Sunday, September 11, 2005

Alas, Poor Michael

During the Reagan, Bush 1, and Clinton years, no one wrote sharper, wittier, more pointed political commentary than Michael Kinsley. His specialty was pungent eviscerations of the hypocrisies, inconsistencies, and meannesses of politicians, especially rightwing extremists--pretty much the kind of stuff I am trying to write today, except that Kinsley did it with far more cleverness and humor than I can usually muster. To this day I find the collected pieces in his book Big Babies both politically dead-on-target and laugh-out-loud funny.

Lately, however, Kinsley's columns (written for the LA Times and reprinted in the Washington Post and other papers) have mostly lost their intelligent edge. Today's column is an unfortunate example. Kinsley makes the point that disaster experts, politicians, and others with axes to grind are constantly issuing warnings about hurricanes, floods, and myriad other disasters that might or might not strike. Thus, it's easy to find articles and reports from past years saying that the New Orleans levees might break and calling for repairs. "But," he concludes,

. . . just Google up a phrase like "commission warns," or "urgent steps," or "our children's future" -- or simply "crisis" -- and you may develop a bit of sympathy for the people who stand accused today of ignoring the warnings about anything in particular. Far from being complacent about potential perils, we suffer from peril gridlock.

Did all the attention and money devoted to protecting us from a terrorist attack after Sept. 11, 2001, leave us less prepared for a giant flood? Undoubtedly. And if the flood had come first, the opposite would be true. We, the citizens, would have demanded it and then blamed the politicians and the institutions when it turned out to be a bad bet. There is no foresight. We fight the last war because hindsight is all we have.

What a flaccid piece of reasoning. Of course it's true that crisis-mongering is a real problem, and that political leaders can't be expected to respond with action (and money) every time anyone proclaims any danger. But sorting out the most important dangers from those that are minor or exaggerated is exactly what leadership is for. Simply throwing up one's hands and saying, "Oh, I can't keep all these reports straight--let's just do nothing" is not a solution. But that's what Kinsley seems to recommend.

Most unfortunately, this attitude gives a big, fat pass not just to the current administration but to any group of leaders who commit serious misjudgements. If "there is no foresight," then government might just as well shut down; there's no way it can possibly prepare for any future problems or opportunities, since none of them can be predicted.

Kinsley has taken a germ of insight and expanded it past the point of logic. Of course, there is no perfect foresight. And it's appropriate for us to remember that gauging the urgency of comparative risks before trouble strikes is a complex matter which humans can never expect to perform with absolute certainty. But don't forget that our current president ran for reelection almost solely on the claim that his laser-like focus on the dangers that really matter (i.e., terrorism) would keep Americans safe, while his opponent would expose us to danger.

If we can't criticize Bush's failures on this precise claim, then he is beyond criticism altogether. It's not a position I ever expected Mike Kinsley to embrace.
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