Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Peter Beinart and Jonah Goldberg had a debate last night at Marymount University (I would have gone if I still lived in Northern Virginia). Alas, there is no transcript, but Goldberg says this guy did a pretty reasonable job of summarizing the night. Not surprisingly, they had a civil, interesting discussion, and even found some common ground. Check out this section:

I've focused mostly on Beinart's pitch because, well, let's be honest, I agreed with nearly everything Jonah said tonight, so it's not terribly interesting to parse his words. I thought Jonah's best moment came late, when Beinart left himself open to criticism after lamenting President Bush's failure to capitalize on the so-called "golden moment" in American society following September 11th.

Beinart spoke about how Bush wasted the opportunity to get Americans invested in civic society, and specifically government service. According to Beinart, in the months after after 9/11, Americans wanted to help out and be a part of the larger American "mission," but Bush squandered such enthusiasm. In what passed for the strangest comment of the night, Beinart mentioned that such civic enthusiasm could have been used to better help the poor, and even the elderly, and that the efforts of Americans, focused by Washington, could ultimate lead to a better civil society in America.

Jonah wasted no time in pointing out that, if anything, such enthusiasm after 9/11 was directed mostly towards winning that pesky "war" thing we suddenly had going on, and not so much directed towards building new old folks homes for retirees. After 9/11 Chuck Schumer may have sensed his own "golden moment" to buy new ladder trucks for the Poughkeepsie Volunteer Fire Department, but according to Jonah, Beinart was guilty of the liberal tendency to believe that all good things go together, i.e. a belief that enthusiasm for government action in the War on Terror is transmutable to enthusiasm for government action in the War on Poverty, the War on The Lack Of Affordable Health Care, the War on Kids Without Clean Pressed School Uniforms, etc. (my words, not Jonah's).
They both had good points here. President Bush did waste the chance after September 11 to be part of a larger American mission, if by "mission" we mean winning the war. Unfortunately, as Goldberg pointed out, Beinart did not really mean winning the war, and instead focused on government programs to increase civic participation. Such arguments are increasingly common on the social science left, led by folks like Theda Skocpol and Robert Putnam. But, as I will argue some day in a book review essay, those arguments are conceptually flawed. Anyway, it's always nice to see adults discuss issues like adults. Bravo to Goldberg and Beinart.

1 comment:

montana urban legend said...

Beinart might have tried being less ambitious in his language and could instead have used more general references to not dividing the country. If the war on terror is indeed an over-riding mission then it helps not to alienate every potentially allied domestic constituency. Sure there are serious and legitimate policy differences between what the administration and many others would like and Beinart et al's sympathies, but much of the division was tactically unlrelated to the war on terror and facilitated by sloppy carelessness w/r/t any outreach efforts. Missions and unity kind of go together and the prez can only rely so much on his own and his administration's and the pundits' powers of persuasion to overcome that.