Sunday, October 7, 2012

Review: Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium

I don't like Bill O' Reilly or Jon Stewart. I don't find them particularly wise or informed, or articulate or funny. Both have a talent for interviewing, Stewart teasing out inconsistencies and O' Reilly holding someone to a single point, yet neither can be considered an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination.

Furthermore it is this general ignorance of the law, history, economics, political science, and philosophy, coupled with an inability or unwillingness to think systematically, which wafts the odor of pandering from their million-dollar studios.

I don't intend to analyze every element of this debate, which was nonetheless entertaining and provoking despite the participants' intellectual shortfalls, but I would like to note their premises and their answers to the question, "What do you think is the biggest problem in America?" I hope in simply laying out their ideas one may see them for what they are, and are not.

I. Stewart's main thesis is that America is a social democracy and that from the times of the pilgrims Americans wanted stuff for free. Americans, he said, essentially wanted socialism so they created Social Security and Medicare et cetera, therefore wanting more socialism. He did not address the many logical, constitutional, or moral implications of this assertion. He specifically rejected the idea that a citizen has to agree with everything the government does, though he did not define this position as majoritarianism or discuss this principle's impact on individual sovereignty. He adopted the progressive notion articulated by Wilson that democracy and socialism are in essence the same (see Socialism and Democracy.)

Curiously, Stewart said that the biggest problem in America remains that our political dialogue is about socialism and capitalism, or freedom and tyranny. To Stewart, America has socialistic governmental institutions thus they're here to stay, and preferably grow. Aside from this being inconsistent with his aforementioned majoritarianism, it is also takes for granted that these institutions work or can be made to work. He wants not less government but efficient government, completely bypassing the fact that no monopoly of any kind is ever efficient.

Lastly, because according to Stewart America was, is, and by right ought to be socialist, President Obama's policies are not fundamentally transformative.

II. O'Reilly's premise seems to have been that America was not socialist and is not and ought not be and President Obama is therefore fundamentally transforming America. He refused, however, to admit that any American program is socialistic in principle and argued that only at some degree does a program become so. Stewart even pressed him as to why he thought the progressively taxed Social Security program was not socialism and O' Reilly did not have a satisfactory reply.

To the question of America's greatest problem O' Reilly answered that capitalism rewards the greed which drives people in the media to lash out and tear people down. There was no follow up about whether this was true or what one could or ought to do about this.

If in describing O' Reilly's ideas I am brief only because they seem so close to those of his opponent. Stewart wants unlimited socialism and O' Reilly wants to restrain it at some arbitrary point. They both adore Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

With respect to rhetorical prowess, I don't think either man debated well. Anyone trained in rhetoric and oratory would have cleaned their clocks. Stewart's comedic antics tired me and distracted from the issues as they usually do, as did O' Reilly's paternalistic finger wagging. Neither man had a firm command of the facts, especially historical, legal, or economic ones, although O' Reilly had clearly done some math homework.  Structurally, this was certainly more of a debate than the recent presidential one which, as has been pointed out, was more of a joint press conference. Stewart and O' Reilly truly and admirably engaged each other, and mostly in good spirit. Neither debate, however, was well-structured or competently moderated.

Overall what The Rumble lacked most was a discussion of first principles. Both men dealt in caricatures of the other's ideas, but neither seemed to have any first principles of his own to articulate. Thus the debate about domestic policy was debate over how much, not whether. The debate about the debt devolved into a blame game. The foreign policy discussion never approached questions of actual policy, only criticisms of particular actions. And so on. I don't believe any mention was made of the Constitution at all.

The Rumble is useful insofar as it provokes discussion, but it certainly doesn't recommend these men or their ideas. The two anchors ended on the note that neither man could imagine disagreeing so fiercely with someone that he couldn't engage him and discuss the ideas with him. A bright spot.

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