During the past week’s heat wave—it hit 100 degrees in New York City Monday—I got thinking, again, of how sad and frustrating it is that the world’s greatest scientists cannot gather, discuss the question of global warming, pore over all the data from every angle, study meteorological patterns and temperature histories, and come to a believable conclusion on these questions: Is global warming real or not? If it is real, is it necessarily dangerous? What exactly are the dangers? Is global warming as dangerous as, say, global cooling would be? Are we better off with an Earth that is getting hotter or, what with the modern realities of heating homes and offices, and the world energy crisis, and the need to conserve, does global heating have, in fact, some potential side benefits, and can those benefits be broadened and deepened? Also, if global warning is real, what must—must—the inhabitants of the Earth do to meet its challenges? And then what should they do to meet them?
You would think the world’s greatest scientists could do this, in good faith and with complete honesty and a rigorous desire to discover the truth. And yet they can’t. Because science too, like other great institutions, is poisoned by politics. Scientists have ideologies. They are politicized.
All too many of them could be expected to enter this work not as seekers for truth but agents for a point of view who are eager to use whatever data can be agreed upon to buttress their point of view.
And so, in the end, every report from every group of scientists is treated as a political document. And no one knows what to believe. So no consensus on what to do can emerge.
If global warming is real, and if it is new, and if it is caused not by nature and her cycles but man and his rapacity, and if it in fact endangers mankind, scientists will probably one day blame The People for doing nothing.
But I think The People will have a greater claim to blame the scientists, for refusing to be honest, for operating in cliques and holding to ideologies. For failing to be trustworthy.
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The other day ABC News’s Internet political report, The Note, argued that President Bush, in his then-upcoming veto statement and other presentations, had better be at the top of his game if he wants his party to hold on to Congress in 2006. “[Mr. Bush] is going to need to be focused and impressive, not easy pickings for the Rich-Krugman-Dowd-Stewart axis.”
As I read I nodded: That’s exactly true. What was significant is that The Note did not designate as Mr. Bush’s main and most effective foes Pelosi, Dodd, Reid, Biden, et al. Mr. Bush’s mightiest competitors are columnists and a comedian with a fake-news show.
This is one reason the media is important. (Not “are important.” Language evolves; usage changes; people vote with their tongues. It’s not the correct “return to normality”; it’s the incorrect “return to normalcy.” It’s not “the media are” it’s “the media is.” People see the media as one big thing.)
One big reason the media is important is that they change things. And they lead. On 9/11 itself it was the media—anchors, reporters, crews sent to the scene, analysts—that functioned, for roughly 10 hours, as the most visible leaders of the United States. The president was on a plane; the vice president was in the bunker and on the phone. It was on-air journalists who informed, created a seeming order, and reassured the public by their presence and personas and professionalism.
So they’re important. But very recently it seems to me they’re important because it is from the media that Mr. Bush’s most effective opposition—attacks on his nature and leadership, attacks on his policies—comes. Among the Democrats an op-ed columnist has more impact than a minority leader.
It is common wisdom that newspapers are over. But when the most powerful voices against a powerful president at a crucial time are op-ed jockeys, newspapers are not over. Or perhaps one should say paper may be over, but news is not.
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Ralph Reed lost this week in his race for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor of Georgia. This strikes me as significant in several ways.
I always thought the question about Mr. Reed is: Is he a Christian who went into politics, or a politician who went into Christianity? Was he sincere and driven by a desire to have a positive impact on public policy, or a mover driven by a desire to get a piece of the action as American Christians, disaffected from a Democratic Party that had grown wildly insensitive to, and in fact disdainful of, their values, started to become a force in the Republican Party? Maybe one or the other, maybe both, maybe both but to different degrees.
I once overheard him say to a friend, a year ago, that if “they” didn’t stop him as he ran for his first public office, he would be “unstoppable.” “They” was the political left. He expected a rough race, but he seemed optimistic. What struck me though was the word “unstoppable.” I realized: He means if he wins, he’ll run for governor and then president. He sounded like a mover. And he didn’t seem sincere, not in any sweet, “this is what I believe” way.
I think he’d grown enamored of being an insider, a top and big-time operative in Republican politics and within the White House. When he spoke of the White House, he said “we.”
