One of my graduate students was mocking Sean Hannity yesterday for going on and on about President Obama’s request for Dijon mustard to go with a hamburger. He took Hannity to be committing an elementary logical fallacy of the form
- President Obama prefers Dijon mustard on hamburgers.
- Therefore, his foreign policy is dangerously tipped toward appeasement, etc.
Now, I’m not sure that anyone has ever committed a fallacy of that form; it’s too blatantly bad to be tempting. But I do think there’s something to be learned from the Dijon mustard, arugula, “clinging to guns and religion” episodes.
Let’s start with the obvious point that the President appears to be elitist in his culinary tastes. He doesn’t know how people generally eat hamburgers. (Hannity’s interlocutor, incidentally, began mocking the President for asking for “mustard,” which seemed to suggest he didn’t know how people generally eat hamburgers either.) So what? I’m fairly plebian when it comes to food– my favorite restaurant in the world is Mineo’s Pizza House in Pittsburgh, which serves the best pizza I’ve ever eaten– but I’m not sure that anything follows from that.
President Obama, however, is a populist. People have a fundamental desire to be understood, and he claims to understand them. He claims to know how they live, what frustrates them, and how to make it better. The elitist incidents belie that image. If the President doesn’t know how people eat hamburgers, does he really understand the average American?
I think there’s a deeper and more interesting point to be made, however, which might just as easily be made by pointing to the scandals in Britain or in our own Congress, or in Illinois, or…. As Jonathan Pearce puts it,
This whole saga demonstrates the truth of the thesis that politicians increasingly have come to regard their own interests as set apart from the country as a whole. It adds to the notion, put forward by Sean Gabb, of an “Enemy Class” that is quite consciously at odds with the more conservative (small – c) values of the country. Of course, there has always been an element of this – it is naive to imagine that Parliament ever quite met some Greek ideal – but it is now in a particularly bad way.
Let’s hope Mr Martin sees sense and takes the proverbial bottle of whisky and the loaded revolver into his study. He will be the first Speaker to be ejected from his role in more than 300 years. Not a record to be proud of.
One of Mr. Pearce’s commenters writes on the same topic, and quotes Oliver Cromwell dismissing Parliament in 1653:
“…It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place, which you have dishonoured by your contempt of all virtue, and defiled by your practice of every vice; ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government; ye are a pack of mercenary wretches, and would like Esau sell your country for a mess of pottage, and like Judas betray your God for a few pieces of money.
“Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Ye have no more religion than my horse; gold is your God; which of you have not barter’d your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?
“Ye sordid prostitutes, have you not defil’d this sacred place, and turn’d the Lord’s temple into a den of thieves by your immoral principles and wicked practices? Ye are grown intolerably odious to the whole nation; you were deputed here by the people to get grievances redress’d; your country therefore calls upon me to cleanse the Augean Stable, by putting a final period to your iniquitous proceedings, and which by God’s help and the strength He has given me, I now come to do.
“I command ye, therefore, upon the peril of your lives, to depart immediately out of this place! Take away that shining bauble there, and lock up the doors. You have sat here too long for the good you do. In the name of God, go!”
All of this might be said to our own rulers, who no longer represent us or any conception of the public good but enrich themselves at the expense of the nation and can no longer be trusted to safeguard even the most elementary interests of the United States.
That leads me to my final reflection, on the nature of our political discourse. Politicians portray politics as a cooperative game– you elect me, and I’ll look after your interests. If that’s ever been true, it seems plain that it’s true no longer. Politicians aren’t working for you; they’re playing against you. The game of politics has become noncooperative.
This has profound implications for how political systems should be organized and how political discourse ought to be understood. Politicians need to be kept on very short leashes, and the leashes themselves need to be strengthened and kept in independent hands. And never listen to the politicians who insist they’re on your side and ask to be let off the leash.