Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Good Point, Bad Rhetoric

A problem with opinion journalism is that, given the choice between writing about ideas and writing about people, so many journalists prefer to write about people. Even in their attempts to expound on policy or philosophy, opinion writers often digress into arguments that have more to do with the associates of an idea – or its heritage, or its pretense – than with the idea itself.

They will note, for instance, that Bill Clinton or Barack Obama offered us rhetoric about this and that, and they will conveniently fail to note that George Bush triumphed on similar rhetoric as well. They will write as if Clinton, Bush or Obama are themselves philosophical premises to be sided with or against. They will write as though Clinton, Bush or Obama are overwrought heroes and villains of historical fiction.

Jeffrey Long cedes an important point to President Obama in his most recent column (“A System Worth Fighting For,” The Hoya, Feb. 3, 2009, A3): “Disagreement for the sake of disagreement is never productive, and compromise must be given a fair chance. Obama should be applauded for his efforts in this regard.” That having been granted, I am not quite sure what the rest of his article is about. Long plays dumb for 10 paragraphs, pretending not to comprehend the difference between partisanship fundamentally and hyper-partisanship as Obama and many Americans perceive it.

Long writes of Edmund Burke, and of Sam Houston, of collusion among branches of government, of activist judges – the column is not a column so much as it is a cute, collegiate exhibition. His words are coated in ivory and thus are rendered unintelligible. What is he even saying in that whole bit about Sam Houston? How exactly is the decade of American political history that preceded the Civil War somehow wholly representative of America’s partisan tradition?

It’s interesting that Long cites the Compromise of 1850, which was certainly a compromise in the worst sense of the word. Sam Houston cast a vote not for his reputation, but for his principles, which were repugnant enough to suggest that humanity was negotiable, to be democratically determined.

George Bush and Jeffrey Long do share a similar philosophical fetish: They seem to believe that what matters most is not whether your principles are good or bad, but simply that you have them.

I have no idea how Sam Houston in any way habilitates Long’s argument. Then again, I have already forgotten what Long’s argument is. His column is about partisanship, but really it is about conventional wisdom, but really it is about principles, but really it is just about Obama.

aybe Long is convinced that he has weaved these concepts together coherently, but I am not. He never even defines conventional wisdom; he does not really relate his point about principles to his point about partisanship; he combats Obama’s “empty rhetoric” with airy quotations from dead politicians.

Long’s inattention to coherence frustrates me because the basic idea that Long suggests in his headline is a valuable one: Partisanship is a crucible of good ideas. But he makes his thesis inarticulate and intolerable amid all of his whining about Obama and in his deliberately dense rendering of Obama’s political message. He is more interested in complaining about a person than in communicating a thought.

Long expounds somewhat on the philosophical underpinnings of his partisan defense, but he does this with all the immodesty of a student who has read his Edmund Burke and has since grown too incurious to have ever read anything else.

Aside from simply quoting the dead, Long never bothers to make his own case for why I should care what they might have to say. I am not saying that there is no case to be made; I am saying that Long is too lazy to make it. He offers us rhetoric instead.

Justin Charity is a senior in the College.

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