When I first met and interviewed him it was 1994, and he was part of the Gingrich revolution. He looked like a daguerreotype of one of the boy generals of the Civil War, his dark hair slicked back and his collar too big for his neck. But he had an air of command.
When I read some of the emails he’d sent to lobbyist friends—”I need some corporations, I need some moolah,” that kind of thing—I thought: Ick. This is a man suffering from a case of advanced insiderism. This is a guy who thinks it’s cool to be cynical.
Anyway, his defeat this week came at the hands not of “them,” of the left, but of conservative voters on the ground in Georgia. His loss seems to me another sign of one of those quiet changing of the guards in professional politics. Quietly an older generation recedes, quietly a newer one rises.
Good. We need new.
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It is always a delight when you’re a writer not to write things you later judge to be idiotic, or, to be charitable to oneself, flawed. But last week I’d no sooner seen my column online than I disagreed not with its assertions and arguments but, I suppose, with its tone. And not only tone, but its incompleteness.
My argument was that things in politics, the policy issues we face, are too complicated. That you no sooner bone up on Iraq than you must bone up on stem cells and Putin and the history of marriage. And that having to have views on these things puts too much pressure on politicians, who after all are not Plato. And yet daily they make decisions that are above their pay grade, and above most everyone else’s too.
I said this trend tends to favor liberalism, and that if you’re of a conspiratorial bent you’d even think they did it on purpose to so muddy the waters that no one could swim, no one could break through to the top, everyone would be caught in the weeds as the current tugs left.
I do wish I’d been explicit in saying: I believe liberals in fact enjoy the complexity, not only because they love government—love to obsess on it, and think it is the last best hope of man on Earth—but because complexity justifies big government. Big complex question. Big complex response. Laws and rumors of laws.
Conservatives don’t live for government and don’t love it, either. They like other things. They think government is a necessity and a potential evil. This is because they know human nature, and they know humans run governments. Ergo extremely flawed and even damaged people are governing us. Ergo don’t give them a big sandbox to play in; keep it as small as possible. That way their depredations will be, by definition, limited.
This point of view—humans are imperfect, governments even more so—is not inherently pessimistic but rather optimistic about other things: life, faith, relationships, gardens. A conservative politician who does not enjoy gardening, reading, taking a walk or seeing a play more than governing is a human warning sign: Don’t go there.
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I also wish I’d said that if we have to have such complicated issues addressed by law, it is better politicians do it than the courts. Politicians, being as flawed and imperfect as you, me and all newspaper columnists, are at least answerable in a direct and measurable way to the people they represent. The people on the ground in America who vote them in and out.
People punish and reward them for the stands they take. So politicians have to at least seem in touch with the common wisdom back home. The other day 236 congressman out of 433 voted for a constitutional amendment to codify society’s wishes that marriage in America be defined, as it has been through recorded history, as something that takes place between a more or less adult man and a more or less adult woman. The House members voted this way for various reasons and with various motives, but one, in many cases, would be this: The people back home would make them pay if they didn’t.
There is more often than not a lot of wisdom in the people back home. Certainly more than we have seen the past half century on the bench, which as we all know is a problem, because judges in America are pretty much answerable to no one. Thus we get decisions—Kelo, anyone?—that, right or wrong, lack even the saving grace of reflecting a common human wisdom.
I note here what is to me a mystery. It is that people with lower IQs somehow tend, in our age, to have a greater apprehension of the meaning of things and the reality of life, than do our high-IQ professionals, who often seem, in areas outside their immediate field, startlingly dim. I don’t know why intellectuals—or cerebralists or eggheads or IQ hegemonists—seem to miss the most obvious things, floating on untethered by common sense. If you talk to a brilliant scholar at a fine university about social policy, chances are he will say with honest perplexity that he cannot understand—really cannot understand—why people would not want men to marry men, or women women. I wish there were a name for this, for the cluelessness of the more intellectually accomplished, the simpler but truer wisdom of those who are often less lettered and less accomplished.
But I have strayed from my point, which is that in the midst of the increasing complexity we should limit as much as possible what is decided by government, limit its power, and have some actual sympathy for politicians who have to master the arcane subject matter. Better they make decisions than our black-robed masters.