Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Does Power Corrupt, Or Does It Just Make You Stupid?

I rouse myself from my mid-July torpor (we're up at camp in Maine and it's a necessity to sleep about 16 hours a day) to whine.

Subject of said whining will be one Ezra Klein, who apparently believes that Meat Is Bad. Bizarrely, the anchor to this argument is based on carbon emissions but the real thrust of the argument is just that... it's Bad. It's bad for our health, so we should reduce it. It's bad for the animals. It's bad for our idealized vision of how we'd like to allocate land for agricultural production. But we're worrying about Global Warming this week, so let's first and foremost understand that all that corn and all those cow farts--well, they're just really, really Bad.

So reducing meat consumption should go on The Agenda:
There will be no biological retribution for eating less meat, save better health. It is not impossible for folks in Montana to add more vegetables and grains into their diet. Meat is cheap, but it is cheap because of tremendous corn and land subsidies, subsidies that could be redirected towards making things like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains cheap. So it is neither a question of biological addiction or structural necessity. It is just that arguing against meat consumption is culturally alien.

But it is culturally alien in part because so few have been doing it. New arguments require years before they penetrate the national consciousness. And reformers should be comforted by the fact that orienting our diets away from meat is a far more natural effort than pulling away from cars -- which many of us can't do, because of the cost and the realities of our commutes -- or quitting smoking. That's not to say it'll happen tomorrow, or those who refuse should be demonized. But it should be talked about, so it begins to seep into the national conversation, so meat's costs are known even if they're not always considered, and so behavior can begin changing slowly, positively; so legislators begin to reconsider where their subsidies go and those of us with a nagging feeling about wisdom of our daily cheeseburger are given one more reason to seek out an alternative.
All right, let me change gears now and see if I can tie this other thread in:

I won't be telling you anything new when I say that liberal ideology is newly resurgent. Liberal thought has already shed its oppositional nature and is now stretching its muscles in preparation to wielding majority power. And, just like conservative thought before it, the ability to govern makes you stupid.

When Republicans managed to gain control of both houses of Congress in 1995, their agenda was pragmatic and fairly moderate, contending against a Democratic executive. By the time both the executive and legislative branches were under their control, their agenda was a Christmas tree of sops for the base, with no nutty extreme right wing idea too stupid to be ignored.

During this period, liberal opposition was fighting for its very survival. It was forced to jettison all that baggage that had so disenchanted the American electorate. Again, its arguments became moderate and highly focused. When the Democrats got both houses of Congress back in 2007, they didn't go off the deep end. While they haven't been incredibly successful, their victories have been, for the most part, moderate and pragmatic. (Case in point: Congress wasn't stupid enough to pull the plug on the war, despite much gnashing of teeth by the liberal base. Elected officials understand who gets the blame when things go pear-shaped in Iraq.)

And now, with Democrats poised to gain control of both the executive and legislative apparatus of government, we have one of the more able liberal writers of our time nattering on about... meat.

I know it's a small thing. I even know that Ezra's points have some validity on an absolute scale. Even beyond that, I know that the way you bring about societal change is to surface issues and slowly change public opinion. So everything that Ezra says has merit.

But I don't want to hear somebody harping about how bad I and my society are because we consume the Flesh of Animals. That's so far down on the list of things to worry about that I just won't respond. I'm confident that our national dietary habits will change over time, with or without a concerted social engineering effort.

And yet the liberal impulse to engineer everything, indeed the liberal confidence that everything can be engineered, has reignited, like an oily rag uncovered from the bottom of a compost heap. And aren't there just sooooo many things that need re-engineering? Yup, lots of work to do! Better get going on that Meat thing right away! Oh, and that whole thing with suburbia--clearly suboptimal! Engineering a huge demographic shift better be high on the priority list! And while we're at it, let's make sure that we're dispelling as much of that nasty irrational thought from the public as possible. Let's see what we can put together in that area, shall we?

So, to the Democrats, a word of advice from the center: Guys, you're gonna govern the country for the next eight years, probably. There are things that government can do well. Some of those things I disapprove of, but you can probably pull them off. But effective governance requires focus, and focus requires the ability to suppress the dingbats on the far left. Without a little wisdom in prioritizing the liberal agenda, the American people will get tired of you awfully quickly.

I'm your target voter. I can be convinced of the need for change on some very small number of things. But you have to be smart and understand the limits of government. If you're not, I'll be happy to continue to vote for divided government on the premise that, since all parties are equally stupid, preventing them from doing very much is always the best strategy.

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