinent, that would weaken the conclusion we want. That is, we conduct inquiry in reverse. It's a method we're all familiar with, and we all, to our shame, use it from time to time.

But the method of inverse criticism is the bread and butter of Kristol & co., and we see it here in spades. In every case we know that their conclusion will be, roughly: you should vote Republican. We may not know which bits of evidence they'll seize on, nor exactly what creative spin they'll apply, but we always know where it will lead them in the end.

It's tedious and infuriating, of course, but there's a lesson in it for us all: don't be like that.

To be human is to err, of course, and we all slip into the method of inverse criticism from time to time. Perfection is not possible. But we can all be better than we usually are about such things. What that means for those of us on this side of the fence this time is: not talking ourselves into believing that the issue of Obama's relatively short experience is, in fact, a non-issue. It is an issue, and it deserves consideration. For what it's worth, my position, stated above, has been constant: though the experience issue is an issue, Obama's other virtues more than trump any concerns on that front.

I could be wrong, of course, and we might discover in the coming weeks that Palin is a truly extraordinary person, whose remarkable intelligence, vast knowledge, great good sense and excellent judgment trump her near-total lack of relevant experience. But I believe that objective observers--that is, observers unlike, say, William Kristol--must admit that this is, to say the least, extraordinarily unlikely.

[Update: Michael Kinsley rocks the point, over at Slate. I think it's a really excellent piece, hitting all the right points, and it's a pleasure to read. A notable 'graph:

The whole "experience" debate is silly. Under our system of government, there is only one job that gives you both executive and foreign-policy experience, and that's the one McCain and Obama are running for. Nevertheless, it's a hardy perennial: If your opponent is a governor, you accuse him or her of lacking foreign-policy experience. If he or she is a member of Congress, you say this person has never run anything. And if, by any chance, your opponent has done both, you say that he or she is a "professional politician." When Republicans aren't complaining about someone's lack of experience, they are calling for term limits.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Method of Inverse Criticism, huh? Seems like an overly complex way to say intellectual dishonesty.

I used to like George Lakoff's approach analyzing narrative, metaphor, etc., until I realized the utter dishonesty in political rhetoric of pro politicians such as Kristol.

The passage you quote from Kinsley is perfect. When will those type of ever-ready critique-for-all-season criticisms be challenged by journalists?

It's late but it strikes me as sort of an inverse of the falsifiability criterion. Do you follow?

1:37 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Well, gav, isn't the MIC just one type of intellectual dishonesty? Other types: ignoring countervailing evidence, intentionally avoiding sources of information likely to provide such evidence.

11:53 AM  

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