In researching a topic, I inadvertently came across a recent criticism of me by Rush Limbaugh that I think is worth responding to.
Maybe the place to begin is to point out that I met Rush in the early 1990s, while working for William Bennett, and while we don’t see each other often, we’ve maintained a friendship over the years. We’re both conservative and so we agree often, though not always. Nor does Rush believe personal relationships should prevent political disagreements from being aired publicly, which is an entirely defensible position. And he knows that goes both ways.
With that said, let me set the stage for what triggered Rush’s comments. I had written a piece in COMMENTARY saying that (a) I found many of President Obama’s gun proposals unobjectionable and (b) those who insist that it qualifies as an attack on the Second Amendment need to keep in mind that the right to bear arms is not an unlimited one.
This led to Rush arguing that many conservatives can’t stand the heat that comes with opposing President Obama daily. His argument goes something like this: It’s true that commentators like me will criticize the president, sometimes sharply. But we’ll then find ground to praise Mr. Obama “so as to maintain some credibility.” My views are tailored in a way to “look reasonable” to the Inside-the-Beltway world in which I live. In explaining my position on guns, Rush didn’t say he and I have an interesting and honest difference of opinion. He said, “I guarantee you it’s wrapped up in not wanting to be seen as opposing Obama just for the sake of it.”
This sort of critique is fairly typical in American politics. There must be some base, ulterior motive to explain differences in opinion. In this case, my views on gun restrictions–precisely where to draw a line we all acknowledge must be drawn–aren’t made in good faith. They’re animated by a desire to be seen as “reasonable” among The Liberal Establishment.
As you might imagine, this criticism strikes me as wide of the mark. I’m a commentator on daily, unfolding events, dealing with literally hundreds of them over the course of a single year. The vast majority of my critiques of the president are critical, since he and I hold very different political philosophies. (I took a leave of absence from my job to work to defeat him.) But on those rare occasions when I agree with Mr. Obama, I have no qualms saying so and explaining why I do. Common ground is not always cursed ground.
I do think that as a general matter it’s best to stay away from trying to divine the motives of others. For example, critics of Rush might say he’s a relentless critic of the president because he’s playing to his radio audience, fearing that if he ever expressed solidarity with the president his audience might tune him out. Now I don’t think that criticism would be fair, since I believe Rush’s criticisms are sincere. We’d probably all do better to live by the (paraphrased) words of the philosopher Sidney Hook, who said that before impugning an opponent’s motives, answer his arguments.
As for Rush’s broader point, I’m reminded of a wonderful 1965 essay the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote on the British businessman, essayist, and journalist Walter Bagehot. As Himmelfarb put it:
The current intellectual fashions put a premium on simplicity and activism. The subtleties, complications, and ambiguities that until recently have been the mark of serious thought are now taken to signify a failure of nerve, a compromise with evil, an evasion of judgment and “commitment.”
Bagehot possessed what Himmelfarb called a “compelling vision that inevitably brought with it a complexity, subtlety, and depth that he found lacking in much of the discourse of the time.”
In those relatively rare moments of self-reflection, I’d say my mistakes arise more often from failing the Bagehot standard than the Limbaugh one. By that I mean succumbing to the temptation to ascribe all virtue and intellectual merit to one’s own side while denying it to the other—as if on every issue all the arguments line up on one side and none on the other, freeing us of the need to carefully weigh competing goods.
That of course doesn’t mean that all views and policies are equally meritorious or that one cannot take a principled stand or that one cannot be highly critical (or highly supportive) of an American president. It merely means most of us need to avoid the Manichean Temptation more often than we do. That applies to me. And I imagine it applies to others as well.