Entry from November 4, 2003

Only One, Michael?

Not long ago, the Washington Post headlined an op-ed piece by Michael Kinsley: “One Reason not to Like Bush.” I had the same reaction that I did to the New York Review of Books screamer promising “Paul Krugman on Bush’s Lies” or some such. Did the headline writer suppose that this was the first time Krugman was going public with a charge of lying against the President. If you’re interested in Paul Krugman on Bush’s Lies — as I’m sure lots of people are — you only have to turn to the op ed page of the New York Times Tuesdays and Fridays (for other columnists on Bush’s lies, see the other days). In the same way, there are probably lots of reasons not to like Bush, and if there are any I don’t already know of I am sure they are known to Michael Kinsley. But why promise just one when every other week you’ve got at least two or three? Who reads such a column but Bush haters eager to think there may be a reason he hasn’t thought of yet? Wouldn’t there be more news value in a column, by Kinsley, headed “One Reason to Like Bush”? It is the outrage of expectation — man bites dog and so forth — that makes for news. But expectation in American journalism has been taking a long nap and, I fear, may never wake up again.

As it happens, I am not surprised to find that Kinsley’s reason not to like Bush is a reason for me to like him — though it might make a fellow dislike Kinsley. It is that Bush has not approved wider experimentation on embryonic stem cells so that medical science can race the more quickly to cure one M. Kinsley of his Parkinson’s disease. In his eagerness for the cure, Kinsley jumps to the conclusion that “the factual basis” on which Bush made the decision he made about stem cells has turned out to be “faulty.” But of course there was no “factual basis” — you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is” — but only a number of factual circumstances and consequences, among which are the fact that the existing “lines” of stem cells aren’t getting to Michael’s cure fast enough.

Anyway, he says, “Bush”s moral anguish was suspect from the beginning,” since he “cannot possibly believe that embryos are full human beings, or he would surely oppose modern fertility procedures that create and destroy many embryos for each baby they bring into the world.” But there is nothing logically inconsistent in supporting fertility clinics and opposing a process that would inevitably lead to the creation of some human lives solely in order that their tissue could be harvested for the benefit of other human lives. The moral case depends not on any “factual basis” of which stem cells are more efficacious in creating medicines but the good Kantian principle that people must not be treated as means to some end outside themselves.

But here’s another reason not to like Kinsley. When Jay Lefkowitz of theWhite House Domestic Policy Council wrote in the Post criticizing some of the “factual basis” of Kinsley’s column, the latter fired back with his (and Krugman’s) all-purpose taunt against Bush: “Dishonesty.” Indeed, he actually gets a nice columnar generalization out of it. Lefkowitz’s dishonesty is typical of a whole line of dishonesty that Kinsley, like a stem-cell researcher himself, has discovered:

The distinguishing feature of modern Washington dishonesty is that it is almost transparent, barely intended to deceive. It uses true-ish factoids to construct an implied assertion about reality that is not just false but preposterous. Modern Washington dishonesty is more like a kabuki ritual than a realistic, Western-style performance. The goal is not to persuade but merely to create an impression that there are two sides to the question without actually having to supply one of them.

Hm, very interesting, no doubt, but when it comes to the pinning down of the actual dishonesty, the one Lefkowitz is alleged to have committed, it comes down to a lot of hair-splitting, a repetition of the insinuation that no one could possibly believe what Bush and Lefkowitz say they believe, and a triumphant assertion that the latter has not answered the argument mentioned above which Kinsley apparently regards as so self-evidently true that even the claim of believing otherwise is “preposterous.”

But of course that is a definition of “dishonesty” guaranteed to fill the demand among Kinsley’s (and Krugman’s) readers, no doubt a great one, for ever more examples of presidential “lies.”

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