Entry from January 27, 2015

One thing you may have noticed, as I did, about the media’s coverage of President Obama’s State of the Union Address last week, is how often the President’s grip on reality was called into question. This is nothing new coming from Republicans like Karl Rove, who wrote in The Wall Street Journal (pay wall) that the speech "was disconnected from economic reality." Likewise, Jonathan S. Tobin of Commentary noticed principally what was missing from the speech. These "absent acknowledgements of facts. . . gave the annual example of presidential theater a tone that was so divorced from the reality of Obama’s six years in office." But even the massively pro-Obama media may be beginning to think this or similar views of the matter worth reporting if not wholeheartedly endorsing. Thus Peter Baker in The New York Times wrote that the President "made no reference at all to the midterm elections, offered no concessions about his own leadership and proposed no compromises to accommodate the political reality." Nor was it just political or economic reality that the President was seen as avoiding. As Amanda Foreman put it in the London Sunday Times (pay wall), contrasting President Obama’s State of the Union with Bill Clinton’s in 1998, just after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, though both speeches were what Mr Tobin called "presidential theatre," Mr Clinton’s was different in that it "felt real. By contrast, President Obama’s State of the Union last week just felt surreal."

To say that someone has lost touch with reality used to be a common way to question his sanity, but an editorialist for The Wall Street Journal avoided that rhetorical trap by effecting a neat inversion. The President wasn’t insane, as this writer saw it. Instead, he was causing Republicans to doubt their own sanity, rather as Charles Boyer does to Ingrid Bergman in the movie Gaslight of 1944. "The only plausible rationale" for the President’s proposals, avers the Journal, "is that he thinks he can gain politically by driving Republicans nuts." Of course, that doesn’t rule out the possibility that he’s nuts. "Imagine," continued the editorialist, "if George W. Bush had proposed a $320 billion tax-rate cut in his 2007 State of the Union, following his rout in the 2006 midterm. He would have been hooted out of the chamber, followed by days of wondering if he’d wigged out."

Another old-fashioned way of saying that someone was crazy was to say that he had "lost his reason." I think that there is a case to be made that the now common practice of claiming reality for ourselves and denying it to our opponents suggests that the political culture in this country has lost its reason. It’s part of a larger flight from rationality brought on by a desire to short-circuit debate. It is much easier to avoid the views of those who disagree with us than to rebut them, and the simplest way to avoid them is to dismiss them out of hand as having nothing of interest or importance to say for one or more of three reasons: (1) they are not held in good faith but only as a cover for getting or keeping some selfish advantage; (2) they are stupid and therefore impermeable to reason and evidence or (3) they are insane.

Paul Krugman, for example, routinely concentrates on (1) and (2), as in this example from a New York Times column last week. "On issues that range from monetary policy to the control of infectious disease, a big chunk of America’s body politic holds views that are completely at odds with, and completely unmovable by, actual experience." But with characteristic hyperbole, he also edges towards (3), since holding views "completely at odds with. . . actual experience," is one definition of insanity. Presumably some pitiable vestige of forensic good manners holds him back from coming right out and saying it. No such trace of civility restrains one Jason Wilson — who, I infer, is Australian — writing in The Guardian, who describes with some accuracy the views of those who see danger from the advance of what they call "cultural Marxism" and then abruptly adds that "the whole story is transparently barmy."

Transparently, that is, because it transparently saves Mr Wilson the trouble of making any actual demonstration of its barminess. We the barmy, for whom the progress of "cultural Marxism" seems equally transparent may also suspect that we are being gaslighted, but that’s the beauty of paranoia: it’s always self-reinforcing. If someone calls you crazy when you know you’re not, it becomes a sure sign that they’re crazy. But then we have to take account of that well-known catch-22 that those who are crazy never know they’re crazy, while anyone who thinks he is probably isn’t. I myself tend to believe that, even if someone is crazy — or has simply lost touch with reality — it is better to avoid the accusation, since its only purpose is to put an end to debate. Of course, that’s what those who make it very often seem to want.

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