Thursday, July 23, 2009

The politics of pity

I'm not a big fan of the trend over the past few decades by which any political reform effort is expected to trot out victims. I mean, I get the point. People can relate to problems when they hear about real people suffering under the status quo. That's why Bill Clinton used to talk about specific people suffering due to the inadequacies of the health care system and why Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama did the same thing last year. Republican candidates do the same thing when talking about the burdens of taxation and regulations faced by small business owners. This style of rhetoric was parodied only slightly by "Al Gore" in a 2000 SNL debate:
Jim, let me tell about a friend of mine. Her name is Etta Munsen. She's 94, she's a widow living on Social Security in Sparta, Tennessee. Etta was born with only one kidney. She also suffers from poilo, spinal menengitis, lung, liver, and pancreatic cancer, an enlarged heart, diabetes, and a rare form of styctic acne. Now, several recent strokes, along with an unfortunate shark attack, have left her paralyzed and missing her right leg under the knee. Just last week she woke from a coma to find that, due to a hospital mix-up, her left arm had been amputated, infected with syphillis, and then reattached.
The problem is that it substitutes pity for argument. It parades human suffering around asking for handouts rather than explaining why a proposed change would improve on the status quo. But fine, I'm grouchy, this is the way things are.

But this criticism of Obama's press conference struck me as really weird:
He never detailed his own plan, or named a single victim of America’s broken system, and he spoke largely in the abstractions of blue pills, red pills, and legislative processes.
He never named a single victim? This is a criticism? I mean, first of all, he did. Second of all, really? Just how many names is the president supposed to produce?


Milan said...

I'm surprised someone would write such an unconstructive criticism.

Josh Putnam said...

Well, Smith's tweet immediately after the press conference might give some idea of where he's coming from:

"Hmm. Am supposed to write something trenchant and original off this, if you've got any thoughts...."

Seth Masket said...

That's kind of sad.